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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2004

Slam poets battle for spots on team to national contest

 •  Picking the four finalists

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Steve "Kealoha" Wong founded the First Thursdays poetry slam, which draws crowds of more than 500 to Studio 1 each month. He'll compete against 11 of his peers — all top scorers in the past six First Thursdays — for one of four slots on a Hawai'i slam team St. Louis-bound for the National Poetry Slam in August. There's a chance he won't make the cut, but "I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "If I'm not touching people in the audience, then I don't deserve to be going up to represent Hawai'i."

First Thursdays Grand Slam Finals

8 p.m. Thursday

Studio 1

$10 — $15

Ticket-sale locations and tickets at www.hawaiislam.com, or call 387-9664

Also featuring: Guest poet Angelo Moore (from Fishbone), guest emcee Tanisha and DJed sounds from Kavet the Catalyst. Live art, massages and a post-show open-mike session

Proceeds will help send the Hawaii Slam Team to the National Poetry Slam in St. Louis

Steve "Kealoha" Wong's monthly poetry slam First Thursdays reaches a significant milestone next week.

Twelve spoken-word artists who have taken top honors in the past half-year of the wildly popular event will vie for four places on a first-ever Hawai'i team competing in August's 2004 National Poetry Slam in St. Louis, Mo.

The 12 poets in the Grand Slam should be instantly recognizable by the 500-plus patrons who regularly crowd Studio 1 for slam on the first Thursday of every month. They are: Adele, Josh Echemendia, Lumenz, Travis T., Melvin Borja, Whitney, Selah Geissler, JME, Rebelgirl, HawaiianRyan, Intrepid and Kealoha himself.

It's a group Kealoha proudly describes as representing a diverse mix of ethnicities, genders, social classes, career paths, sexual orientations and personalities.

"It's the gamut of Hawai'i," said Kealoha. "It's the reason I wanted to do First Thursdays. I knew Hawai'i was so strong in our diversity that if you offered a forum such that anybody could participate, that diversity would come through. It did. And I'm stoked."

Our chats with three of the Grand Slam's spoken-word masters follow.

Selah Geissler

"Deep down inside," said Selah Geissler, 26, when asked where the inspiration for her poetry comes from. "I have a piece that says, 'I'm from Crazy. That's where I'm from,' because I feel like I am from Crazy."

Geissler has won four First Thursdays slams over the last year; a feat made more impressive by the fact that she had never performed slam before her first appearance last April. Her inspiration? Watching Kealoha win a slam in 2002.

"That was the first time I'd ever seen anything like that," said Geissler. "(Kealoha) dropped a couple of pieces that I'll never forget. ... I thought, 'Wow, this is kind of how I write!' I was writing my whole life, and that's how my stuff sounded when I said it to myself."

Geissler's spoken word comes straight out of notebook journals she has kept since her pre-teen years. She never goes anywhere without several on hand to jot down her thoughts.

"My life is random notebooks lying around," she said, laughing. "I've been known to pull over on the shoulder of the highway to jot down a thought, because I've tried writing it down while driving and that doesn't work very well."

But back to things inspirational.

"Most of it just comes from stuff that happens to me or the people around me," said Geissler. "On a huge scale, I'm really affected by social consciousness and general life.

"I see a homeless person charging down the street and that's inspirational to me. It makes me want to write. It makes me want to do something about it. And my way of doing something about it — about anything — is to write it down and share it with people. And hopefully, that will at least start a dialogue or affect the way that we think about things in a positive way."

Geissler — who admitted to still getting nervous just before and after performances — credited feedback from her slam team peers for her success on stage.

"Once I get up there, I love it," Geissler said. "There's a natural giving and receiving of energy. People feeling you. People validating you for being up there. People understanding, nodding their heads and saying, 'Yeah, I feel like that, too, sometimes.'

"That's why I write."


HawaiianRyan is the first to admit that his approach to slam isn't always appreciated.

"When I walk on stage ... it's like (parting) the Red Sea," said Ryan. "There's people who love what I did because it's raw and it's fresh. And then there's other people who won't even look at me, won't talk to me, think I'm weird, think I'm on crack.

