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.
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.
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,...
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