Talk Poetry with Kealoha

November 6, 2009

Kealoha - Photo by Ronen Zilberman

This month we invited slam poet Kealoha to answer a few questions about poetry and teaching. Kealoha has been a dynamic presence at our Award Ceremony and Student Reading, giving an energetic performance of his poem “Recess” and wowing us with his improvisational creations.

I know that you made a big career change in your life (from studying nuclear engineering to working in the corporate world to becoming a full-time slam poet). Many teachers want to help students develop their interests and find fulfillment in whatever they choose to pursue in life. Do you think poetry can help students tap into that part of themselves? How?

I think poetry has been instrumental in guiding me towards my path.  When we write poetry, we do everything we can to be honest with ourselves, unlocking truths that weren’t so apparent in our day to day lives.  When we express our desires, passions, and subtleties, we become more comfortable with them and can then work to make them real.  Some call it walking your talk.  I call it living your poetry.

In your experience doing workshops in schools, libraries, and prisons, I imagine that you use both spoken and written words by others. What are some poems that you find people strongly respond to? What helps to guide your decisions about the poems you present to young students in particular?

Truth is, I usually only use pieces that I’ve written because it aids in making a personal connection with young students and it demonstrates that poetry doesn’t have to be written by elite, obscure people that they don’t know.  I want them to understand that poetry can be written by anybody… especially them!!

When it comes to the pieces that I share, I find that there needs to be a strong human element for young students.  They want to hear something that they can identify with.  They are looking for something that resonates with their lives and lets them know that they are not so alone in their experience.  They also respond well to pieces that show a range of emotions — pieces that take them for a roller coaster ride.

Who were some of your great teachers in life and poetry? What in particular made them so influential?

The best teachers in my life challenged me to think.  They had great listening skills and were able to formulate stimulating questions.  They understood that teaching wasn’t about shoving their curriculum down our throats, but it was about empowering us to be proactive in our learning.  In all my education, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned.  The few things that stuck, however, were the essential skills of interacting intelligently – listening, asking questions, and speaking only when contributing.

Some people think poetry can’t be taught. What is your response to this idea?

I think it’s ridiculous to say that poetry can’t be taught.  It’s like saying that you can’t teach someone how to dance or sing.  There are basic tricks and tools that each of these artforms use.  Of course, once we teach these rules, it is our responsibility to let our students know that it is okay to break them.  Often times, this is where good art comes from.  This is when we create choreographers, composers, and of course, poets.

What I’ve read about your background and career change is fascinating. I wonder if you can say a few words about the intersection of creativity and analytical thought.

I love this topic, because I think the two are inseparable when it comes to producing good work.  The way I see it, each one influences the other.  Our creativity allows us to imagine the possibilities, while our analytical thought processes let us evaluate what we’ve dreamt up.  On the flip side, our analytical thought processes help us to understand the world, feeding into our ability to use our creativity to see it differently.  Since each one influences the other, they operate as a positive feedback loop.  At least, that’s the way I see it in my brain!!

* * *

Kealoha is the founder of HawaiiSlam, Youth Speaks Hawai`i (2-Time International Champions), and First Thursdays (the largest registered poetry slam in the world with 600+ in attendance). In the 7 years that he has represented Hawai`i at the National Poetry Slam, he has performed on the finals stage 4 times (finishing 8th individually out of 350 of the world’s best in 2007).  Kealoha was featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices series presented by Russel Simmons, and he has featured at major venues throughout the world including the Schiffbau (Zurich, Switzerland), the Bienal do Ibirapuera (Sao Paulo, Brazil), and the 2007 NFL Pro Bowl halftime show.  He is the poetic vocalist for Henry Kapono’s “Wild Hawaiian” project, whose album was nominated for a Grammy.  Kealoha graduated with honors from MIT with a degree in Nuclear Physics, served as a business consultant in San Francisco, and played around as a surf instructor prior to becoming a professional poet.  Visit for more information.

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