ARTS Hawaii’s poet lau­re­ate left physics lab for stage

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - By

TAlexan­der Varty

he lan­guage of the­o­ret­i­cal physics is dense and dif­fi­cult; that of per­for­mance po­etry plain­spo­ken and ac­ces­si­ble. So Steven Kealo­ha­pau’ole Hong-ming Wong’s abrupt de­ci­sion to exit the lab and en­ter the stage makes a great deal of sense, given that he is one of those rare in­di­vid­u­als who seem born to puz­zle out and com­mu­ni­cate the truths of this world. But there’s an­other rea­son why Hawaii’s poet lau­re­ate, who per­forms as Kealoha, wanted a change: he needed to see the sun.

“For me, I found out pretty quickly that spend­ing my days in a lab­o­ra­tory, a base­ment lab­o­ra­tory with flu­o­res­cent light­ing—go­ing into work in dark­ness and hav­ing it be dark when work was done—just wasn’t me,” he ex­plains, on the line from his Honolulu home. “I also saw things go­ing on, po­lit­i­cally, that were dis­heart­en­ing. I was par­tic­u­larly in­volved with fu­sion en­ergy; that was my whole jam. And, you know, back in those days the amount of fund­ing go­ing to­wards fu­sion re­search and the amount of in­ter­est go­ing to­wards al­ter­na­tive en­er­gies, po­lit­i­cally, just wasn’t hap­pen­ing—even though we were scream­ing about global cli­mate change in the ’90s. So I felt like I could play a big­ger role by be­com­ing a com­mu­ni­ca­tor of not only

life sci­ence, but of things.”

It wasn’t, Kealoha adds, as rad­i­cal a shift as it might seem. “What I found was that po­etry spoke to me, and it ex­er­cised parts of my brain that had at­ro­phied a bit dur­ing my col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence,” he notes. “There’s an­other part of it, too, which is that in or­der to un­der­stand physics and re­ally dig deep into it, you do have to have some amount of the right side of your brain, the cre­ative side of your brain, go­ing. It’s not like you can see par­ti­cles; you have to imag­ine them. You have to re­ally get your imag­i­na­tion go­ing.”

Kealoha es­tab­lished his po­etic rep­u­ta­tion on the slam scene, where ex­cel­lence is es­tab­lished by crowd con­sen­sus. As poet lau­re­ate, how­ever, he’s stepped back from com­pe­ti­tion; his job, like the court or­a­tors of the Hawai­ian past, in­volves writ­ing po­etic texts for state oc­ca­sions, as well as pro­mot­ing po­etry in schools and else­where. And he’s also stepped away from slam’s wham-bam de­liv­ery in a big way. Rather than fo­cus on five-minute sprints, he’s cur­rently work­ing on a full-length mul­ti­me­dia show—which he’ll draw on when he head­lines a Chan Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts sur­vey of per­for­mance po­etry next week—that es­sen­tially of­fers a uni­fied-field the­ory of life.

The Story of Ev­ery­thing,” “It’s called he ex­plains, adding that it will cover ap­prox­i­mately 13.7 bil­lion years of as­tro­nom­i­cal time, from the cre­ation of the so­lar sys­tem to the rise of the hu­man race. “What I’ve rec­og­nized is that there’s a lot of great myths in this world that tell amaz­ing sto­ries.…but they’re based on knowl­edge from hun­dreds or thou­sands of years ago. What I re­al­ized was ‘Man, where’s the myths of to­day that draw from the sci­ence that we know now? Where’s the myths that draw from our new knowl­edge?’ So I started to write where we come from, via the sci­en­tific lens but us­ing the skills that I’ve been work­ing on in my pro­fes­sion, which is po­etry and sto­ry­telling.”

In his text, he adds, the per­son­i­fied forces of mat­ter and an­ti­mat­ter bat­tle for supremacy but ul­ti­mately find a way to co­ex­ist in peace—and the im­pli­ca­tions for to­day’s war­ring hu­man tribes are ob­vi­ous.

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