Friday, December 15, 2006

The Poetry of Cathy Song

In comments on a previous post, Glenn Ingersoll mentions the Asian-American poet Cathy Song, perhaps most well-known for winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award with Picture Bride (Yale University Press, 1983). At the time, no Asian-American poet had received such a prestigious honor, and the selection of her book by poet Richard Hugo represents a kind of landmark in Asian-American poetry. But I think that Song's place in Asian-American poetry, and contemporary American poetry, has remained at least somewhat puzzling, and in this post, I would like to discuss it.

In many respects, Song has had a remarkably successful career in poetry. She has continued to publish steadily since the publication of Picture Bride. She has come out with three books of poetry after Picture Bride -- Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (W.W. Norton, 1989), School Figures (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), and The Land of Bliss (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001) -- with major publishers. (At the current rate, I would not be too surprised if her fifth book of poetry comes out within the next couple years or so.) She has received such accolades as the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award, the Hawaii Award for Literature, and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She has played a key role in the success of Bamboo Ridge Press, which was founded "to publish literature by and about Hawaii's people."

But even as the publications and accolades have piled up, Song has received comparably less recognition in Asian-American poetry and contemporary poetry. I want to look historically here for a possible explanation. Cathy Song's Picture Bride (1983), Li-Young Lee's Rose (1986), and Garrett Hongo's River of Heaven (1982) were perhaps the three most prominent Asian-American books of poetry published in the 1980s. I think that there were many similarities between these three books. The poems in each of these volumes drew heavily on a narrative style, used concrete images, tended not to be surreal, discussed immigrant experiences in America, seemed at least somewhat concerned with identity politics, and sought to develop an "Asian-American" poetics by evoking the race/ethnicity of the poet/narrator/protagonist.

I think that most people would agree that, for better or worse, Asian-American poetry did not adhere to this relatively unified schemata but instead has fragmented into many different poetries among many different schools of poetry over the past couple decades. In other words, Song's vision of "Asian-American poetry," at least as expressed through her poetry, has not become the dominant one but one of many visions. In my opinion, Asian-American poetry, as it currently stands, is fairly kaliedoscopic.

However, I think that the general move away from narrative poetry does not completely explain Song's lack of popular and critical recognition. I now want to compare and contrast Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee. They are about the same age. They were both educated at universities in parts of the United States with relatively small Asian-American populations -- Lee attended the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport, while Song received her B.A. from Wellesley College and her M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. Their first books came out at about the same time. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, the best poems in Picture Bride (1983) are as powerful as the best poems in Rose (1986), with an exuberance, originality, and attention to detail that has not been surpassed in Asian-American narrative poetry since that epoch of belief and incredulity known as the 1980s.

So why has Li-Young Lee received more popular and critical attention than Song? I can think of at least three reasons. First, Lee has publicized his poetry more to Americans on the mainland. While Song returned to her native state of Hawaii after receiving her M.A. in creative writing and has remained there, Lee has toured many parts of the United States, teaching at different universities and taking part in various speaking engagements. Second, Song has never quite been able to "escape" the labels of "female," "Asian-American," and "Hawaiian" poet, which can often piegonhole a woman poet of color. I put "escape" in quotes there, because I think that Song has not attempted to avoid but actually, to her credit, embraced her diverse identitites -- for example, read her remarks in this Honolulu Star-Bulletin article,

Third and related, Song's poetry and Lee's poetry have taken different directions since the publication of their first volumes. While Lee's poems have shifted away from the identity-oriented concerns of his earlier works, Song's poems have consistently remained in the realm of identity politics. One might say that Song remains comfortable with the ideas and themes of her previous poems and, perhaps unlike Lee, has basically continued to write the same types of poems as in that well-known first volume.

While I think that Song's poetry may not quite be in vogue among some contemporary Asian-American poets, I respect Song's adherence to a consistent vision and style of poetry, believe that her poetry still has a lot of relevance, and feel that her poetry should receive greater popular and critical attention. I also think that that there are some Asian-American poets who have been, and will continue be, influenced by her various poems -- especially since her poems have been oft-anthologized and have an important place in American poetry.


Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...


I'd have to say that among the factors you've listed, one of the biggest factors is Song's locale. Hawaii's thriving and important literary scene is still regarded as "separate" from what could be considered "American letters."

Yes, it's a marginalized place with a multitude of marginalized narratives . . ..

What limits Song's mainstreamization is mobility. I foresee many institutions thinking, "Nevermind that she's a fantastic and important Asian American poet--we just can't book her for a reading gig. We can't pay for her airfare. We can't afford the week she'll require in order to read for our school coming from Hawaii to X-destination." Never mind booking her for readings on the East Coast where all the big decisions about poetic value seem to be made.

Li-Young, on the other hand is based in Chicago--the middle of the U.S. with a major airport. He's got plenty of mobility. He can hop on a car and drive across country quite easily. It's not that far from Chicago to major literary hubs.

While there's brilliant artists all over the nation like Cathy Song, geography can play a role in who's labeled the "it" poet.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Roger--one quibble: Song is not a "Hawaiian writer," as she is not native Hawaiian. The question of whether or not she is a local writer is alive here in Hawai`i, where she is also not really at the _center_ of the literary scene(s), especially since the advent of pidgin poetry. Here she's seen by some more as a mainstream continental (mainland) poet. So I guess she doesn't have it both ways, maybe neither in an odd sense. This is not to say that when she has a reading here people don't attend in large numbers. She's establishment, kind of like W.S. Merwin...

3:57 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Oliver, yes, I think that's a good point regarding mobility. I'm not sure how much a flight from Hawaii to the US mainland costs these days, but I think that you're definitely right that it would be fairly considerable for a flight from Hawaii to the East Coast, not to mention the energy it would take for the poet in Hawaii him or herself.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Susan, thanks for sharing the insight that Song may be perceived as an "establishment" poet in Hawaii and for highlighting the advent of pidgin poetry.

I think that it is an open question whether Song is a "Hawaiian" writer. I understand the point that you're making -- she is not native Hawaiian. But should the fact that she is originally from Hawaii and has lived in Hawaii for many years make her "Hawaiian," or should it still make her kind of an outsider in Hawaii? I think that the question of the very definition/meaning of "Hawaiian," and how it has evolved over time, could make for a really interesting article or book.

5:07 PM  
Blogger mewiii said...

Greetings my literary friends.

I am starting work on my second newsprint article book entitled "44th the Inauguration". It will be a 250 page hardbound coffee table book (12" x 22") displaying the front pages of worldwide newspapers showcasing the coverage of the January 20th 2009 ceremonies.

If you would like to submit a positive poem about Barack Obama for consideration please do so before January 5, 2009. Poems will be juried and accepted entries will be notified before January 15th. We are dedicating a special section to poets from Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya. If you are or know of someone who is from these regions please inform them or consider submitting an entry. Check out a virtual copy of the first one by clicking this link then clicking view virtual book.

Questions and entries may be directed to . Please feel free to pass this information on to your literary cohorts and friends.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Mike Williams

8:04 PM  

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