Hawaii’s poet laureate opens Idyllwild Arts Native American Festival

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Hawaii’s Poet Laureate Kealoha performing “The Story of Everything.” Photo courtesy Kealoha

Hawaii’s Poet Laureate Kealoha performing “The Story of Everything.”
Photo courtesy Kealoha

The Idyllwild Arts Native American Festival Week starts at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 3, in the IAF Theatre on the Idyllwild Arts campus and runs through Saturday, July 9. The featured program for Sunday evening is Hawaii’s first poet laureate and champion Slam Poet Kealoha performing “The Story of Everything.” This multimedia stage show opened to raves in Honolulu last September and is a six-part creation story in epic-poem format that traces our origins from the Big Bang, stars, evolution of life and migration to Africa. The final part looks scientifically into the future of global climate change. That’s right, 13.7 billion years told in 90 minutes using science, poetry, storytelling, visual art, music, chant and dancing.

Others in the cast are dancers Jamie Nakama and Jonathan Sypert, ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner and chants (Oli) by Kaui Kanaka’ole. When asked Kealoha’s goal for the audience he replied, “Not to be scared of science and go deeper into how we truly got here.”

According to Heather Companiott, director of the IA Adult Center and the Native American Arts Program, “Having Kealoha perform fits nicely with this year’s Native American Festival theme, ‘ART-ificial Borders.’ Artists, scholars and tribal community members will look at actual, perceived, metaphorical, geographical and intellectual borders, and share their perspectives through art or social activism, locally, regionally and globally.”

Kealoha, whose name means Love in Hawaiian, draws from his diverse background for all his work. “My performances incorporate all I have learned in life — hula, break dancing — everything all poured into a piece. Visual art is so important because everyone learns differently so I use many approaches.”

As a young boy of mixed ethnicity — Chinese, Hawaiian and Caucasian — he looks back on his childhood fondly. “My parents gave me a well-rounded approach to life.” He enjoyed sports and school, never letting on he was that smart (he called himself a closet nerd) until he achieved a perfect score of 800 on his SAT math test and was accepted to MIT, the top engineering school in the country.

His life changed radically in Massachusetts where he studied applied Nuclear Physics and graduated in 1999 in Nuclear Engineering. “Going to MIT was like drinking from a fire hose. There was so much academics and science, and late-night discussions with super-bright friends who were interested in investigating the same things I was.” While studying Fusion Energy he became aware of the political funding issues surrounding global climate change. “In 1998, scientists talked about global climate change. This was known for at least 10 years previously. Now, almost 20 years later it’s being addressed.”

After graduation, Kealoha worked as a consultant to many large companies in San Francisco. “My time was wasted on rich companies getting richer. I realized our time on Earth is limited and we spend many of our waking hours working. I wanted to help build a community or society which does not exploit people. I wanted to stand up for something so I derailed off the track.”

While still in the Bay Area, he read about and attended Slam Poetry sessions.  “My life changed 180 degrees.” Slam Poetry’s mission is to promote performance and creation of poetry while cultivating literary activities and spoken-word events, including audience participation, stimulate creativity, awaken minds, inspire and engage. “We meet, discuss ideas, then build performances that are highly crafted.”

He went home to Oahu to reflect on his goal, making a difference in the lives of people and their connections to the universe. Along with surfing and eating mangoes, he began to write down his ideas and act them out. He started a Hawaiian Slam Poet movement that grew to 600 people. “It was natural for Hawaii to embrace Slam Poetry because its history is based on oral traditions and storytelling.” He entered National Poetry Slams in Chicago where he consistently ranks in the top 10 from around the country. Kealoha’s poetic, storytelling style combines analysis with creative writing to investigate social, personal and philosophical themes for the 21st century.

The governor of Hawaii asked Kealoha to be the first poet laureate of Hawaii in 2012 after he performed at the govenor’s inauguration. His duties are to write poems for governmental occasions and to visit other states. He has performed throughout the world, including the White House, and is part of the movement of indigenous people getting recognized or coming into their own.

Kealoha summed up the interview by saying, “The job of artists is to translate thoughts and put them in a way that expresses ideas in speech or artwork that allows individuals to perceive these ideas based on their own experiences.”

Each day during the festival week, free events are open to the public. At 7 p.m. Monday, July 4, Curator Heidi Mckinnon will give a gallery talk followed at 8 p.m. by an opening reception for the guest artists in the Parks Exhibition Center.

The Kabotie Lecture Series will be the next three days from noon to 1 p.m. in the Krone Library: Tuesday, July 5, Heidi McKinnon will speak about her photo project on “Migration of Guatemala;” Wednesday, July 6, Steven Yazzie, Navajo, will present  “Talking to Walls and Talking to People: Evolution of an Art Practice;” and Thursday, July 7, Michael Angst and another Cook Inlet Tribal member will demonstrate “Never Alone: A Computer Gaming Partnership in Alaska.” At 8 a.m. Saturday, July 9, Mark Taboo will do a Hopi-Tewa Pottery Firing.

At 7 p.m. Friday, July 8, on the Cargill Commons on the IA campus, the Mt. Cahuilla Bird Singers and other indigenous dancers will perform and invite the audience to participate in the dancing. The Native American Arts Festival is an enjoyable, educational, cultural, free event dedicated to eliminating barriers amongst all people.

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