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Hawaiʻi’s first poet laureate Kealoha Wong receives national grant to lead youth project

Kealoha Wong
Ronen Zilberman
Kealoha Wong

A few years ago when Kealoha Wong was planting fruit trees in his garden, he said he began reflecting on the legacy that he wanted to leave future generations with. That inspired him to write a poem called “Garden,” which uses that metaphor of planting seeds to explore growing our youth.

And thanks to a recent $50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets, Kealoha, as he’s known by, plans to teach more youth about the power of poetry.

“In my experience working with students and seeing them have breakthroughs, where they really find their voice … that's the biggest gift…,” he said. “To watch that process happen, when they're like, ‘oh, yeah, I found my voice or I feel confident and I now feel confident to speak,’ I know when I see that, that that's going to carry on for the rest of their lives.”

Kealoha said he plans to host workshops with students at Ka Waihona o Ka Naʻauao in Nānākuli. He’ll teach them how to write and recite poems about their own experiences, while incorporating place-based learning activities.

He also plans to film the workshops and create a video that he hopes teachers and others can use.

Kealoha, who was appointed as Hawaiʻi’s first Poet Laureate in 2012 by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said much of his passion for teaching youth stems from his own experiences as a teenager. He’s since worked with students for the past 20 years.

“The reason why I even do poetry really is about passing on the knowledge to the next generation. I was touched when I was a high school student by another local poet who came to my school, Lois-Ann Yamanaka,” he said. “And she read from her book, 'Saturday Night at the Pāhala Theatre.' And she blew my mind wide open in terms of what words and poetry and ideas and stories could do. And that changed my life as an individual, as a young thinker.”

Kealoha said he’ll start the workshops at the end of this month. He hopes to upload the videos, along with writing samples and lesson plans, by early next year. And he’ll invite other poets in the islands and abroad to add their own resources.

Jayna Omaye was a culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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