By Alvin Park
David Kim said his interest in slam poetry was piqued when he saw a group of older teenage boys recite at a public square in Philadelphia.
Then 14 years old, Kim was astonished by the performance and wondered why the art form was drawn parallel to “poetry” – a term he associated with rudimentary rhyming and monotone expression.
“When I was younger, I had never heard the term ‘slam poetry,’ ” said Kim, a 20-year-old Travel Industry Management major at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It was all so new and unheard of for me, but I was drawn to it for some reason.”
After moving to Hawaii during his sophomore year, Kim sat in on events that his high school slam poetry club hosted, and realized that true forms of the art were more earnest and sincere than other forms of expression he saw in the past. Yet, it was still very unfamiliar to Kim who was more used to seeing teenagers seeking catharsis through conventional painting and writing.
“One thing I’ve noticed is their passion,” Kim said, recalling the group of boys he saw back in Philadelphia. “I think that really got me interested in what they were saying. If anyone is that passionate about something, people will listen.”
Kim’s sentiments about the art of slam poetry seem to be spreading and becoming more recognizable – especially among the college demographic. A number of national youth-oriented slam poetry groups have sprung up in recent years such as Youth Speaks and Urban Word NYC. And while officials from higher institutions often ignore slam poetry as not having any academic merit, it’s slowly finding its way into courses and programs of study. For example, students at Berklee College of Music, in Boston can even choose to pursue a minor in the art form.
Even from a local perspective in Hawaii, slam poetry has grown “exponentially,” according to Kealoha Wong, an internationally acclaimed slam poet and founder of HawaiiSlam, First Thursdays and the Hawaii-chapter of Youth Speaks.
Wong was born as Steven Kealohapau’ole Hong Ming Wong, but goes by the stage name Kealoha, which translates to “the love.” Born and raised in Honolulu, Wong was a self-proclaimed “closet nerd” who possessed a strong aptitude for mathematics – ranking 9th in the nation in the National Math League and even scoring a perfect 800 on the arithmetic section of his SATs.
Wong’s endowment allowed him to eventually attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the nation’s prestigious institution for science and engineering, while also known for having notoriously low admission rates. While there, Wong pursued his passion for environmental energy technology by choosing Nuclear Engineering as his major.
After working at a management-consulting job in San Francisco shortly after graduation, Wong soon realized that the corporate world wasn’t for him. Though he had learned a lot about business during his short tenure in the industry, the hours were long and unsatisfying, which left him feeling that his life was being wasted on helping “rich companies get richer.”
Wong read an ad in San Francisco’s weekly newspaper The Guardian promoting a slam poetry event near his apartment. He had never heard of the emerging art form before, but decided to check it out since poetry was one of his interests in high school. After Wong’s first experience in slam poetry, his eyes were opened and an unquenchable interest was sparked.
“When I was in San Francisco, I was like ‘Yeah, this is not for me,’ ” Wong said. “Going to a [poetry] slam really inspired me to take that bold leap.”
Inspired, Wong began to write incessantly for days, even resulting in neglected consulting work. Still yearning to learn the art form more, he attended every poetry slam that he could in the Bay Area. Then in 2001, Wong finally left the comfort of his well-paying career path and returned back to Hawaii to reconnect with family, friends and nature.
“I came home not knowing what I was going to do. I had no clue,” Wong said. “But I started to write about it and started to perform a lot.”
Wong spent the next couple of years sharing his work at open mics and showcases around the state. He also found himself as a front man for Communication, a hip-hop and funk-based band, started doing poetry workshops in numerous schools, and played the lead role in “Chase,” a hip-hop theatre production.
At this point, Wong was now making a living as a full-time poet, something that he had never dreamed of doing after graduating from college.
“I was doing poetry full time before I even started HawaiiSlam,” Wong said. “I was just going into schools, performing for concerts and festivals — almost like being a musician, but instead of playing an instrument, my instrument was my mouth and the sound that came out was poetry.”
Eventually, Wong decided he wanted to start up a group that would foster a new generation of slam poets and keep the art form thriving in the islands. So in spring of 2003, he founded HawaiiSlam and launched First Thursdays at its first venue.
“At some point I was like ‘you know what?’ we need to have a home base and I [was] happy to dedicate the time to make that happen,” Wong said.
HawaiiSlam, a non-profit organization dedicated to showcasing poets around the state, runs the nationally certified First Thursdays slam poetry competition every month at Fresh Café. First Thursdays soon became the largest registered poetry slam in the world with over 600 people in attendance — even surpassing the flourishing art communities in Germany and San Francisco.
First Thursdays showcases some of Hawaii’s best performers, including slam poets, touring poets, live musicians and live painters. The event was created to provided a platform for all artists who wish to set foot on its stage and share their words. It also strives to expose its audience to art forms that they may not be familiar with – thus creating awareness and fostering an appreciation for it.
“The event is not just restricted to slam poetry,” Kim said, who had attended a couple First Thursdays events. “You will find a lot of mediums of expression that are all really cool to experience.”
Since First Thursdays is primarily a poetry slam – a competition where slam poets fight for supremacy – the poets with the best spoken words qualify for the HawaiiSlam team, which goes on to compete in mainland festivals and competitions such as the National Poetry Slam.
HawaiiSlam follows a traditional selection schedule that is reflective of other national poetry slams. From September until March, the top two poets from each First Thursdays slam qualify for the Grand Slam Finals, which is held in every April (and happens to be HawaiiSlam’s anniversary.) The Grand Slam Finals then takes the top 12 poets and throws them into a high-energy elimination round to determine the HawaiiSlam team.
However, to encourage artistic creativity without the pressure of competition, HawaiiSlam also hosts “No Rules” slams from May through August and in December. During these events, the slam doesn’t count towards HawaiiSlam team qualification, and instead, strives to push the boundaries of performance poetry by lifting up restrictions that regular poetry slams adhere to. This allows for a wealth of different talent showcases such as musical pieces, cover poems, dancers and visual artists.
“I tend to de-stress the competition as much as possible,” Wong said. “In the end, regardless of who wins, the winner is poetry. People walk away having heard poems, and that’s hot – it’s awesome.”
After performing at the UH’s Ka Leo Arts Festival last fall, Wong sought to find some way to create a platform for student expression. Wong’s performance at the festival garnered a strong response from the student body, and many requests were made to have more artistic open mic sessions on campus. After some planning and approval of funding, the inaugural HamSlam event was started this semester in Hamilton Library.
“I thought it would be good to get a slam poetry session started on campus as a free evening event,” said Teri Skillman, events and communication coordinator of Hamilton Library. “Kealoha was interested and supportive so we went for it.”
The first session, which happened in February, attracted more than 80 people with 19 poets performing. The next two sessions this semester will be held on March 15 and April 19, but organizers are planning ahead and requesting a funding approval to keep the series going on through the fall semester as well.
Though majority of the performances at the first HamSlam were original slam poetry, there were also musical performances and short story readings. But Wong says the event is open to all forms of artistic expression, especially at a venue such as the library.
“A library is sort of a natural place to let thoughts roam,” he said. “We’re surrounded by books, media, and technology, and so bringing [the event] here is sort of like bringing the words and ideas home.”
And although Wong has his hands full in terms of organizing future slam poetry events, he is blessed with the opportunity to share an art form he is passionate about.
“[Slam poetry] is the perfect combination of ideas and performance, theatre and intellectuals, and literature and poetry,” he said. “It’s been an amazing journey bringing slam poetry out and letting it fly. “