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
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.