Song graduated from Wellesley College with a B.A. in 1977 and from Boston University in 1981 with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She currently resides in Kahala, Hawaii.
Cathy Song was still in her twenties when her first book of poetry, Picture Bride, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the most prestigious national poetry prize for young poets in the United States. In choosing Song's first book for the Yale Series, Richard Hugo wrote that her "poems are flowers: colorful, sensual, and quiet, and they are offered almost shyly as bouquets to those moments in life that seemed minor but in retrospect count the most. She often reminds a loud, indifferent, hard world of what truly matters to the human spirit." This award firmly cemented her at the top of the world of emerging poets, and she has continued to contribute steadily to her award-winning body of work ever since.
Song's work has appeared in numerous literary journals including American Poetry Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Shenandoah. Her work has also been widely anthologized in such collections as The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets, the Morrow Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets, the Heath Anthology of American Literature, and the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Cathy-Lynn Song was the middle of three children of Andrew and Ella Song. Andrew Song was a second-generation Korean American whose father had come to Hawaii with the first wave of Korean laborers. His wife came later as a "picture bride," a bride whose marriage was arranged through the exchange of photographs. Song's mother, Ella, is Chinese American. "My father was a pilot, so we did a lot of traveling," recalled Song in an interview with Susan Gall. "Our family travels started my writing. I guess I was around nine years old when I decided I wanted to be the family chronicler." Song's parents, older sister Andrea, and younger brother Alan, all provided episodes and anecdotes for this enthusiastic young wordsmith. She wrote constantly, creating so many of her own magazines and books that her father resorted to buying surplus Army target paper, so Song's earliest works are backed by a bull's-eye. In Poetry, a reviewer wrote," ... Cathy Song shows herself a resourceful historian of her family ... she also shows herself aware of the tenuousness of what she is about ... One values her sensitivity and precision, whether she is remembering childhood play with her brother amid the hanging laundry or conducting an inventory of her mother's button collection... . Song renders details with great clarity... . She sees the present moment as potential memory, the latest addition to the palimpsest that is the past."
During her high school and college years, writing became a natural process for Song. "Every experience seemed more complete if I wrote about it," Song explained. And it was while she was a student in Hawaii that her first mentor, noted poet and Hart Crane biographer John Unterecker, encouraged her to pursue and develop her interest in writing. She told David Choo of the Honolulu Weekly, "He was someone who encouraged me from very early on. Generosity--I was so lucky to find such generosity." The idea of generosity is a strong impulse in Song's lyric and narrative poetry. Her friend, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, writes, "The poems of Cathy Song graciously, generously open up the world. They carry us into the deep heart of `family' and `place,' guiding with gentle, passionate precision. They are supple as sky, embracing as the largest life."
Song traveled from Hawaii to Boston to attend Wellesley College, where she earned her bachelor's degree in English literature in 1977. She went on to earn a master's in creative writing at Boston University in 1981. It was while in Boston that Song was influenced by her second strong mentor, Kathleen Spivack. As a student in Spivack's advanced writer's workshop, Song considered looking for a publisher for her work. She told Gall, "I remember thinking of first trying to get my poems out and directing my attention toward the ethnic publications. She [Spivack] encouraged me to send my work to mainstream publications, not just Asian American publications." The advice was appropriate, since Song's first volume of poetry, Picture Bride, was published in 1983 by Yale University Press, and her second volume, Frameless Windows, Square of Light was published in 1988 by W.W. Norton. The University of Pittsburgh Press published her third collection, School Figures, in 1994.
While living in Boston, Song married Douglas McHarg Davenport. He was a medical student at Tufts University. Davenport did his residency at Denver General Hospital in Colorado from 1984 to 1987. During this time Song wrote Frameless Windows and Square of Light. After Davenport completed his training in Denver, the family settled in Honolulu, where they have lived ever since.
