Beyond Words: Kealoha at the Chan Centre

Kealoha, photo by Ronen Zilberman.

Kealoha, photo by Ronen Zilberman.

Slam poetry has this ability to grow on you like an invasive species. The matrix from which this art form emerges is somewhere between storytelling, poetry, performance, and music. I say this not from the vantage point of familiarity— admittedly this is one of my first experiences with slam, so when I say it appears to be the job of the poet to break through the reserved outer shell of their audience, it might simply be my predisposition. However, slam poets are not simply poets—nor are they simply performers—and the Beyond Words series pursues this with tangible earnestness; it’s up to you to let it work on you.

Headlined by Kealoha, the first official poet laureate of Hawaii, Beyond Words is a series presented by the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts which “explores the power of storytelling in performance both as an agent of change and as a means of igniting conversation.” In a kind of spitfire succession, the night opens with local poets Valeen Jules, Ivan Leonce, Anjalica Solomon, mitcholos touchie, and Santiago Urena, each bringing a unique power and procedure to their practice.

mitcholos touchie, a Nuucanut poet, charges his words with a deep kind of ruminating energy that burns and swells as he traces his family history in a turbulently colonized Canada. Santiago Urena explores belonging through lavish vignettes of the Vancouver seascape, both the backbone of, and analogous to, the relationships in it. Ivan Leonce vaults into the reigning themes with palpable energy— mulling on place and home as equal parts resistance and acceptance. Hurt and heart. Valeen Jules storms the stage in a kind of fervor that burrows its way into you, cutting the strings of her typecast. Finally, Anjalica Salomon saturates the room with a loop pedal-induced musical collage, tightening the chaos into an impenetrable tempo.

At intermission, the audience turns to one another— invested in dates, coffee refills and class curriculums. Coincidently, the night is sponsored by Ethical Bean Coffee, the lights are extremely dim and in place of chatter there is debate. I think slam poetry instills this feeling in you: A blend of relaxation and stimulation. I’m not ashamed to like it.

Now Kealoha isn’t simply the poet laureate of Hawaii, he is also a MIT graduate of Nuclear Physics, a former business consultant from San Francisco, a surf instructor and dancer— Kealoha embodies the interdisciplinary strides of slam poetry. It doesn’t take much convincing to fall into his work. Kealoha throws his body into his words, cavorting across the stage as he makes a barefaced performance about the spontaneity of life. The grandness of the universe poised against the odds of human existence. It’s an ostensibly playful act that champions childlike wonder as its power source.

Almost at odds with the aforementioned performers, Kealoha’s set straddles humour and fervor. It became my task to discern whether the work was a motivational seminar or children's storytelling act. His answer to the controversy of home, of history, and inhabiting it: Do not worry, it does not serve us. A fair, but relatively simple conclusion. His poems take up a lot of performative space, and do not necessarily burden themselves with complexities or abstracts— the audience is also more receptive to dulling the edge. Kealoha’s set starts and ends with a lot of laughter, a few participatory chants and agreeable hoots from around me. As I leave the theatre, the couple beside me comments on his “wonderful liveliness,” an enthusiasm fuelled not by content alone but stamina. The night’s true carrot and stick.

You can find Kealoha and his work at