Kealoha: National Poetry Slam Legend

April is National Poetry Month 


We celebrate and promote the art of poetry and storytelling.  We recognize the place and possibilities that poets and poetry have in civic life, including helping communities address issues of importance. 

Kealoha is the first Poet Laureate of Hawaiʻi. As an internationally acclaimed poet and storyteller, he has performed throughout the world -- from the White House to the ʻIolani Palace, from Brazil to Switzerland. He is the first poet in Hawaiʻi's history to perform at a governor's inauguration, was selected as a master artist for a National Endowment for the Arts program, was named an American Academy of Poets Laureate Fellow, and delivered the keynote address for MIT’s special commencement ceremony in 2022. Kealoha’s latest work, The Story of Everything, is a science-based theater production that has toured in various cities throughout the United States and premiered as a feature film at the 2022 Maui Film Festival and the 2022 Hawaiʻi International Film Festival.

Here is a link to the list of Academy of American Poets Luareate Fellowships from state and year, including Kealoha!

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Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emmy DiGrappa.


Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience.


Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation.


This is What's Your Why?


Today we are talking to Kealoha. He was named the first poet laureate of Hawaii in 2012. As an internationally acclaimed poet and storyteller, he has performed throughout the world.


Welcome, Kealoha.

Kealoha (00:50):

Hi. How's it going, Emmy? Thanks for having me.

Emy DiGrappa (00:52):

Oh, absolutely. I am loving to hear the story of your journey to become a poet. How did that happen?

Kealoha (00:59):

Well, growing up I was a little bit into poetry. That was something I dabbled in, but I got heavily into math and science. That was my jam. So I went as full force as I could into those fields. And so I ended up getting a degree as a nuclear engineer, which is really just applied nuclear physics with a minor in writing. So that writing thing was still there, but it wasn't my main focus.


The thing is though, is that after I had graduated from college, I decided to take a mini leap away from science for a moment, and I got into business consulting. I was doing that in San Francisco. And while I was there in San Francisco, I was working, I was doing that typical nine... Well, it wasn't even nine to five, it was nine to seven, nine to eight.


It was crazy. It was go to work, come home, eat dinner, pass out, wake up, go to work the next day. And it was rinse and repeat, and I was find myself wasting away. And one day I had enough of it. I was like, "I want to go and experience San Francisco. I'm living in this amazing city and I haven't seen any of it."


So I picked up one of the papers. It was either The Guardian or the SF Weekly, one of those weekly papers where they have the events of the week. One of the events that caught my eye was... It was a slam poetry event and was happening maybe three blocks away from where I lived. And so it was a no-brainer, right? I was like, "Okay, I used to be into poetry. Let me go check this out."


So I went there, paid my admission, sat down, and while I'm sitting there, I get presented with some of the best slam poets in San Francisco, and they just get up there and they lay it all out. And I'm sitting there and, oh, my brain starts tingling and my spine starts getting warm. And I'm like, "Oh my goodness. Where has this art form been my entire life?" Because it combined so much of what I loved you. It combined the writing with philosophy, with drama, with thinking, and I was hooked. I was completely hooked.


And so I went home and I started writing. The next day at my business job, I'm sitting there in the cubicle and I'm typing up poems. I look like I'm working, but I'm actually just typing out poems. And I just couldn't stop. And that night, I went back home and wrote more poems. The next morning write more poem. I just couldn't stop.


And then I kept going to all these poetry events happening around the Bay Area, and there came a point in time where I was living two lives basically. My daytime life was this business job, but my nighttime life was this poetry. And I decided I need to go and do the poetry. I want to go and do the poetry thing, so let's do it. Let's leave this career and let's see where the arts can take me.


So I took that leap of faith, and I've never looked back since. It was the best decision I ever made.

Emy DiGrappa (03:56):

That's an amazing story. And very inspiring for one thing.


And I think getting bitten by that creative bug that just kept driving you on.

Kealoha (04:05):


Emy DiGrappa (04:06):

When you walked away and you were... Had enough confidence to get up and perform your first poem.

Kealoha (04:12):

The first poem?

Emy DiGrappa (04:13):


Kealoha (04:14):

That was in San Francisco. So, I'd been watching all these poets doing their thing, and I was like, "I just want to try." So I ended up signing up at what at the time was the largest poetry slam in the nation. It was 300 people strong, and it was a really vibrant scene. It was amazing. I signed up, I was like, "I just want to read a poem."


I got up there and I did this piece and the MC, the host at the time, as I was walking off stage, he gave me a five. He was like, "Respect." He's like, "Thanks for coming through." And he really showed that appreciation, and it was a great encouragement to just keep going, keep writing, keep performing. So I did.


