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Create as if No One is Watching


Heidi Wong ’20
Heidi Wong ’20. Photo: Claire Chang ’20

Equality, loss, neglect, legacy. These are just some of the unabashedly vulnerable topics Heidi Wong ’20 addresses in her latest collection of poetry and paintings, The Blue Velvet Dress Says I Told You So, published by 777. The book is the second for Wong, a creative writing and art major whose first poetry anthology, Sixteen, was self-published while she was still in high school. 

This time, although her creative process was similar, the publishing process was vastly different. “There was a lot of conflict between my vision and the publisher’s vision,” Wong says. The friction centered around the publisher’s ideas for marketing the book and generating sales. Wong’s first priority was to maintain integrity and openness with her audience, something she has valued since she first began sharing her work on Instagram at age 15; today her followers on the social media platform top 300,000.

recount of last night’s dream

and suddenly i’m thirty

living with a partner in the city i love

still dreaming of you as the age we were when they found you 

a tall 

fragile sparrow

neck cracked purple

wings dangling like electric cords

and suddenly i’m thirty and you are both 

the boy in bryant park with ice cream drips on his dinosaur hoodie

and the white haired man in a leather wheelchair

suddenly i’m thirty and it’s been —september for eleven years

i’m standing outside our home

watching the light in your room flicker on and 

off and on and off and on 

until it goes out for the rest of its life

even when dreaming i say nothing

even when dreaming i do not save you 

so every morning

since the earth did to your bones

what waves do to seashells washed ashore

i’ve carried my silence like a cross

let it bite down on my shoulders

dig into my spine 

because with poetry i can raise you from the dead

but cannot give you back your laugh lines

your grandchildren’s voices

cannot make the ground

give you back to us

because all the words i never said

still

cannot amount to the weight

of too late

“When I write, I write with the intention that no one will see it but me,” she says. “I create art that is intimate, that speaks my truth for me.” Wong believes that inspiring others and “being relatable” is the byproduct of her work as an artist, not the goal. In an interview last year with Authority Magazine, she said, “Poetry isn’t a lesson, but sometimes it can end up as one. The only goal I have when writing is to put my raw, uncensored truth into the world and have my readers interpret it through their own experiences. No one will ever have the same experience as you did, but they can feel the emotions you put on a page or canvas — that’s the key.” 

Even at the beginning of her Instagram journey, Wong’s art was not about garnering fame but about expressing herself. When she created her account (@heidiwongofficial), she published her poetry under her initials without her full name attached. Being anonymous, she says, allowed her to draw on some of her most personal experiences without fear of judgment. It’s this authenticity, she believes, that engages viewers and defines her as an artist. 

“For me, it was that I would keep my style and create whenever the inspiration came to me instead of when my [Instagram] feed ‘required’ it,” she told Authority. “For other [artists], it might simply be not letting the social media world take over their love of what they do. We’re all grateful for our following and all that social media has given us, but it’s important to create the same way we would if no one was watching.”

Among the inspirations for Wong’s art are her Hamilton experiences. “There are little details about Hamilton buried in my poetry,” she says, citing Martin’s Way and her room in Milbank Residence Hall. Hamilton’s rural setting has also played a role in her creative process. “I needed a place to be quiet and still, and be with my own mind,” she says.

She also explained how Hamilton’s rural setting has sometimes made her feel disconnected from the world, a feeling she believes has had some positive and some negative effects. For Wong, isolation allows her to get in touch with her creative process at her own pace, and whenever she feels cut off from the rest of the world, social media can keep her in contact with the controlled chaos she is used to as a native city-dweller.

did he make you feel like wallpaper?
did he make you feel like wallpaper?
oil on canvas
Heidi Wong ’20

Wong earned her international baccalaureate diploma at the Western Academy of Beijing. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t creating through images or words. By sharing her experiences and emotional struggles through her art, she has become an ambassador for issues she is passionate about. Wong has lost several family members to cancer, including her aunt, whose memory was the inspiration for “how i became an atheist,” which won the Button Poetry Short Form Contest in 2018. In 2015, the sale of her paintings netted $43,000 for leukemia treatment and research in rural China through Phoenix Media’s annual charity art auction. And a portion of the proceeds from her new book will benefit Planned Parenthood, an organization whose mission she believes has similar themes to those found in The Blue Velvet Dress Says I Told You So.

pseudonym

with each stanza

i smile this pseudonym out of
my wrists

untangle her

from silk tied tourniquets

and remember 

no artist works

to be a master of their craft

only a victim to it

Her art has appeared in numerous magazines such as Galore, Art Reveal, and ArtAscent Art & Literature Journal, as well as at Artexpo New York. Last year, her following on social media earned her a nomination for Influencer Awards Monaco. She also recognizes the value of being a prominent poet of Asian descent, especially one on social media. “Representation is so important,” Wong says. “I’m glad I get to provide that for people, especially aspiring young artists.”

Although Wong expects she will one day return to China and continue her family’s investments business, she first plans to pursue a graduate program to continue working on her art and poetry. “I don’t know where this book will take me,” she says, “but I know I’ll always continue creating.”

spring in clinton
spring in clinton
oil on canvas
Heidi Wong ’20

home country


i politely asked my first home not to kill me so she handed over a roof of iron nails a bed of needles

threading in and out of my abdomen

years later i am still trying to see how that too

helped me grow

split my blood

between the seawater of victoria harbor

and the streets of saint petersburg

let beijing separate my bones from muscle

cartilage from tissue

give one eye to pennsylvania

the other to clinton

leave my heart for fifth avenue

my second home and i remain on nodding terms

her beauty unquestionable

her smile

unquestionably soulless

if you go back far enough

i am both 

the native girl leaving her burning village behind

and the white man she is running from 

which is to say

you cannot teach my body to stop fighting for

and against itself

my third home is dirty and promiscuous

strutting down spiral staircases in fake designer shoes

socks mismatched

she’s raw rude and unafraid

hair in knots

i want her trash filled neighborhoods

rusty walls like chipped nail polish

the way her silhouette hugs the sweltering sky

but one day i must shed her like milk teeth

every time i make art in the language

that pushes my mother tongue deeper into my skull

every time i sleep soundly in a city

that cannot pronounce my birth name

the earth beats me black and blue

until these bruises

start to paint the flag

of a country that does not yet exist


The artwork and poetry that accompany this article appear in The Blue Velvet Dress Says I Told You So by Heidi Wong ’20.

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