Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Cathy Song
By Arin Alycia Fong
Cathy Song's poetry possesses a quality of lightness, of quiet conviction, of keen observation. For those of us fortunate to be present at the 'Being Human' panel at last year's Singapore Writers Festival, we witnessed Song read one of her most enduring poems, 'The Pineapple Fields', a piece which captures the complexities of place, language, belonging, and showcases the depth of her empathy for humanity.
Song was born and raised in Hawai'i, and is of Korean and Chinese descent. She has published five collections of poetry, including her debut Picture Bride, which won the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Her oeuvre centres around generational memory, familial relationships, and experiences that transcend place, identity and culture. She is currently working on a collection of 12 inter-connected stories based on the life of her late father, a second-generation Korean American in Hawai'i and one of the first Asian-American commercial airline pilots in the United States. Writing All the Love in the World (Bamboo Ridge Press, forthcoming 2020) is Song's way of dealing with the grief of losing her father, while also revealing the discrimination he had faced in his early years of commercial aviation. "With so much of the world news being taken up by men behaving badly," she says, "it was time to share stories of men who did not shirk their responsibilities but remained constant, decent, and kind."
A selection of Cathy Song's poems will also be collected in a new anthology of Asian diaspora poetry launching at this year's Singapore Writers Festival. To Gather Your Leaving (Ethos Books, 2019), edited by Boey Kim Cheng, Justin Chia, and myself will, for the first time, bring together poetry by poets of Asian ancestry in America, Australia, United Kingdom and Europe.
1) What are you reading right now?
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, who would you be and why?
The precocious speaker, her Aunt Consuelo, and the other "grown-up people" waiting to see the dentist, are such ordinary characters, as are the setting (a winter waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts) and the date (February 5, 1918) repeated like bookends, as if the speaker needs to anchor herself to a certain reality. The seemingly ordinary action of passing the time by flipping the pages of the National Geographic emphasises the seemingly inconsequential scene we have all experienced. Yet all the conditions are ripe for something extraordinary to happen.
The young girl experiences "the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world/into cold, blue-black space" and questions the concept of the self " you are an I ,/you are an Elizabeth,/you are one of them. Why should you be one, too?" her I-ness in the world of volcanoes and "black, naked women with necks/wound round and round with wire" are no less exotic than the people "in the dentist's waiting room" in their "arctics and overcoats." As is so often the case, the child is wiser than all the adults in the room.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
4) Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Like: When it is used simply as a filler, hindering speech, rather than as a verb to show preference or in the construction of a comparison.
12) Compose a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: light, buoy, earth.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree?
16) Perhaps a more serious question now. In light of global migrations, heightened nationalism and the obsession with borders in America (and other nations), what are the stakes of writing poetry today? To quote Myung Mi Kim from her 2002 collection Commons, "what are the implications of writing at this moment, in precisely this 'America'?"
I used to teach in the Poets-in-the-Schools programme in Hawai'i's public schools. When I would read poetry to kids who lived in households where the TV was always on and the people around them were constantly bickering and swearing, it was like offering them a cool splash of spring water to drink. They were so thirsty! Their faces softened with relief as though they were hearing a kind of music they had never heard before. Poets and writers in the best way they know how must keep replenishing that spring, keep offering that music.
17) What would you write on your tombstone?