Issue 7.2: April/May 2004

Speaking Their Art

story by Liza Simon
photos by Brad Goda

Kealoha keeps the aloha flowing.

When I first heard that a poetry slam was creating nothing less than a small riot at a Honolulu locale, I couldn’t help but wonder why an edgy new art form, honed by the urban culture of hip-hop, would spark such a furor in the land of hang loose and easy shakas. I mean, it’s not that we’re shy about exploring foreign arenas of creative self-expression: Look at how we made Jamaican reggae into our own hula hip-grinding Jawaiian music, or how we turned Japan’s karaoke into the main event at our Island parties. But poetry slams turn a public mic toward normally private words and whoever has the moxie to share them. Furthermore, poetry slam audiences spare no onomatopoeia in reacting to those words with assorted hoots, moans and finger snaps—which might be fine in ten-million-and-counting-Manhattan, but here in our small Island community there’s the substantially increased likelihood that the nighttime slamee or slammer is by day your mail carrier! Your neighbor! Eee-gad—your dentist! And really, no matter how trendy this war of words gets, who wants to be its foot-in-the-mouth soldier in the dentist’s chair?

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.
Dozens of poets perform before the night is through, in a good-natured free-for-all that has a noise level pitched somewhere between a wedding reception and a middle school pep rally. A tall, bearded man who identifies himself as Cee unleashes a dreamy polemic about new millennium fatherhood, replete with wise quotes from his grandfather. Travis from Los Angeles delivers, with the impeccable jackhammer rhythm of the rap artist, a piece that goes in part: "Pulling me to the land/hoping you understand/always a humble abode for this toad/and his quest for an emotional way station." A Studio One bartender, Rebel Girl, leaves the pouring to someone else for a moment and lets go a scorching flow on domestic violence. On the lighter side, the self-proclaimed Princess of Palolo reads verse that disses slams where you have to wait too long to get on stage. Near the end of the first round, a local English professor named Brenda Kwon captures the moment with a very personal poem that begins: "Sometimes it’s the little things that do you in/the small cuts you give yourself each day." All the while, I am becoming buddies with strangers around me as we compare our responses to those of the judges, who hold up Olympic-style scorecards. As it dawns on me that Cee is a bicyclist I often see on the road in Manoa, I swear to my new critic companions that he and Brenda will battle it out in the final heat. Someone else argues for Rebel Girl, still another for Travis. Each of us is feeling fiercely supportive of our favorite poets.

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.

Jennifer Hernandez
reads her poem, Puddles.

And it is very definitely an Island scene. While it may have been triggered by the mass media—including MTV’s smash hit airing of Def Jam poetry slams—Hawaii’s maelstrom has a distinctive local flavor, spawning, as it has, a profusion of poetry CDs, magazines and coffee shop gigs. In fact, the local slam scene is in some ways a spirited reaction against the mass media, a kind of do-it-yourself, seize-the-word phenomenon. And some performers are so convinced that Hawaii has something unique to offer that they intend to take their voices beyond Island shores: A foursome of young poets is preparing to enter a sort of slam Superbowl slated to happen in August in St. Louis. Kealoha, who last year entered the national contest and finished in the top quarter of competitors, has also brought poetry slams to Hawai‘i libraries, under a project he created in response to the youthquake of interest in the genre.

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.
If it is true that Hawaii has sweetened Def Jam by adding its own guava jam, some say the credit should go to our indigenous culture. A gift for poetic gab is basic to Native Hawaiian traditions of chant and hula, observes Hamasaki, who first detected a local affinity for poetry when he went into classrooms through the Artists-in-the-Schools program. "Inevitably, I’d find these kids who were just great at word play," he remembers. "They had ingenious ways of combining what they heard on the radio with the language of their culture and they produced work that was honest and alive."

But in pre-slam days, there weren’t many outlets for poetry—and 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 place—everywhere, 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.

Kealoha, too, won’t be stopping First Thursdays anytime soon. He admits poetry is not what MIT prepared him for, though he insists there is an indirect connection. "I am trained to be an engineer," he says. "I like structure and structure is the essence of good storytelling." To underscore his point, he unleashes a few lines of his ‘Ohana poem. As his voice hits all the right rapper beats, the family-friendliness of the poem evokes its Island roots, as does the fact that his parents have yet to miss a First Thursdays event. "They like to advise me on how I conduct myself onstage," he says, with shrug and a near wink. One evening, he says, they expressed concern over the noisy input from the audience and suggested he ask for silence during performances. He gently declined. "I guess it’s hard for some to get used to," he explains, "but at a slam, the noise is the essence."

The work of many of the poets mentioned in this story can be found at Native Books Na Mea Hawaii in the Ward Warehouse