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Slamming into 2017, Poetry Wise

Kealoha Wong
Kealoha Wong

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Hawaiian Brian's turns out to be a conducive venue for First Thursdays. There's a live artist drawing onstage to the left and a DJ bridges segments at the back. Front and center, are the poets themselves, a true study in human psychology as they approach the mic and begin to weave their three minutes of storytelling.

Hawai‘i Slam, a monthly spoken word poetry competition, has been happening since 2003.  It’s considered the largest poetry slam in the world, attracting 500 plus people at its peak  This year, Hawai‘i's team placed second in the National Poetry Slam competition.  You'll find enthusiastic crowds regularly at the First Thursday slams at Hawaiian Brian’s, and Noe Tanigawa reports you may be surprised by what you hear.

First Thursday poetry slams continue at Hawaiian Brian’s on Kapi‘olani, with a hundred dollar purse for the evening’s winner.  This Thursday, elimination rounds continue toward the National Poetry Slam in August, 2017.

After noting remarkable growth in material and delivery at a recent First Thursday, I met up with the poet,  Kealoha, who runs the slams, in Kaimuk? .  He’s had quite a ride for an MIT physics guy turned poet. 

Are you still Poet Laureate of Hawai‘i?  did that have a term limit or anything?

“There was no term limit prescribed when it happened, so until the next poet laureate is named, I’ll just continue to function in this regard.”

Kealoha’s latest project, “The Story of Everything,” has kept him pretty busy the last four years.  Pulling from his science background, Kealoha conjures the Big Bang, follows planetary then terrestrial evolution to humans, then traces human development from Africa on out.

“Then I wanted to communicate the future from the perspective of a scientist, what do we need to do now, within our society to move forward.  All this time, 13.7 billion years of time told in an hour and a half stage play with dancing and singing and all that stuff.”

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Performers at First Thursdays vie for a $100 purse, and the top two finishers go on to the semi-finals in April, when Hawaii's representatives at the National Slam Competition are chosen.

Kealoha says humans today need to straddle digital and physical worlds.

“Me, I’m old school, I prefer an interaction, eye contact, real life stuff, which is why we do the Poetry Slam where people can come, interact with each other on a face to face basis and communicate really complex, intense ideas in a safe environment.”

“Spoken word, slam poetry, to me, the definition of, is poetry from the page to the stage.”

That’s  Travis T, slam poet, educator, co-founder of YouthSpeaks, an ongoing program for young slam poets at Marks Garage. 

“If you’re not writing for the stage, maybe it’s not a slammable poem in that way.  The goal of most spoken word or at least slam poetry is to be compelling and to relate to your audience, so if you’re not doing that then you might as well just write it on a page and leave it at that, right?”

At First Thursdays, Kealoha says he usually knows a half dozen poets well, maybe another six are familiar, and another handful will be a complete surprise.

“I came and I saw it was just a bunch of other kids and a bunch of other random weirdos coming over here…”

Bear here, just jumped in and found himself swimming.

“We write about our lives, we write about our families, we write about crazy experiences with friends. We write about serious things.  Surprisingly enough a lot of people don’t give kids or teenagers credit for being serious and that’s all we are.”

Never expected to hear that.

“That’s why we’re here.  We communicate, we connect, we look each other in the eyes and we talk story.”

At the last National Poetry Slam, Hawai'i's team placed second in the nation!  Elimination rounds for this year's contestants are ongoing until the semi-finals in April, when the team is chosen.  Through the summer, No Rules Slams take place on First Thursdays.  Contestants are welcome to perform in any medium; expect surprises.

If you have a young poet in your family, connect them with Pacific Tongues, a youth poetry workshops series that runs out of Marks Garage.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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