First Thursdays in Honolulu is the largest registered poetry slam in the world, with attendance regularly topping 650 people. Along with providing a venue for Hawai’i’s top performance poets, they also feature live painters, DJs, dancers and singers. It’s not your typical solemn poetry reading but one fueled by the audience’s roar of approval or disapproval with finger snaps. The poets’ ages are as varied as their backgrounds; topics cover anything from politics to playgrounds. The winner gets $100.
Hawai’i Slam: Poetry in Paradise is a 60-minute film documenting four of the state’s top performance poets competing in the 2004 Slam Nationals in St. Louis, Missouri. Award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Xian traveled with Hawai’i Slam’s leading artists, allowing the audience a first-hand look into the world of slam poetry competitions. The poets featured in the film are Selah Geissler, Travis T., Melvin Won, Pat Borja and Kealoha Wong, the founding father of Hawai’i Slam and First Thursdays.
Wong recently visited Maui’s public libraries to support the state’s Summer Reading program. Sitting in front of a group of people at the Kahului Public Library, children as well as adults, he wore a bandana over a long ponytail of dark thick hair and smiled with such aloha I couldn’t help but smile back.
He began by inviting us to yell in the library. When we stopped he dove into one of his pieces called “Recess.” His lyrical capabilities were impressive as well as inspiring. His style combined hip-hop, local boy and mad scientist, delivering metaphors and similes that gave me chills. By the end of his piece I could understand why his slams were the largest in the world.
He recited a few more pieces, then led us all in a word game. Later we free-wrote using rhyming association starting with the phrase, “If I ruled the world.” The little girl next to me wrote, “If I ruled the world my cat would get fat after I fed it cookies.”
Wong told us he’d lived in San Francisco and gone to their slams in the city. He decided to bring slam poetry back home to Hawai’i. He also spoke of his Youth Speaks, his free after-school writing and performance workshop for teens. He told us about his CD and how he had been collaborating with artists like Barry Flanagan and Hawaiian Ryan.
After everyone else had left, Wong told me that Poetry in Paradise is an important film because it showed the first time the Hawai’i team made it to the Nationals. “I really just wanted the team to know how good they were and how good Hawai’i is,” he said. He was excited that the team had placed 25th out of 80. He said they’ve gotten better since, placing 7th out of 75 in the last National Slam.
He ended by telling me that he hoped that Slam Poetry would “make change or shift paradigms.” If a poet can touch one person’s life, he said, “than that is really all I can ask for.”
Hawaii’ Slam screens at 2 p.m. on July 17 at the McCoy Theater. For more information about Hawai’i Slam or Kealoha Wong check out HawaiiSlam.com and KealohaPoetry.com. MTW