Speaking Their Art
story by Liza Simon
photos by Brad Goda
When I show up at a poetry slam, I discover my presumptions are as muddled as a badly mixed metaphor. "Whatever happens up here tonight is about respect and love. If we are going to share our thoughts openly, we must all create the right environment," begins Kealoha, the sprightly poet and impresario who, over a year ago, founded the First Thursdays poetry slam at King Street’s Studio One. Along with deejayed sounds and flashes of projected video art, Kealoha’s remarks wash over a crowd of more than 500 people and resonate through the pageant of performers that follows.
Liam Skilling works
the crowd at First Thursday.
Later, Kealoha tells me that I’ve been hooked by a gimmick. "The competition thing is just a way to make sure everyone participates," he says. "How can you really say one poem is better than another? The important thing is that poets say what’s in their hearts and others hear their message." The plan of First Thursdays, launched last April, was to "remove the barriers, free up communication, get the art out to the people, where it belongs." As for the way the event has taken off, Kealoha is quick to acknowledge that he has had the fortune of tapping into a burgeoning Island scene.
Slam’s synergizing effects also seem to be touching many of Hawaii’s longtime poets, who note a new hip-hop contingency are buying their works. Among those who have packed in remarkably large audiences in Honolulu lately are pidgin writers Lee Tonouchi and Braddah Joe, lyrical literati Kathryn Takara and Richard Hamasaki, and acclaimed bards from around Polynesia, including Samoa’s Sia Figiel and New Zealand’s Robert Sullivan. Perhaps poetry is simply long overdue. After all, isn’t it one of the oldest forms of home entertainment?
"Just remember, back in time there were always minstrels, griots," muses Kealoha, adding that it’s hard to not get hooked on spoken word once you try it: "I’ve seen so many people go through what I call the life cycle of the slam poet. Initially, they come around to check out the open mic from a distance. Once they try it out, they feel the support for poetry going wild. From then on, they’re writing and rehearsing and thinking about the next time on stage," notes Kealoha, whose own story is a perfect example of the lifecycle he describes.
Kealoha’s first exposure to spoken word art came in the fervent spawning ground of San Francisco, where he was working as a business consultant shortly after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in nuclear engineering. "The way someone would walk up to me on the street and say ‘Hey, ya wanna hear a song I just wrote?’I thought Hawaii was too inhibited for this kind of art scene,” he laughs. But when he returned to the Islands in 1999, he realized that creative poetry was going off. Word Stew, the brainchild of poet-performer Jesse Lipman, was drawing crowds at the Wave Waikiki nightclub; others were cultivating “art spaces" where sound and visual artists could meet and collaborate. "I remember the first night I shared my poetry," says Kealoha. "I was in an art space in Chinatown and people were hanging out and taking turns, stepping up in front of a projector screen of all these abstract shapes and they were just free-styling and telling stories. There was this moment where we all held hands and thanked each other for contributing. That’s when I dropped ‘Ohana," Kealoha says, referring to his ode to Hawaii’s mixed plate population, a piece he created in San Francisco during a bout of homesickness.
The volunteer panel of First Thursday
judges takes their job seriously
... for the most part.
But in pre-slam days, there weren’t many outlets for poetryand many people still carried the impression that it was "high art," something you wrote for the teacher, not for yourself. And heaven help you if you wanted to write poetry in pidgin, not standard English. A young Lee Tonouchi remembers his teacher telling him not to use the language closest to his heart, or as he puts it, "Da teacher says, ‘you use pidgin, den plenny pilikia [trouble].’" But Tonouchi is heartened that the slam phenomenon has now put poetry in its proper placeeverywhere, where it can be enjoyed by everyone. Many other veteran Hawaii writers echo this sentiment. "Poetry should be like singing. You don’t have to be a star to enjoy trying your hand at it," opines Robert Pennybacker, a Honolulu filmmaker who in the 1990s wrote, recited and recorded a CD of his poetry (in pre-slam days he would occasionally read publicly in local coffee shops, to an audience, he says, "of a few friends and coffee-drinkers who just happened to be there").
Ironically, says Brenda Kwon, there’s still a tendency in academia to look a little askance at bringing a style of expression into the classroom that is just so much fun. But the fact that curriculum specialists are not rushing to trade Beowulf for Dr. Dre hasn’t kept Kwon from mastering cascading rhyme patterns that go down like ear candy. Kwon, by the way, emerged as the grand prize winner of the First Thursdays slam I attended. She took home the nominal $100 purse and will likely be back to defend her title.
The work of many of the poets mentioned in this story can be found at Native Books Na Mea Hawaii in the Ward Warehouse