Born 1955, Honolulu, Hawaii
Married Douglas Davenport; children: two
The selection in 1982 of Cathy Song's Picture Bride (1983) as the winning manuscript in the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition marked the young poet's rather sudden literary emergence. In a review of Picture Bride, Shirley Geok-lin Lim hails Song as "a major figure on the Asian American literary scene." Song received her B.A. from Wellesley College (1977) and an M.F.A. from Boston University's creative writing program. After her graduation from the program in 1981, Song returned to Honolulu. She now teaches creative writing at several universities in addition to working on her own literary projects.
In many of the poems in Picture Bride, Song writes about her family's history and interrelationships. In the title poem she imagines her grandmother, joined to a stranger through a prear-ranged marriage, leaving home to meet her husband for the first time. Insightful and sensitive in capturing her evolving relationship with her mother, Song intimates in several poems that she must escape her mother's presence, but eventually realizes what she draws from her mother is vital to her own identity. "When I stretch a canvas / to paint the clouds, it is your spine that declares itself."
The poems of Picture Bride, though driven by the specific details of Song's past, also help to illuminate the Asian-American experience in general. In "Lost Sister," about a Chinese-American who finds herself alienated from both East and West, and in her unflinching portrayal of Chinatowns, Song addresses the difficult realities faced by Asian-American immigrants. Song has expressed concern that critics encountering her acute cultural awareness may marginalize her work. Her strengths as a poet—startlingly clear description, lines quietly unfolding a story in short breaths, images running threadlike throughout a poem, weaving a unified work—stand independent of her Asian themes.
Song further explores her past in Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), her second volume of verse. These poems, writes Song, focus on "the mind…tunneling into memory, released by imagination. Out of that depth, squares of light form, like windows you pass at night." In these new poems, Song returns to many of the themes and scenarios introduced in Picture Bride. Also familiar are her characteristic straightforward diction and her strong sense of closure. "A Small Light" captures with rhythmic repetition the feel of a distant memory. In "A Child's Painting" Song reaffirms her ability to transform commonplace events into beautiful portraits.
Song's third collection, School Figures (1995), continues to explore her familial relationships. Her position as both daughter and mother is captured in verse; both the loss of her father and the challenges of raising children are addressed. "Neither woundedly angry at nor sentimentally accepting of her family and its heritage, Song explores the nuances of intimacy with admirable clarity and passion," writes Pat Monaghan of Booklist.
In addition to her poetry, Song has edited (with Juliet Kono) Sister Stew (1991), an anthology of writings by Asian-American women. Her poems have also appeared in several anthologies and in such periodicals as Asian-Pacific Literature, Hawaii Review, Poetry, and Seneca Review.
Cheung, K.-K., Asian-American Literature (1988). Chock, E., Talk Story: An Anthology of Hawaii's Local Writer (1978). Fisher, D., The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States (1980). Lim, S. G. and A. Ling, eds., Reading Literatures of Asian America (1992).
CA (Online, 1999). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Booklist (1 Oct. 1994). International Examiner (2 May 1984). MELUS (Fall 1983, Spring 1988). WRB (Oct. 1988).
UPDATED BY CARRIE SNYDER