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Cathy Song was born in 1955 to a Korean American airline pilot and a Chinese American seamstress in Honolulu. Until the age of seven, she was raised in Wahiawa, a small plantation town on the island of Oahu that serves as the setting for many of her poems. Because her ancestral roots can be traced to both China and Korea—the two countries where her maternal and paternal grandparents originated—and because she has spent most of her life in Hawaii, Song has at times been identified as a Hawaiian poet; at other times, she has been called either a Korean American or Chinese American poet, though in fact the three aspects of her heritage are essentially indivisible.

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As a child, Song exercised her creative energy in what she later called the “pure fantasy” and “dream wishes” of fiction (her first story, written at the age of eleven, is a spy novel), romance (short stories about “beautiful blonde heroines on summer vacations”), and make-believe journalism (“imaginary interviews with movie stars”). Later, she also aspired to be a songwriter like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. After her schooling in Hawaii, when Song had left the University of Hawaii for Wellesley College in Massachusetts, her talent in poetry began to blossom. While attending Wellesley, she came across Georgia O’Keeffe’s book Georgia O’Keeffe (1976), which so deeply impressed Song that it inspired her to write an entire sequence of poems (loosely known as the “O’Keeffe poems”).

After receiving her B.A. from Wellesley in 1977, Song went on to study creative writing at Boston University, where she earned an M.A. in 1981. She also attended the Advanced Poetry Workshop conducted by Kathleen Spivak, who offered suggestions on the divisions and subtitles of Song’s first book manuscript. The manuscript, Picture Bride, which collects poems formerly published in journals and anthologies such as Bamboo Ridge, The Greenfield Review, and Hawaii Review, was selected by the poet Richard Hugo from among 625 manuscripts as the winner of the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and was published by Yale University Press as volume 78 of the series in 1983. The series, which had previously featured poets such as Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery, brought Song to prominence. The book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Song’s second collection of poems, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, was published by W. W. Norton in 1988. Her third collection of poems, School Figures, appeared in 1994, and her fourth, The Land of Bliss, in 2001, both published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Song’s poetry has been widely anthologized in such volumes as Breaking the Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poets (1983), The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (2d edition, 1988), The Norton Anthology of American Literature (3d edition, 1989), The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (1994), Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation (1999), and The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (2003). She is also the coeditor, with Juliet S. Kono, of Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women (1991).

Song’s numerous prizes and awards include the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Hawaii Award for Literature, the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the Pushcart Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant.

Song has taught creative writing at various universities on the U.S. mainland and in Hawaii, where she maintains a permanent home in Honolulu and teaches mainly for the Poets in Schools program. She is married to Douglas Davenport, a doctor, and has three children.


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Song’s struggle to be heard as a poet is tied to her experience as a woman with multiple cultural backgrounds. Her exploration of subject matter related to immigrants, family history, generational ties, Hawaiian culture, and personal visions of life and art is an integral part of the American experience. Confronted with the gulf between ethnic and mainstream cultures, Song has worked toward bridging the gap with creative means informed by her artistic sensibility. Her unfaltering interest in the primacy of the human and the personal, especially from the perspective of women without voices, is a distinct and dominant trait of her poetry.


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Having grown up in the culturally and ethnically diverse society of Hawaii in a family that had been there for at least two generations, Cathy Song does not write about racial or ethnic anxieties or the pains of being an outsider in an Anglo world. Her poems reflect a family that has been close and nurturing. The title of her first book, Picture Bride, refers to her Korean grandmother, who immigrated to Hawaii to marry a man who knew her only from a photograph. Song’s paternal grandfather was also Korean; her mother is Chinese. Song’s original title for the book, “From the White Place,” refers to the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, which she encountered while at Wellesley College, from which she was graduated in 1977. She went on to receive a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University in 1981. Her vivid imagery and interest in the subject of perspective indicate her fascination with visual art. The dominant strain in Picture Bride is the connection between the first-person speaker and her relatives. Song’s poems show little interest in political or social issues per se. Song’s appreciation of her Asian heritage, however, appears powerfully in poems such as “Girl Powdering Her Neck,” which concerns a painting by the eighteenth century Japanese artist, Kitagawa Utamaro, and ends with a haiku: “Two chrysanthemums/ touch in the middle of the lake/ and drift apart.”

Song appears as a somewhat distant narrator in poems such as “Chinatown” and “Magic Island,” which are found in Frameless Windows, Squares of Light. These poems concern the immigrant experience, which she knows only secondhand. The deft beauty of a poem such as “Magic Island” does not compare with the personally felt experience of “Living Near the Water,” in which the poet watches her father give his dying father a drink of water. Her own children appear in these poems: Her blond son in “Heaven,” for example, thinks, “when we die we’ll go to China.”

The blended worlds of Cathy Song are celebrated in her third book, School Figures, which opens with a poem on Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series of children’s books. “Mother on River Street” depicts the poet’s mother and aunts eating at a Vietnamese restaurant and recalling Sei Mui, who, as a girl, fell out of Mrs. Chow’s car. In the title poem, Western painters such as Piet Mondrian and Pieter Bruegel merge with Katsushika Hokusai. Song’s poems portray not a simple multiculturalism but rather—as in “Square Mile,” in which she sees her son sitting in the same classroom she once sat in and herself on the same hill her father once was on—a profound and affectionate personal unity.


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Cathy Song was born in Honolulu in 1955; her mother, Ella Yee Lan Song, was Chinese American, and her father, Andrew Sung Mahn Song, was Korean American and an airline pilot. She grew up in Wahiawa, a small plantation town in a rural section of Oahu, then moved to Honolulu with her family when she was seven years old. She began writing as a high school student and spent two years at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, mentored by John Unterecker, a poet and critic. She then moved to New England, completing a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Wellesley College in 1977 and a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University in 1981. She and her family lived on the mainland, in Boston and Colorado, for several years.

Song returned to Hawaii in 1987 with her husband, Douglas Davenport, a physician. They had three children: one daughter, Rachel, and two sons, Joshua and Samuel. Song has taught creative writing at various universities, including the University of Hawaii, and for the Poets in the Schools program, which she enthusiastically supports.

Song became a member of the Bamboo Ridge study group, a group of local Hawaiian poets and fiction writers. She has also worked for the Bamboo Ridge Press. In 1991, Song and Juliet S. Kono edited Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women, a collection of writing by a variety of Hawaiian women that was published by the press.

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