ARTS Hawaii’s poet laureate left physics lab for stage
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.