Four Hawaiian Women Poets

Oral tradition and the creative power of women are two enduring aspects of Hawaiian culture. Both will converge this Friday, September 11, at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, when four female poets will share the stage and their mele oli (literally, chants unaccompanied by an instrument).

“This is the first time on Maui that multiple generations of Hawaiian women poets will be brought together,” says Hokulani Holt, Cultural Programs Director at the MACC.

The youngest of the group, 19-year-old award-winning slam poet Jamaica Osorio, recently read at the White House for President Obama (watch her chicken skin-inducing performance on YouTube). Joining Osorio will be Puanani Burgess, Mahealani Perez-Wendt and Tamara Wong-Morrison, each a luminary in her own right.

We asked these four women to share a bit about their relationship with poetry and Hawaii, and to offer a favorite poem.

Puanani Burgess

What does poetry mean to you?
Poetry is the ability to see inside and outside at the same time—undivided and whole.

What does Hawaii mean to you?
Hawaii means home to me: ancestral, physical, intellectual, political and artistic.

Selected poem:
“Choosing My Name”

When I was born my mother gave me three names:
Christanbelle, Yoshie, and Puanani

Christanbelle was my “English” name,
My social security card name,
My school name,
The name I gave when teachers asked me for my “real” name
A safe name

Yoshie was my home name
My everyday name,
The name that reminded my father’s family
That I was japanese, even though
My nose, hips, and feet were wide,
The name that made me acceptable to them
Who called my Hawaiian mother kuroi (black),
A saving name

Puanani is my chosen name
My piko name connecting me back to the `aina
And the kai and the po`e kahiko
My blessing, my burden,
My amulet, my spear.

Mahealani Perez-Wendt

What does poetry mean to you?
I think of poems as dream catchers. The momentary impulse that inspires a poem can quickly dissipate. A good poem captures the revelatory nuance of a moment before that moment is gone.

What does Hawaii mean to you?
Hawaii is my homeland. I was born and raised here, and can trace my genealogy back many generations. My love of Hawaii is as someone whose people have lived, loved and died here over countless generations.

Selected poem:
“Hawaiian Mother”

You should know
The sea turtle’s spawn:
The girl who rode
Their winged forms,
Their hard-horned shells
Astride the plash and foam
Of Kuhio Bay.
She was consecrated
In that place:
Knew the winnowing fish,
Shells, limu, the tides,
And all her days
Called oean home.
When moon signaled
She trekked with
Her father,
A holy man,
The path of fiery embers.
At the cauldron
They prayed long,
Gave thanks,
Left offerings.
I won’t pretend
She was pure native
And unspoiled —
She knew the English standard
And in her younger days
Jazz, the Dorsey bothers,
Other gentlemen.
Later she developed an edge
From hard times,
But I believe
She had what she needed
To endure:

Dreams of blue water,
Prismatic rain;
The green turtles’ song,
Their prayers for healing;
The stars’ divinations,
Prophetic moon;
The great sacred mountain,
Natal river of fire;
Earth’s verdure,
Its Eden;
Spirit guardians of Night,
The One Light.

Tamara Wong-Morrison

What does poetry mean to you?
Poetry has the power to change our world. My Hawaiian ancestors say, “I ka olelo ola, i ka olelo make,” the word is life, the word is death—it can positively create or absolutely destroy. Ultimately, poetry is a healing art, even if the poetry is more of a rant and tinged with rage; it is catharsis and cleansing. I’ve been writing poetry since the 1970s when I was an environmental activist on Kauai (Ohana ‘o Maha‘ulepu). My early poems started as warnings, “Beware, a strange wave has washed upon the rocks…” and have become more incisive, sharp and sarcastic over the years, “I like sign up for the nation that going give whatever get to the Hawaiians with the most Hawaiian blood first…” My poems should educate by showing others another point-of-view.

What does Hawaii mean to you?
Hawaii is one of the sacred spots on this planet. Sacred places sustain us by simply being untouched by humans. Some of our mountains are still sacred, but most of our shorelines are wasted. I trekked in the Himalayas and saw Everest from a distance, then thought about all the mountain-climbing trash left there: the empty oxygen tanks, the dead bodies, the plastic water bottles! Humans do not need to go to sacred places; we should enjoy them from a distance. Hawaii is already over-populated, we cannot sustain anymore humans; the Aloha is endangered.