"I get a very vehement reaction. But you know what? I'm starting to learn that that's where I want to be."

By day a morning-drive deejay on KXME 104.3 FM, Ryan most enjoys messing with slam's few accepted performance norms and exploring the limits of the form.

"With the exception of maybe one or two (slams), my strategy is pretty much going up there and discovering what my poem is in the moment on stage," said Ryan, laughing. "My only preparation process is to not prepare. ... I just like to speak. Whatever comes to my head, comes. I want to be able to try and trust the ugly, the beautiful, the messy, the structured ... everything that is me. I just want to let the carbon-based poem that is me kind of unravel."

Audiences at Ryan's last First Thursdays appearance found him, at various points, yelling from behind a curtain and dropping to his knees to make use of microphones not exactly set up for the poets. It secured him a place in the Grand Slam.

"I like resisting all temptation to perform for the audience ... almost as if I'm the (only) audience member," said Ryan. "I know that sounds almost narcissistic, but to me, that's how I see myself growing — by exploring and creating things that are not dictated, confined or influenced, as much as possible, by whether or not I'm going to be liked or approved."

Ryan credited slam as "one of the greatest catalysts of my creativity," inspiring him to read more, write more, and work on a documentary DVD about his grandmother.

"I'm totally energized, inspired and pretty much just doing what I want to do — with less and less fear. That, to me, is the point of everything."

Ryan expected to dive into the Grand Slam with as much unpredictability as always, but with a little bit of substance. He was even considering writing something down beforehand.

"Maybe I'll write something on stage with my laptop. Maybe I'll sing a love song. Who knows?" said Ryan. "That's the fun of it. That's my poetry. That's my take on it."

Steve 'Kealoha' Wong

The first inspiration for Kealoha's writing was local fiction author Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

"She came through my high school ... when she was coming out with 'Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre,' which is about as raw as you can get as far as the local experience," said Kealoha, who began writing poetry soon after. "It resonated with me. She was speaking my language."

Kealoha largely put his writing aside while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but began gravitating to it again while living in San Francisco after college. The motivations this time were Bay Area teen poetry slams and a slam called Second Sundays, launched by National Poetry Slam championship team member Marc Bambuthi Joseph.

Encouraged by his own initial spoken word adventures at San Francisco slams, Kealoha sought out local competitions upon moving back to Hawai'i in 2001. After winning two Wordstew slam competitions, Kealoha launched First Thursdays, hoping there was an audience and enough poets to sustain a monthly slam venue.

Expecting a crowd of 150 for the first edition of First Thursdays, Kealoha was floored when 350 showed up. The next month, 400 packed Studio 1. Poetry Slam Inc. officially listed First Thursdays as a certified venue, allowing Kealoha to put together a Hawai'i NPS slam team.

These days, performance poetry is Kealoha's full-time job. In addition to organizing First Thursdays, he hosts poetry presentations and workshops at schools and libraries, and performs his works solo, with his peers and with his band Communication at local night events. Fulfilling still more long-time goals, Kealoha recently released a self-financed CD of his poetry featuring guest appearances by Geissler, Ryan and other musician and artist friends.

The Grand Slam will find Kealoha competing with his peers in an event he helped create, for a national slam team he may not win a place on.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," said Kealoha. "I need to know if I'm slipping as a poet. If I'm not touching people in the audience, then I don't deserve to be going up to represent Hawai'i, you know?"

Win or lose, however, he'll go with the team to the national slam as a coach.

"I'm predicting we'll do well at nationals. I've been predicting this ever since we started First Thursdays."

Reach Derek Paiva at dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8005.

• • •

Picking the four finalists

Three rounds of eliminations will reduce the field of poets from 12 to nine, then to six. Poets must be ready to perform three original pieces, none longer than three minutes, 10 seconds.

As usual (and following national slam judging criteria), five randomly selected audience members will dole out scores after each performance. Top and bottom scores from each poet's performance will be eliminated to prevent favorable or unfavorable bias. The remaining three scores count toward a cumulative score from all rounds that determines the final four-member team.

After three months of intense team and individual practice, Hawaii Slam Team 2004 flies off to St. Louis in August to compete with 64 other teams from around the world in the annual "Super Bowl of Slam."