In late March 2011, I read an announcement that began like this:
National slam legend — Kealoha from Oahu — will be on the UHMC campus this Thursday, March 31st at 4pm in Pilina (Student Lounge) to present a free slam poetry performance!
It was followed immediately by an e-mail from Dr Bob, the head of music department at Maui College:
Yes!! Kealoha is one of the great poets of our time and is endowed with the ability to reach even the most unenlightened, sleeping person. Zombies may eat your brains, killer clowns may suck your soul but YOU can go to this slam. Fail to attend and you will simply remain stuck in the wonderful world you have stuffed yourself into. Are you okay with you? With that? Find anyone wanting to be you lately? Oh. Well, go. And find yourself sailing, flying, soaring. Unstuck. You. Unstuffed. Free. Go!
Curiosity got the better of me. Who is this nuclear physicist from MIT who scored a perfect 800 in his SAT and worked as a consultant in San Francisco, quit and then returned to his native Hawaii to do performance poetry? His website is filled with photos, videos, and newspaper mentions. Why would he give up a career that would bring financial security for one which is paved with uncertainty?
Unable to attend the 31st March event, I mentally registered to look out for another opportunity. I had to see him perform his works live. I had to meet him in person. Something told me this was very important.
This morning 18th April 2011, I showed up at a reading event at 8:30 am in anticipation of seeing him perform. I watched him waiting for the event to start. His long straight hair flowed as he moved. His bright red T-shirt singled him out. I resisted the urge to go up and introduce myself. The clock was ticking. There was no sign of the event starting on time.
By sheer coincidence I struck up a conversation with an English writing lecturer who also had to leave by 9 am. She invited me to her class at 10:30 am for he was going to be there. I thanked my lucky stars.
If I were to bring something back from Hawaii to share with my friends and contacts in the Netherlands, I would definitely include Kealoha. He embodies the Hawaiian spirit of a person deeply connected to his roots and to nature. He moves with ease. He is at peace and at ease with himself. He is dynamic, lithe, supple, slender, and most of all, he is authentic. He makes eye contact. He looks at you without blinking. It’s as if there is no barrier between you, the audience, and him, the performer.
In the bungalow of the writing class, with the air conditioning switched off and the windows open, I and two dozen others experienced what I would later describe as the equivalent of a house concert. It was intimate, personal, and engaging. Kealoha began with a poem called “Recess.” He caught our attention and imagination for 6 whole minutes. We regressed to our 7-year old selves when we looked forward to playtime without a worry in the world.
Can music do this? Take us somewhere else, if only for a moment? I see many parallels between music and poetry: the way it’s delivered, the way the performer engages the audiences, the way the audience receives the performance.
Kealoha says that slam poetry is opposite of poetry reading, which has become one of writing poems to read for each other. This statement echoes of something I’ve heard before — that contemporary music has become so intellectual that only composers can appreciate it. If slam poetry is an attempt to bring the product back to the audience, what is the equivalent movement in classical music? I play new works of living composers — how can I deliver them to my audiences to increase the frequency of performance? How can I improve the way I perform my own compositions?
Audience engagement is the key. Kealoha does not merely perform but actively interacts with the audience in ways that are not immediately obvious. When he senses confusion, he slows down. When he senses distraction, he turns to focus his attention. He converts blank stares into looks of admiration. You feel his passion, his energy, and his dedication.
As a performer, I confess that I am not always aware of how I influence my audiences. I see tears in their eyes. I see smiles of appreciation. I go away thinking that they will sleep better at night. Today, as a member of the audience, I can genuinely say this:
I was touched, moved, and inspired. I felt what it was like to be a 7 year old again. I felt what it was like to be a Hawaiian in the 21st century. I got the messages he sent through his slam poetry performances. Most of all, I saw that he represented all that we want to be:
to find our passion and pursue it with conviction and without doubt or compromise.