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Cathy Song

Wouldn't it be nice to write poetry in Hawaii? The Asian‐American poet, Cathy Song, does just that and is a poetry professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Song's poetry explores her Korean and Chinese heritage through the lens of an American upbringing. She is best known for her first poetry collection, Picture Bride (1983), which won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.

Cathy Song, Oahu Hawaii, StudySmarter

Cathy Song grew up on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

Cathy Song: Biography

Cathy Song was born on August 20, 1955, in Wahiawa, Hawaii. Her mother was a Chinese‐American seamstress, and her father was a Korean‐American pilot. Song grew up in Hawaii in a neighborhood on the island of Oahu. As her father was a pilot, the family traveled often. Song started writing about her family's travels at a young age, deciding that she wanted to share and tell her family's stories.

As a child, Cathy Song was interested in writing, literature, and music. She wrote her first novel at the age of 11, and in high school, she wrote original music, songs, and poetry.

Cathy Song was inspired to write music by the American folk singer Joan Baez.

Song started college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she met and worked with poet, writer, and scholar John Unterecker. Unterecker was famous for writing a biography of the American modernist poet Hart Crane. He encouraged Song in her poetry endeavors and suggested she travel to mainland America, where her poetry would have a wider audience and achieve greater success.

Cathy Song, therefore, transferred to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she received a Bachelor's in English Literature. While attending Wellesley College, she was inspired by the American modernist artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Song incorporated O'Keeffe's artwork into her first published book, Picture Pride, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1882.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Song pursued a Master's of Arts degree at Boston University, graduating in 1981. Around this time, she married her husband, Douglas Davenport, who became an ER doctor. The couple lived in Boston and Denver before building a home and settling in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1987. While Song's husband completed his medical residency in Denver, she wrote the poetry collection, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), which explores family dynamics and history. Cathy Song and Davenport have three children together.

Song now lives with her husband in Honolulu. Davenport retired from his work as a doctor and is now a painter and ceramic artist. She has been involved with Bamboo Ridge, a Hawaiian literary journal, since its founding in 1978. Song teaches creative writing through a program in Hawaii called "Poets in the Schools." She encourages children to write high-quality poetry and to be analytical and unafraid to continually revise their work. Song also sets high standards for her students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she is a professor.

Cathy Song, Kids Writing, StudySmarter

Cathy Song is a passionate creative writing teacher for both children and university students alike.

Cathy Song: Awards

In 1982, Cathy Song won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her first poetry volume, Picture Bride. Yale published her book the following year. Picture Bride was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 1994, the Poetry Society of America presented Cathy Song with the Shelley Memorial Award.

The Shelley Memorial Award is named after the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, also known as P.B. Shelley.

Cathy Song: Poems

Cathy Song has written five poetry collections: Picture Bride (1983), Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), School Figures (1994), The Land of Bliss (2001), and Cloud Moving Hands (2007). Song's poems have been included in an anthology of Asian-pacific literature, as well as the publications Dark Horse, The Greenfield Review, and West Branch magazine. She is best known for her first poetry compilation, Picture Bride.

The title poem, "Picture Bride" (1983), tells the story of Song's grandmother, who was sent to Hawaii from Korea to marry an older Chinese immigrant plantation worker. Their marriage was arranged after simply viewing photographs, as the title "Picture Bride" suggests.

The Historical Context of Picture Brides

Picture bride is a term used for how many Japanese and Korean immigrants in Hawaii, the West Coast U.S., and Canada found brides from their native countries through matchmakers in the early 1900s. The couples were paired simply through photographs and family opinions.

In the late 1800s, many Japanese and Korean men moved to Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. Many intended to return to their homelands after their contracts ended and wanted to preserve their culture, so they sought brides from home.

The women in Japan and Korea only saw a photograph of their husband before they were legally married in Japan in order to get a visa to travel to America. The couples often had to get married upon first meeting the men at the docks when they arrived because their Japanese legal marriages were not valid in the United States.

Many women consented to this risky matchmaking process out of obligation to their families and in the hope of new freedoms and opportunities. However, it was quite difficult as many women were uprooted only to find men much older and different from the photographs they provided.

Cathy Song, Old Photographs, StudySmarter

Song explores the strangeness her grandmother must have felt being sent off to a foreign country to marry a man who had only ever seen her photograph.

Below are excerpts from Song's poems "Heaven" (1988) and "The Youngest Daughter" (1983) to help you get a feel for the focus and style of her writing.

"Heaven" by Cathy Song

"Heaven" is a poem from Song's poetry collection Frameless Windows, Squares of Light. It explores the longing for one's ancestral homeland. In the poem, the speaker is the Chinese mother of a half-Caucasian boy living in the United States. She wonders whether the desire to return to one's homeland can skip generations and be fully alive in the younger generations.

