The world of slam: Where slam poetry is and where it's going

Kealoha, a renowned slam poet, also has a degree in nuclear physics and engineering from MIT.

Video Link interview with Kealoha, slam poet

Slam poets have come to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa before.

They've performed at Campus Center during reggae concerts and at the Ba-Le courtyard during open mic nights. They work with grungy musicians, undergrounds, hole-in-the-walls, nightclubs, stadium directors, and just about anywhere with a microphone to deliver their voice in the dramatic style of the 21st-century viral, young community.

They are transformers and heralds, prophets with a cause.

Recently I sat down with Kealoha, the Slam Master of Hawai‘i, to discuss slam poetry in this generation, where it is and where it's going.

An MIT graduate with a degree in nuclear physics and engineering, Kealoha worked as a business consultant in the Bay Area until his interests in poetry and home brought him back to Hawai‘i.


Michael Brewer: The students at the University of Hawai‘i would like to know how to get involved with slam poetry.

Kealoha: For students at the UH, the best resource is probably going to check out a slam poetry show. There's numbers of shows on the island. The one I host is called Hawai‘i Slam's First Thursdays. It happens once a month on the first Thursday of the month and it's the largest poetry slam in the world, so you can definitely get involved there, you know, there's a lot of energy and a lot of positive vibes.

M.B.: This is not your first profession. You graduated with … ?

K: I graduated from MIT in nuclear physics and engineering. I minored in writing, though, so that was kind of like my side thing.

M.B.: Were you ever the poet in high school?

K: Yeah, you know, I was actually into poetry in high school, and even in elementary school. I ... was into hip-hop and writing little raps. When I got into high school, Lois-Ann Yamanaka came to my school and just totally freaked my brain out and got me stoked on local poetry. But then when I went off to college, ... I just stopped writing altogether because I was so focused on math and science.

M.B.: Do you ever put that kind of stuff in your poetry?

K: Oh, definitely. I mean, I feel like, in every piece I write, there's influences of my science background showing. In engineering, we're taught to break down problems, to analyze them, to take a large problem and break it down into smaller components and build each problem up into the larger whole, and I tend to do that a lot in my poetry. So, it's kind of a natural, logical progression of thought that my pieces follow.

M.B.: If you had to make a how-to list on how to build a slam poetry fest, what would you put on the list?

K: Number one, you've gotta get the word out to the poets and make sure that you've got a good show that's gonna come into play. Number two, you gotta bring the audience, so that means flyering everything, postering, Internet, sending press releases, doing all the different things you need to do to get the word out to the general public. And then, three, you've gotta deal with all the logistics: sound, the stage, the theater, all that. Like wherever you're throwing the thing, you've gotta, like, handle that, you know? And, four, you just gotta be ready for anything that comes up that needs attention. It's a pretty intense process.

M.B.: How do slam poetry festivals and music festivals coalesce? What are the sorts of things you need to do to combine them?

K: Oh, I feel like they're kind of a natural fit for each other because slam poetry is so musical in essence, you know? We tend to write with a lot of rhythm in our pieces, so that lends itself to collaborating with musicians really easily. Musicians, on the other hand, are really into writing lyrics, and they're really into writing words, so when you put the two together, there's a pretty cool marriage.

M.B.: Do you see slam poetry more of an art of performance than the actual words in the poem?

K: Um, I see it as a 50-50 balance. First and foremost, the words absolutely matter. Your message – the message you're trying to convey – is everything. But at the same time, you have to be able to perform it. If you can't perform it well, no one's going to hear your words ... . The two are equally important and both need to be focused on as much as possible.

M.B.: Do you see slam poetry as something that will continue?

K:  You never know what's going to happen ... . Slam poetry is an art form in itself, and we draw heavily from the beat poets. We draw heavily from all the oral traditions of the world throughout space and time. This goes back as far as Homer and "The Iliad" and ancient Polynesians chanting and the Grios, people sitting around fires and just talking and telling stories. This tradition has been going on forever, and really, this slam poetry is just another iteration of the same concept, which is to communicate stories, histories, lessons, commentary, all that.

M.B.: Do you think the format of slam poetry will change?

K: I would expect it to. I would expect things to continually evolve ... . You look at visual art, right? Visual art has been changing through the centuries. And theater and dance – I just don't see poetry as something that will remain stagnant, in the same style. It will change with time, and who knows what will happen?

M.B.: Have you thought about that change, like, will things be presented in a computer?

K: I do hypothesize about how things are going to change. You start to see trends, and those trends die out, and then you see new things come into play. So, right now, the trend is a little bit more hip-hop-influenced, and I see it moving towards definitely incorporating more music.

M.B.: What's different about Hawaiian slam poetry?

K: We have such a unique voice out here; we're the most isolated island chain in the world, so we've definitely our own style of cadence as well as the issues we tackle and the things that we talk about. I mean, it's totally specific to these islands. At the same time, you do see parallels with other cultures. Say, for example, when you've got sovereignty issues over here, you've got the Native American tribes and what they're going through up there, and we oftentimes see a lot of bridges being formed through our poetry.



Kealoha will be the master of ceremonies for the Nā HōkÅ Hanohano Music Awards, part of theNā HōkÅ  O Hawai‘i Music Festival on May 27 to 30. He will also be performing throughout the festival.

For more information visit Kealoha's official Web site at or