Ten years ago, a Hawaiian-born man left his tropical home for the blustery climes of the East Coast. There, he earned a degree from M.I.T. in nuclear engineering, followed by a research position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He shed his lab coat and slapped on a suit and tie as a business consultant in San Francisco, until a night out at a poetry slam changed the course of his life forever. He goes by one name — Kealoha — and he is Hawaii's state Poet Laureate, as appointed by the governor in 2012.
Today, Kealoha spends his time speaking and performing at various appearances, as requested by Governor Abercrombe, as well as orchestrating a monthly poetry slam held in downtown Honolulu on the first Thursday of every month. The slam, at Fresh Cafe, draws 400 to 500 enthusiastic people who range in age from 70 years old, to kids who have to come with their parents. For those new to the genre, Slam Poetry is a form of poetic expression that gives performers less than three minutes to share a unique work that is then judged by a panel (or random audience members, depending on the format). It's a spirited, loosely structured "show" that allows for creative poets and writers to share their works among friends.
"You might hear people from Waianae (a rural Oahu town) to Alaska, Singapore or New York at the Fresh Cafe slams," says Kealoha in an exclusive interview for THE MODERN HONOLULU. "It's a unique Hawaii experience — one that's not in the glossy brochures. We feature 20 poets, with 20 different voices. You'll hear very personal accounts, political rants, happy dialogue, angry sentiments and humor. The bulk of the attendees are in their twenties and thirties, but we get all walks of life."
This April 3rd will be the annual "Grand Slam" finals, where Kealoha and other judges will select the top 12 poets from the 2013-14 season, who will then be trained by Kealoha to prepare for the national Poetry Slam competition held in Oakland this August.
"We've been doing this since 2004. I've hosted poetry slams here on Oahu for 10 years. It started with a few friends in a room sharing our creativity, and has blossomed to an islands' wide attraction where people can really speak their mind, share their words."
What follows is a short Q&A with Kealoha, on the evolution of his poetry and the growth of slam poetry events in Hawaii.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Where do you see slam poetry at the moment in our culture? Is it a popular outlet or is past its prime?
Kealoha: There's a lot of energy and juice going on right now. It's awesome. The interest has blossomed from a bunch of poets and friends in a room listening to each other, to now collaborations with musicians and dancers and other forms of art that bring everything to the next level. The last 12 years have been explosive.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Where did this all take root?
Kealoha: When I came back here from San Francisco [in 2001], I was spending a lot of time at clubs like the Justice League — now called The Independent — and Storyville, plus Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. When I came back here and realized this poetry slam movement wasn't going to last in people's apartments, we set up shop at Hawaiian Hut, which is no longer around. [Some of these early events drew up to 1,000 attendees.] But it was during the transformation of Chinatown that we set up over there. And now Kakaako is doing the same thing.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Do you follow the roots of slam poetry, seeing how it has evolved?
Kealoha: Definitely. It seems like all this creative stuff usually emanates from New York City. Slam poetry really was a big thing there in the late 1980s and 1990s. It moved out to smaller cities and towns, really got to San Francisco in the mid-1990s, which I caught. It came with me to Hawaii when I moved here in 2001.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Your training as a nuclear engineer and scientist, does that still come into play with your creative works?
Kealoha: I really enjoy reading and keeping up with the sciences. When I am out surfing or hiking, I can never escape the science training I went through.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: It sounds like The Matrix. Once you see it — or eaten the red or blue pill...
Kealoha: Exactly. I look at waves and think about the science behind it. I look at the trees and I think about the ecology surrounding it. And I love to talk to people who know way more than I do about any subject. I suck as much from their brains as I can. But at this point, I know my place is not a laboratory. This is my way of giving back to the community. It has taken me 30 years to combine the two; poetry and storytelling that brings what science is telling us is where I am at.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: Any big plans on the horizon?
Kealoha: I am working hard on a live performance, with other creative types that will present like a play. It's got elements of Hawaii in it because that's who I am. Yet the evolution of my art shows I have stopped compartmentalizing and I'm putting it all out there. I'll share some of the works from it at the next slam in Kakaako on April 3, 8:30 p.m. at Fresh Cafe on Queen Street. We're looking for a venue to host it, which won't be until later in the year. But we're starting to engage with musicians and artists to bring it to life, how it might look and sound on a stage.
THE MODERN HONOLULU: What's the best way for guests of THE MODERN HONOLULU and people to find out about creative events like this?
Kealoha: Definitely through my website, KealohaPoetry.com. There's an Events page there that will direct you to all the slam poetry events happening in Hawaii.