Song objects to the observations some have made that she's a middle-class poet. She told Choo, "It's very annoying. It's easy for someone to look at me and say, `She hasn't suffered... . Her husband's a doctor; she drives around in a Volvo.' I think it's very unfair. We all suffer in different ways. I don't have to have grown up on the plantation speaking pidgin and having someone beat ... me to write good poetry." Song currently is focusing on women's issues. She told Gall. "Being a woman and an Asian American has only helped my work as an artist. You have to be on the periphery, on the outside looking in, marginalized in some way, to gain a different perspective, a perspective which only provokes your art because there is no way you can possibly accept the party line. "Song also feels that, as a mother, it is important to continue her work while raising her two sons and a daughter. She continued: "I write a lot of poems about motherhood, and I try to deal with the complexities of the many roles of women. I believe that women can take full possession of their lives by finding ways to articulate through art, or other meaningful work, their right to define their own existence without being trapped in the male dominant culture ideal." Song also realizes that, as a mother, it is important to continue her work while raising her two sons and a daughter. "I feel it helps my children--particularly my daughter--to see me working, to watch the process, and to realize how I feel when my work touches people," she told Gall.
Award-winning Poet in the Schools
Hawaii's well-recognized "Poets in the Schools" program enables public school children from kindergarten through high school to work with and learn from working poets. Since 1987, Song has been an active participant in the program, and finds the experience rewarding. "I tell my students that true freedom and power comes from getting a hold of language and your feelings," she told Choo, "...Monetarily, you don't get compensated very well [in the Poets in the Schools program]; you'll never get rich. But I get so much back. What these students give to me is so life-enhancing." Song finds inspiration, even when transcribing poems of kindergartners. "I learn so much from the insights of the youngest students," she told Gall.
Song also tries to influence young writers, acknowledging the strong influence her early teachers had on her. She told Choo, "I'm not there to give them [the students] false praise. It's not going to do them any good... . Sometimes I tell them to rewrite something over and over, and they do, creating a really good poem. You've got to be willing to dismantle ... to realize that poetry is something made outside of yourself."
In 1993, Song won the Hawaii Award for Literature, becoming the youngest person ever to capture the award. Adding to her list of recognitions, also in 1993, the Poetry Society of America awarded Song the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award. In the early fall of 1994, she was invited to travel to Korea and Hong Kong under the United States Information Agency's Arts America program.
Song's message for aspiring poets is not to be afraid to start at the top when trying to publish your work, and to take advantage of the help and advice of mentors. Song related her early influences to Gall: "As Kathleen Spivack told me, `Your voice has just as much importance as any other American writer.' Young poets and writers should remember that ethnic background doesn't make your voice any less American. Don't limit yourself--when you feel it's ready, send your work to the best publications you know." Song is proof that this strategy works.
Cathy Song By: Huh, Jinny. IN: Madsen, Asian American Writers. Detroit, MI: Gale; 2005. pp. 283—87
Body and Female Subjectivity in Cathy Song's Picture Bride By: Chen, Fu-Jen; Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2004 July-Aug; 33 (5): 577-612.
Snapshots in History: Re-Reading Ethnic Subjects in Cathy Song By: Van Dyne, Susan R. IN: Hsu, Franklin and Kosanke, Re-Placing America: Conversations and Contestations: Selected Essays. Honolulu: College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature, U of Hawaii, with East-West Center; 2000. pp. 181—98
Breaking from Tradition: Experimental Poems by Four Contemporary Asian American Women Poets By: Xiaojing, Zhou; Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 1998 Nov; 37: 199-218.
Cathy Song By: Schultz, Susan M. IN: Conte, American Poets since World War II: Fifth Series. Detroit: Thomson Gale; 1996. pp. 267—74
Women Disclosed: Cathy Song's Poetry and Kitagawa Ukiyoe By: Usui, Masami; Studies in Culture and the Humanities, 1995; 1-19. (journal article)
Korean-American Literature: The Next Generation By: Lee, Kyhan; Korea Journal, 1994 Spring; 34 (1): 20-35. (journal article)
Artistic and Cultural Mothering in the Poetics of Cathy Song By: Cobb, Nora Okja. IN: Ng, Yung, Fugita, and Kim, New Visions in Asian American Studies: Diversity, Community, Power. Pullman, WA: Washington State UP; 1994. pp. 223—34
Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove By: Wallace, Patricia; MELUS, 1993 Fall; 18 (3): 3-19.
'Third World' as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song's Picture Bride By: Fujita-Sato, Gayle K.; MELUS, 1988 Spring; 15 (1): 49-72.