He thinks when we die we’ll go to China.
Think of it—a Chinese heaven
where, except for his blond hair,
the part that belongs to his father,
everyone will look like him.
China, that blue flower on the map,
bluer than the sea
his hand must span like a bridge
to reach it.
An octave away." (1-10)

"The Youngest Daughter" by Cathy Song

"The Youngest Daughter" was published in Song's collection Picture Bride. It is a poem that explores a mother-daughter relationship through aging and sickness. Song paints the complexities of a familial relationship of mutual dependence and the closeness that leads to care intermingled with criticism. In the following passage from "The Youngest Daughter," a daughter is bathing her ailing mother:

I was almost tender
when I came to the blue bruises
that freckle her body,
places where she has been injecting insulin
for thirty years. I soaped her slowly,
she sighed deeply, her eyes closed.
It seems it has always
been like this: the two of us
in this sunless room,
the splashing of the bathwater." (30-39)

Cathy Song: Themes

Cathy Song's poetry is grounded in her family. Her poems frequently explore the themes of Asian‐American culture, heritage, and history, as well as womanhood, identity, and family relationships.

Asian‐American Culture, Heritage, and History

Cathy Song's poetry draws inspiration from her Asian‐American ancestry. She writes about those close to her, including her grandparents and parents. Writing about her family allows Song to explore her Korean and Chinese background and to understand how it fits into American life. Much of her poetry is inspired by old family photographs and psychology. Through her poetry, she tries to understand immigrant experiences amidst everyday life.

Womanhood, Identity, and Family Relationships

Cathy Song's poetry explores womanhood in terms of the female body and identity. Song focuses on the relational nature of women, depicting how women are understood and understand themselves in relation to the world and to others. For example, Song focuses on women's familial roles as daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. Song's poetry often draws attention to traditional gender roles in Asian families. Her poems portray the individuality of women—their thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the world—within the context of real moments of family life.

Cathy Song: Interesting Facts

  • Cathy Song prefers to be known as a poet who happens to be Asian American rather than an Asian American or Hawaiian poet.
  • In 1994, Cathy Song was invited to travel to her ancestral lands of Korea and Hong Kong through the United States Information Agency's Arts America program.
  • Song's fifth poetry book, Cloud Moving Hands (2007) was inspired by tai chi and Buddhism.
  • In 2020, Cathy Song published a short story collection called All the Love in the World.

Cathy Song - Key takeaways

  • Cathy Song is an Asian‐American poet from Hawaii.
  • Cathy Song is best known for her poetry collection, Picture Bride.
  • Poems by Cathy Song include "Picture Bride," "Heaven," and "The Youngest Daughter."
  • Song's poems frequently explore the themes of Asian American culture, heritage, and history, as well as womanhood, identity, and family relationships.
  • Cathy Song won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and the 1994 Shelley Memorial Award.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cathy Song

Cathy Song is a poet best known for her poetry collection, Picture Bride (1983), which won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. 

Cathy Song was born on August 20, 1955 in Wahiawa, Hawaii.

Cathy Song grew up in Hawaii in a neighborhood on the island of Oahu.

Cathy Song lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Cathy Song is an Asian‐American poet who is a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her poetry ties in elements of her Korean and Chinese heritage and her American upbringing.

Final Cathy Song Quiz

Question

What state in the US is Cathy Song from?

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Hawaii

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What is Song's ethnic heritage? 

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Korean and Chinese

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What is the title of Song's best-known poetry collection? 

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Picture Bride

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Which of the following awards did Cathy Song win?

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The Yale Series of Younger Poets Award

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True or False: Song began writing by documenting her family's travels. 

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True

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Which artist was Song inspired by in college?

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Answer

Georgia O'Keeffe

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Where does Song currently live?

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Honolulu, Hawaii

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What university is Song a professor at? 

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The University of Hawaii at Manoa

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Which of the following is not one of Song's poetry collections? 

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As Light Breaks the Window Pane

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What does the poem, "Picture Bride," tell the story of?

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Song's grandmother, who was sent to Hawaii from Korea to marry an older Chinese immigrant plantation worker

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Name at least two themes in Cathy Song's poetry.

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Asian American culture, heritage, history, womanhood, identity, and family relationships.

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Who is the author of Picture Bride?

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Cathy Song

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What is a 'picture bride'?

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The term 'picture bride' is used to refer to the practice of early 20th-century immigrant workers in the US, Canada, and Brazil selecting brides from their native countries through an exchange of photographs mediated by a matchmaker.

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Name at least two themes explored in the poetry book.

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womanhood, femininity, family, immigrant experiences, cultural heritage

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What type of poems does the book feature?

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Lyric

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Which poem speaks of Song's grandmother's initial encounter with her grandfather? 

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"Picture Bride"

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Which artist did not inspire the poetry book?

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Renoir

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What do flowers symbolize?

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The versatility of feminine emotion and expression 

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True or False: Picture brides left their native lands for varying reasons—to escape poverty or with the hopes of education and greater freedom and opportunity for women in the Western world. 

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True

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True or false: Song's collection depicts women outside of the familial framework.

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False

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Which poem tells about a daughter bathing her aging mother?

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"The Youngest Daughter"

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