Selected poem:

Sand dunes reach up
Trying to touch Ha‘upu mountain.
Far away society seems
For the quiet of crashing waves wash away all memory.

Here or there
A beer bottle to remind you,
But still beautiful.

Wind, rain, sea
And plantation have carved you
Naked, helpless
Desirable to developer.

Washed on your pebbled shore
A doomed vessel turned on its side,
Nails rust in salt air,
An example of things to come.

Your cliffs overhang the reef
Where blue uhu look ono swimming about.
The pine trees cling to your sides
And tangle their hair of branches with sand.

Your caves, known to few;
The Kipu kai ranch over the range,
And an old Filipino man with his bamboo pole,
Watch out compadre,

The changing times as the tides
Can drown you in its undertow.

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio

What does poetry mean to you?
Poetry saved my life. It’s the reason I’m at Stanford, it’s how I’ve learned to completely accept myself and it’s given me more opportunities than I would have ever imagined in my wildest dreams.

What does Hawaii mean to you?
Being from Hawaii has had a huge impact on the person I have become. I am very proud of my roots and I try my best to keep them clean and strong while I am away, but it’s hard being away from my rock, my soil. Sometimes I feel like I cannot grow properly in a concrete jungle like California. And I know plenty people think Oahu is a concrete jungle, but it’s even more the mindset of being on the Mainland [that’s] hard for me. I can’t imagine what kind of person I would be today if I was raised in California rather than Hawaii.

Selected poem:
“My last painful prayer”

I woke up this morning wondering
If by some masochistic twist
I slit my wrist
Would it taste like grandma’s kiss
Would my veins spur of a broken bloodline
Born from a tempered woman’s volcanic spit
Would I
A decedent of kamehameha and cook
Find a way for papa and wakea to defray my pigment deficient skin
Or would my wounds long for adam and eves olive leave bandages

Because I woke up this morning feeling torn
Broken and foreign
Worn by my woven shoes and tangled roots
I woke and realized my view of truth was skewed

On the 18th of may
I celebrate the day I was born 10 skin shades softer then my history
I wanted SOO BADLY to be Hawaiian
And so I allowed myself to be miserable
Forcing my tongue to fit
Able to born native language spit
To Fill the cracks in my accent
Trying to mold my voice to sound the way my ancestors did

I spent my youth tracing roots downright and backwards
by 18 I realized
I had forgotten what forwards looked like
So today I’m relearning how to see
Because the salt water I spent years sifting through trying to find the key to my history somehow blinded me

grandmas tears were supposed to heal me
But they don’t pass as easily as you’d think
And her kisses felt a lot less like presences and more like

I’ve never felt so broken after an embrace
that I wanted to actually retrace myself
back to a pre touched state

My grandmother once told me
To pay homage and respect to your past is honorable
But at some point your neck will ache from you fear to look straight
If you ever want to live
You have to forgive

My grandmother tried to show me a path honorable enough to take
She prayed her way back to life
And I tried to bring myself into a church without feeling like I was linching my history
or burning my ancestors
but Every time I step into a church I feel like
Im hanging and swaying

what do you do when its painful to pray

When enlightenment and dishonor smolder the same
Like my grandmothers pride burning at the stake
The day the missionaries came
And somehow I found her praying to my demons the next day

i’m confused
But I’ve always admired my grandmother’s ability to live
Even shackled, broken and restricted
She still finds a way to lift her hands in prayer to forgive
And I tried to follow her path
But I know I rather be Hawaiian than Christian
Rather write poems than scriptures
Memorize songs instead of prayes
I rather have my histories approval than the bibles

but whenever i become sure of this i remember
my grandmother
Who found some sort of inner balance
that i dont understand but can’t help but admire
And even though I might have been taught her prayer to their god is betrayal
I’ve grown to learn
Love is more rewarding than pride
And so No matter how detached my grandmothers values are from my history and attached to her church
Her love and approval