Cathy Song

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 945 words

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About this Person
Born: August 20, 1955 in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
Nationality: American
Other Names: Song, Cathy-Lynn
Updated:June 23, 2003
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Family: Born August 20, 1955, in Honolulu, Oahu, HI; daughter of Andrew and Ella Song; married Douglas Davenport; children: three. Ethnicity: Asian American. Education: Wellesley College, B.A., 1977; Boston University, M.F.A., 1981. Addresses: Home: P.O. Box 27262, Honolulu, HI, 96827.

 
CAREER:

Poet and educator. Instructor of creative writing at various universities.

 
AWARDS:

Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1983, for Picture Bride; Shelley Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America; Frederick Block prize, Poetry magazine; Hawaii Award for Literature; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Pushcart Prize.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

POETRY

  • Picture Bride, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1983.
  • Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, Norton (New York, NY), 1988.
  • School Figures, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1994.
  • The Land of Bliss, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2001.

Also editor, with Juliet Kono, of Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women, Bamboo Ridge Press (Honolulu, HI), 1991. Work anthologized in publications including Boomer Girls, Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, Norton Anthology of American Literature, and Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Also published in Best American Poetry 2000.

Contributor to periodicals, including Asian-Pacific Literature, Hawaii Review, Poetry, and Seneca Review.

 

Sidelights

Poet Cathy Song, a Hawaii native and daughter of a Chinese orphan, draws not only on her rich Korean and Chinese ancestry but on her experiences as a woman born and raised an American in verses that have been compared by critics to the muted tints of watercolor paintings. Song has consistently maintained that the rich world she creates within her narrative poetry transcends her own ethnic and regional background, and resists classification as an "Asian American" or "Hawaiian" writer, calling herself "a poet who happens to be Asian American." Her first volume of poems, Picture Bride, earned Song the 1983 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and was also nominated for that year's National Book Critics Circle Award. The volume's success carried the young poet to national recognition, and other awards followed.

Encouraged to write even during her childhood, Song left Hawaii to attend college in New England. It was in Boston that she met her husband, a medical student at Tufts University who was originally from New Mexico. The couple moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1984 while he completed his residency at Denver General Hospital, and there Song wrote Frameless Windows, Squares of Light and began a family. In 1987 they returned to Honolulu, where she now combines her writing with teaching creative writing to students at several universities.

Uniting Song's poetic oeuvre is her abiding focus on family. The moral ties that bind women to children and parents, to their community, to tradition, and to the land are continuously interwoven throughout her verse. In the title poem from Picture Bride, for example, Song recalls the story of her grandmother who, at age twenty-three, was sent to the United States from Korea in an arranged marriage through the exchange of photographs. Though her husband, a Chinese immigrant who worked on a Hawaiian plantation, was much older than she, it was Song's grandmother's nature to endure. More than two-thirds of the poems in this book in some way address family relationships. Shirley Lim, in a review of the book in Asian American Literature, commented: "Song's greatest strength lies in this marvellous organic nature of her imagery and in the complete fusion of form, image, occasion, and emotion. Every poem is marked by this naturalness of form, based unpretentiously on phrasal pauses or the breadth of a line, by an unforced storyline or ease of observation; almost every poem has a sudden eruption of metaphor, which startles, teases, illuminates."

Frameless Windows, Squares of Light continues the theme of family history and relationships; as Booklist reviewer Pat Monaghan notes, "Song explores the nuances of intimacy with admirable clarity and passion." "The Tower of Pisa" concerns the poet's airline pilot-father, whose life she terms "one of continual repair." "Humble Jar" is written in praise of her mother, a seamstress. Song again treats the theme of womanhood in "A Mehinaku Girl in Seclusion," in which a girl, her coming of age signaled by her first menstruation, is removed from her tribe for three years and "married to the earth." In this poem, Song's approach is unique. "Song is at her best when she wrenches free of her responsibility to family history," reviewer Jessica Greenbaum opined in Women's Review of Books, and went on to state that "A Mehinaku Girl" draws the reader into the inner life of its main character far more vividly than do Song's second-person recitations of family history.

In School Figures Song again casts the stories of her family in verse. Both "A Conservative View" and "Journey" explore the challenges that faced her parents, while "Sunworshippers" recalls for the poet her mother's sage advice against self-gratification. The thoughts, feelings, and impressions couched within each of Song's poems--whether quietly coming to terms with the death of a father or sitting amid the clatter of serving dishes and the buoyant chatter of family during dinner--are transformed by the poet into universal images, transcending labels of race, gender or culture.

The Land of Bliss is another collection of poetry with familial and autobiographical underpinnings. Rochelle Ratner, reviewing the collection for Library Journal, commented that here, Song "magnificently intertwines the harsh reality of her aging parents (including a mother frequently hospitalized for depression) with memories of her grandparents." Although Ratner considered the volume "uneven" due to several of the shorter pieces that stray from the "weighty context" of the longer autobiographical entries, she also commented that the latter are "some of the finest this reviewer has read in recent memory."

FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Asian American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Benbow-Pfalzgraf, Taryn, editor, American Women Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 169, American Poets since World War II, 5th series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Kester-Shelton, Pamela, Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

PERIODICALS

  • Booklist, October 1, 1994, p. 231.
  • International Examiner (Seattle, WA), May 2, 1984, Debbie Murakami Nomaguchi, "Cathy Song: I'm a Poet Who Happens to Be Asian American" (interview), p. 9.
  • Library Journal, May 1, 1983, p. 909; June 15, 1988, p. 61; December, 2001, Rochelle Ratner, review of The Land of Bliss, p. 130.
  • MELUS, Volume 15, number 1, 1988; Volume 18, number 3, 1993.
  • Poetry, April, 1984; August, 1989.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 1, 1983, p. 59.
  • Women's Review of Books, October, 1988, p 19.*

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000121619