That first time was just wanting to participate in something that I had loved so much. And the barriers to entry for Poetry Slam are so minimal. You can... On any night, it's an open mic, basically. You can just sign up and get up on there. So, I decided, "You know what? I'm not getting any younger. We got nothing to lose. Nothing's going to happen up there on stage that is going to bring me bodily harm, so let's take a chance. Let's take a shot. Let's see what this does."

Emy DiGrappa (05:26):

And I think it's really inspiring that you started out as an engineer and that was your schooling. And then now you're a poet.


I would love to hear your thoughts about the intersection of arts and science.

Kealoha (05:39):

Well, the intersection between arts and science is... There's so much there. And I actually struggled with that intersection when I first started as an artist. I would try to bring elements of science into what I was doing, but it was all contrived. But then I started to develop a style that... My writing started to reflect critical analysis and problem solving and the deconstruction of problems.


So I would write about things, but I would break them down to the composite parts, and I would solve each part and then wrap it up to get to the higher level of understanding, which is what science does. Science is continually breaking things down, solving them, and building them back up. So, I started to use those analyses, those scientific type, logical analyses in my poetry. And that was the first step of combining art and science.


But then, what was it, maybe about 2011. In 2011, I found out that my partner and I were going to have a child. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is..." I started freaking out. I was like, "What's this going to be like that?" And I wasn't ready for parenthood. All these things, all these things that fly out into your head. So I asked my partner to... At the time, I asked her to take off for a little bit so I could stay home and just write and make sense of all of this stuff. As I was writing, I started to think about what it was going to be like to be a father. And the one thing that kept coming into my brain was that one day this child is going to ask me or ask us where we come from.


And for me, I don't have a thing that I subscribe to, a religion of sorts that I subscribe to. That's where we come from. For me, it's about science. So I started to write scientifically how we got here as humans, but I started with the Big Bang because that's the beginning of it all.


So as I was writing about the Big Bang, these sub subatomic particles, they started to have faces. This is matter and anti-matter. They had faces and they had intentions. They hated each other. There was this big war, this battle that ended up resolving itself in this peace festival, which was Woodstock. And I was like, "Oh, this is strange. This is happening. Really? Okay, well, let's see what happens next in the stars."


So I started to write about what was happening in the stars and the angle I took with that, I was like, "Oh, each star is a disco tech in the seventies, and we're going in. It's ladies night and we're dancing, and each dance that we do is a different configuration of protons and neutrons or females and males, and we're doing all these different dances, having all these different numbers of configurations, and each configuration is a different element on the periodic table. And so we're building out hydrogen and helium and carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, all those things that are up there on the periodic table. And then I was like, "Okay, well... Oh, cool."


The story continued on and on and on. The solar system I started to write about, and that became a triangle love story between the sun, the earth, and the moon. And we play with those tensions of love and relationships. And then the earth gets pregnant, and we don't know who the baby daddy is, but we think it's the moon. The moon thinks it's his. And so they go... The earth and the moon, they go through this pregnancy together, and all those ridiculous things that happen during pregnancy start to come out, like the crankiness and the... Or feeling like, "Oh, I feel so fat," and things like that. All those things start happening.


And then eventually at the ninth month, the earth, she's ready to give birth, and she gives birth to a single cell organism. She gives birth to a bacteria, basically a sea slime. And then that sea slime replicates over and over again, and eventually there's a mutation. And the mutation is an archaea. And each time there's another mutation, we get a larger life form. And each time there's a new life form, we bring in different styles of music or different sounds of music, but those pieces of music loop.


Eventually, by the time we get to human, we go through fish and amphibians and reptiles and mammals, and then finally human. By the time we get there, it is this wall of sound, this cacophony of sound. And then we hear the human voice singing. And then we want to become human. The next scene of this writing.. This is all happening, that one writing session.


The next thing that happens is we migrate from Africa throughout the rest of the world, and each time we move to a different location in the world, a different region, we start to hear the indigenous music from those places. And then we see the dance forms, the indigenous dance forms from those places. Now it's like I'm composing this stage, play during this writing session. And so I see we're exploring all these different cultural indigenous art forms from around the world.


And then finally, once we do our journey around the world, then I started to talk about the future. And for us, for me, for scientists, the future... The biggest problem that we have to solve right now is global climate change. So that became the focus of that final scene, is I go deep and heavy into global climate change and what the possibilities are from the very, very dark, from the very, very... The worst case scenario, all the way to the best case scenario. And I build all these different nine different scenarios of what could happen in regards to global climate change for our future.


