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Wednesday, April 2, 2003



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COURTESY MICHAEL K.S.C. WONG
Kealoha is kicking off the open-mic poetry slam he calls First Thursdays.




time to rhyme


By Shawn "Speedy" Lopes
slopes@starbulletin.com

A career in nuclear physics can wait, says Steve Wong, known in local poetry slam circles as Kealoha, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student-turned-poet and two-time winner of the local Wordstew Poetry Slam.

Now a good year and a half removed from a long six-year stint on the mainland, the 25-year-old wordsmith feels it's time to kick off First Thursdays, an open-mic event that begins tomorrow at the downtown art space Studio 1.

It was while working an un-fulfilling term as a business consultant in San Francisco several years ago ("I was spending eight to 12 hours a day helping rich companies get richer") that Kealoha was introduced to slam, a lively poetry reading format which often involves a scoring system and audience interaction.




First Thursdays

Poetry slam: 7p.m. Thursdays

Place: Studio 1, 1 N. King St.

Admission: $3 before 8 p.m., $5 afterward

Info: 387-9664 or HawaiiSlam@poetic.com



Before an intimidating crowd of several hundred, Kealoha gave his first live performance with a self-penned piece denouncing traditional forms of knowledge. It was a nerve-wracking experience, he divulges. "It taught me how to engage an audience. Every move, every word, every glance -- they're critical. Once the audience loses interest, it can get super lonely up there on stage. It was an extreme emotional rush to be up there, exposing my soul to all these people."

His scores were encouraging, and, more important, the conversations he had with audience members after the show told him he was on the right path. From that moment, Kealoha was hooked.

His experiences performing at Oahu venues like Zanzabar, Wave Waikiki, Kumu Kahua Theatre and the Treehaus, he says, helped him develop a successful formula for gaining an audience's favor.

"One, you have to have good writing. Two, no one knows how to interpret the poem better than the person who wrote it -- it's the poet who understands the rhythms, the inflections, the crescendos, the climax, the message of the piece. If you can portray those things to an audience through your movements and your voice, you bring words on a page to life."

For First Thursdays, Kealoha has invited several artists, deejays and musicians to create on-the-spot works inspired by the spoken-word performances. The $100 first-place prize, he says, is coming out of his own pocket. "I think it's so important for poets to get paid," he states. "I remember when I first won, it really validated my craft. At the same time, I don't want people to lose perspective. There's a saying in the slam community: 'The points are not the point; the point is poetry.'"

In the long run, Kealoha envisions sending a contingent from Hawaii to national slam poetry competitions. "We have so much talent here, it's ridiculous. You go around town and you see the emcees, you see the poets and all that energy, and I think if we cultivated people's styles and developed them, we could send a really strong team off to the mainland to compete and tour."

Homegrown poets, he believes, should be commended for their pursuit of weighty cultural topics, which often make for more intriguing material than relationship-based subjects, which seem to be the current vogue in national contests.

"The key difference with local poets and local performers is that we focus on deeper issues," he ventures. "What I noticed on the mainland is that about 80 percent of the pieces that people perform revolve around sex and love. I'd say the content here is just the opposite. Love and sex takes up about 20 percent, while the other 80 percent is about sovereignty, philosophy, personal issues and experiences, and race. I think if we brought that kind of content to the mainland, it'd be really well accepted."



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