Alumni Feature: MARSEA Grad Milton Wong Publishes Book of Poetry, for now, new york:
for now, new york: is a poetry collection by Tze Sheng Milton Wong, designed by August Ramos, about New York City, goodbyes, love, grief, pride, and the experiences we all share together. We spoke with Wong, an alumnus of the MARSEA program at WEAI, about a few of those experiences.
Who are you, where did you come from, and what have you been doing since completing the MARSEA program?
I’m Milton, and I’m from Singapore! I did my undergrad in Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Since graduating in October 2022, I’ve reenlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces. Singapore has mandatory conscription, so I’m back to do my part for national service. Outside, I’ve been honing my crafts––poetry, photography, and other writings––as well as catching up on my reading. I also joined a theater company this year, which has been very fulfilling, and I am just beginning to explore Singapore’s art scene!
Could you introduce your new book of poetry and how it came to be?
My book, for now, new york:, is a poetry collection about New York and the multitudinous experiences, some more ambivalent than others, we share in the city and beyond. I wrote in as many registers about as many themes that became salient to me living in the city. These ranged from more personal meditations on love, loss, pride, and longing, to more explicitly political (if no less personal) tones of inequality and violence. I wanted to write something accessible that quickly pulls a reader along, so the writing is conversational, and somewhat whimsical. I suppose this style mimics one of my favorite things about New York: the ability to begin a conversation with anyone and letting its energy carry us to wherever we end up. That’s also why we put two empty chairs on the cover! In fact, the book started with one such conversation. August, the book’s designer, and I met on a bus on the way to Boston as strangers. A week later, we were in my favorite cafe dreaming this up together. Also designed as an art book, it’s filled with August’s graphic interpretations of my words and my photography to complement the poems. We hope it will be an artful, visual experience for readers.
Which poem in the book did you write first? What inspired you to start writing poetry about your time in New York? (And what kept you going?)
I think it was the poem titled "pop-up club"! It was the evening of Pride 2022, we gathered below the Brooklyn Bridge, bodies still sweaty from the parade and Sun. It was beautiful and romantic in many ways, but the music was just not music to me. I couldn’t tell if the folks around me were faking it, or high. So, amidst broken bass lines and the complete desecration of melody, I yearned for a tenderness I tried to channel into the line: “would they rest eager wings to lie with me?/ i promise i’ll sing softly."
I wanted to write because, like any art form, writing gives an occasion to pause and be present. A lot happens in New York, so being able to say "I’m going to sit in the Hungarian Pastry Shop for the next two hours to write this thought down" felt like an act of self-love. Making a space for oneself, as it were. And the shorter poems here facilitated these little acts of space-making. Additionally, because I knew that I would be leaving New York soon, penning down these feelings was my way of keeping the city’s spirit, and all that it meant to me, close to my heart, and alive. I kept going because I had to. I couldn’t let a moment fade away.
Can you speak about the experience of writing a book of poetry versus writing an academic thesis? How did you approach the two similarly and differently?
I love how you juxtaposed both projects together! They share great similarities, which helped when I was working on them both, simultaneously, over the summer. As large undertakings, they require planning, working, and reworking. Just as we were guided at MARSEA to formulate a research topic and write countless drafts (many chunks of which one abandons), I worked and reworked many lines, the book’s organization, and design. Also, a lot of one’s headspace is devoted to these projects: I would wonder if a concept could be applied to my thesis in the shower, just as a poetry prompt would come to me when I ate lunch from a food cart by Columbia. It was a very intense experience, but one also seized with an energy to apply oneself intellectually and creatively for both these projects! I really treasure that.
Poetry and thesis writing are, of course, very different genres. The MARSEA thesis requires substantial original research, so I spent some time conducting interviews and pulling together my own dataset. These required further processing, before finding their way into cogent and relatively disciplined arguments. My thesis advisor, Professor Andrew Nathan, was a great help in making sure somewhat opaque ideas could be easily understood, and therefore earn fuller consideration from others. Research is important for poetry too. But for this collection, my process honed in on feelings I wanted to explore and mold into words. In that sense, I was allowed to both absorb the outside world and turn inwards to explore the ways the city had already made its mark on me.
Can you tell us about your time as a MARSEA student? What was your research focus and what brought you to Columbia in particular?
MARSEA was fantastic. The program is flexible, wide-ranging, and diverse, allowing you to pursue what interests you. For me, my undergraduate studies at a home for the social sciences grew my faith and interest in multidisciplinary knowledge, and I followed this trajectory into MARSEA. I could study with anthropologists, religious studies folks, political scientists, and historians, all of which was really exciting. The MARSEA core class, taught by the wonderful Professor Kim Brandt, similarly facilitated an exposure to East Asia through different research methods. There, I was inspired by, and learned a lot from, my peers, each of whom was working on different topics across different fields! Sharing one’s research was especially formative. It’s not easy to open oneself to critique, but Professor Brandt modeled for us an intellectual and personal generosity we all tried to emulate. This made for a curious, demanding, yet kind environment that I loved, and my batch grew very close.
My research focus ended up being Singaporean queer politics. It was quite a journey to settle on it; I entered Columbia thinking I would work on Chinese grand strategy. With the encouragement of very open-minded teachers, though, I found a topic that was both close to my heart and somewhat understudied––a sweet spot for research.
Many things attracted me to Columbia! The world-class faculty in many fields across the social sciences was a huge factor, no less the case for faculty affiliated with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute! Additionally, I loved that both the Institute and university as a whole was committed to make an impact across the academy and beyond. Finally, being in the cultural capital of the world–– consider going to MOMA on a Tuesday afternoon; or watching a Broadway show after class on Wednesday––really helped hone my creative life, which was important to me. You know, being intellectually engaged within Columbia’s gates, and being engaged with life that happens everywhere else yet already converging in New York’s boroughs, is a true privilege. This might sound like common wisdom, but New York truly does have an energy that sucks you in. I even wrote a book about it!
What’s next for you?
After national service, I’ll work for the Singaporean foreign service and embark on a public service career, which I’m really excited about. For now, though, I want to keep writing, and find new avenues to engage with, ponder over, and express myself in life! Oh, and although Singapore does not quite have a culture of talking to strangers, I think we are more open-minded, open-hearted, and capable of giving, than we make ourselves to be. Just recently, happening twice in a span of weeks, someone has asked me what book I was reading. Happily, we became friends. So I guess I will be sitting around, in search of the next life-giving and life-affirming conversation.