After I wrote that, during this one writing session, I was like, "Oh, this is what I've been trying to do for my entire life. This is what... This work, this piece that I've just written out. This is what I stand for. This is what... This is my life's work."" Because I had spent the first half of my life studying science, and then the second half of my life studying poetry and storytelling. And to be able to synthesize all of it into one piece was the most meaningful thing that I had done and have done, I think, up to this point in time in my life. And so-

Emy DiGrappa (11:40):

It sounds like it was in your heart the whole time percolating.

Kealoha (11:45):

Yes. Yeah-

Emy DiGrappa (11:45):

And you were able to sit down and just pour it out.

Kealoha (11:48):

Yes. And each step led to the next. I couldn't have written something like that when I was 18 or 19. I couldn't have written something like that when I was 25. I had to go through the training processes of each field of study, whether it was the science or the art. Both of them had to receive their proper attention, and then I could finally bring them together under one unified idea.

Emy DiGrappa (12:13):

And I've heard other writers say that you cogitate on things a long time, and you think about them and think about them, and then one day you can just sit down and write it out. And it all becomes flowing out. And now that I hear you talk, it might be really dangerous for a scientist and artist to get together.

Kealoha (12:33):

You can have an explosion of sorts. The universe would cave in on itself if we did.


I actually love those moments where different disciplines can get together and hang out and talk story, and really just learn from each other and be open to the expertise that the other person brings. And so it's actually really fun.

Emy DiGrappa (12:55):

Yeah, absolutely.

Kealoha (12:57):

And explosive.

Emy DiGrappa (12:58):

And explosive. Yeah.


So how close to you... I don't know if that's the right question, but how close are you to your cultural roots? And does that play a part in your poetry?

Kealoha (13:08):

Yeah. I am deeply close to my cultural roots. It is something that I grew up with. I grew up as a hula dancer and have learned the language. I'm not fluent. I'm not anywhere near where I should be, but able to understand enough so it hits me on a deeper level. And so those types of things, and listening to the elders of our community and... We're taught to just listen from a very young age, and not really talk. You're basically a sponge. So you're just listening, listening, listening to all this wisdom and knowledge and stories. And then eventually when you get older, you start to realize, "Oh, that's what those stories were about. They were trying to teach me these lessons." And then you start to tell your own stories. And you start to tell those stories as well as your own stories. So the closeness is there, and I use that cultural knowledge and base in what I do all the time.


Just going back to that play that I was talking about, that story... It is called the Story of Everything. There's two scenes in particular that draw heavily from Hawaiian culture. One, the first one is the evolution scene where we go from single cell organism to human. There's this ancient chant that we have. This thing was composed in the 1700's, so the century before Darwin came out with the origin of species. But what it does is... It's called the Kumulipo, and it's our origin chant. It's where we come from, from a Hawaiian perspective. And what it starts off with is, at first it was darkness, and then there was sea slime, and then was born coral polyps, worms and starfish. And then was born plants, and then was born the fish, the sharks, and the rays. And then was born... And it goes higher, higher life forms up to reptiles and then mammals, and then finally human. It's basically evolution theory wrapped up in one... I think it's 2000 lines long chant that was passed on from generation to generation through oral traditions, composed in the 17 hundreds.


So when I was figuring out this piece, the Kumulipo was coming out through my writing. My writing was heavily influenced by the Kumulipo as well as evolution theory. What we now know is just evolution. The Hawaiian side was totally influencing what I was writing as well as the science side. And I was able to synthesize that right there.


The earth, the sun, and the moon story, the love story was also heavily-

Emy DiGrappa (15:46):

Oh, I love that.

Kealoha (15:47):

Influenced by the culture. That one is told in Pidgin language, which is what we speak on the streets in Hawaii. It's a different sounding type of English. It was what they spoke on the plantations when they had all different kinds of cultures on the plantations from English speaking to Hawaiian speaking to Japanese, to Chinese, to Filipino, Tagalog, and the folks, they had to figure out a way to communicate with each other. So, I bring in the pigeon language into that scene, and that scene is a very old school Hawaii telling of a story.

Emy DiGrappa (16:26):

Yeah. And I love the way you brought in history and culture and contemporary, and you brought it all... Melded it all together to a great, beautiful, poetic peace. I really appreciate that.


Thank you for being here.

Kealoha (16:39):

Cool. Thank you for being here...


Thank you for having me.

Emy DiGrappa (16:40):


Kealoha (16:43):

Thank you for being here.

Emy DiGrappa (16:46):

Thank you.


Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why brought to you by Wyoming Humanities. With support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you.


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