Hawaii's new poet laureate finds solace in verse

Jan. 22—Hawaii's new poet laureate, Brandy Nalani McDougall, sees poetry as a way to heal.

Hawaii's new poet laureate, Brandy Nalani McDougall, sees poetry as a way to heal.

"I think about a lot of the moments of trauma in my life and learning of ancestral trauma, and even in really difficult moments in my life now, poetry remains a space where I know I can go to to bring in those details or those aspects of that trauma or that pain that are haunting me, " she said. "It gives me a space to put that somewhere, where it's not inside anymore and eating me up. And it will hold that for me if I need it for whatever reason."

McDougall documents much of that trauma in "The Salt-Wind /Ka Makani Pa 'akai, " her semi-autobiographical book of poetry published in 2008. She talks about themes familiar to Hawaii audiences, such as the loss of Hawaiian culture and values, but she also writes about highly personal and intimate issues as well, all of it true.

She sees many people in Hawaii undergoing major problems of their own that she hopes to address through poetry.

"Things are hard for so many folks, " she said. "In Hawaii, when there are things happening people tend to come together in a beautiful way, but there are also ways there's a lot of trauma that people are still working through and negotiating."

As poet laureate, she will spend the next three years encouraging the people of Hawaii to follow her on that path of healing. The position comes with an annual stipend of $20, 000, which she plans to use to develop programs to encourage the public, especially students, to write and find their voices through poetry. She'll be collecting stories about "the aina "—simple stories about "your favorite beach, " for example—and publishing them in book form in 'olelo Hawaii as future teaching material.

She also plans to launch an indexed online archive for poets to post their own poetry. It will be called Puka Kinikini, which refers to a Hawaiian riddle : "So many holes, so many holes, but nowhere to get out."

"That describes a net, " McDougall said. "Puka can be translated as a 'hole, ' but it can also mean 'to emerge, to come out of.'"

A professor specializing in Indigenous studies in the American Studies department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, McDougall, 46, got an early introduction to the power and majesty of words in verse. She grew up hearing her father composing and performing music for visitors who would tour the islands on his boat. But he died when she was young, and with her parents split up at that time, she spent a lot of time with her maternal grandparents, who would tell her moolelo, the traditional narrative stories of Hawaii.

"A lot of them aren't for kids, I would say, so I felt kind of sophisticated hearing them, " she said. "But then I think what really appealed to me was being able to look 'outside' and see the places of those stories. I didn't see them anywhere else at the time."

McDougall grew up in Kula, on the slopes of Haleakala on Maui, which made her grandparents' moolelo, whether factual or fictional, all the more real to her. She could look outside and imagine the god Maui "climbing up the slopes and waiting to rope the sun and ... also pulling up the islands, " she said.

The stories were wide-­ranging in topic and didn't involve only the legends of Hawaii. Her grandmother liked to tell "cautionary " tales—"stories that were ­designed to tell me not to do certain things "—while her grandfather, a biology teacher in Maui schools, liked the writings of Eric Knudsen, a Kauai politician and folklorist during the early 1900s who collected stories he heard from local people. "We would read them together and talk story about them, " McDougall said.

McDougall would then attend Kamehameha Schools in Kapalama as a boarding student. Hawaiian studies were not emphasized at that time, since the school's focus was on preparing students for college. "The idea was that 'well, they won't need that or that won't help them when they go away, '" she said.

Although she butted heads with one teacher who dismissed her feelings of resonance with the Black poet Langston Hughes, she credits many of her other teachers at Kamehameha, such as Jim Slagel and Russ Martin, for encouraging her. She remembers writing a "very overdramatic poem " about race and unrequited love for a sonnet-writing assignment and getting a comment from Slagel : "You're pretty good at this."

"That comment kind of stuck with me, " she said. "It's not like it was in the forefront of my mind as I made decisions about eventually becoming a poet, but I think back on that now and I felt really good about that."

She studied at Whittier College in California—which she happily points out is named after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier and has a poet for a team mascot—and went on to get a master's degree in poetry at the University of Oregon before getting her doctorate in English at UH. She also studied at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

In addition to "The Salt-Wind " and many other poems that have been anthologized, McDougall has written an academic work, "Finding Meaning : ­Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature, " in which she explores the ­hidden meanings found in ­Hawaiian literature. The book won a national award in American Indian studies and was an honorable mention for a Ka Palapala Po 'okela award.

She finds a common thread between her life as a working poet and an academic who's studied the subtleties of language. "If language is our tool kit, our instrument, what are ways in which we can really be expansive with, not just the musicality of it, but also the meaning behind it, " said McDougall, who has a new volume of poetry, "Aina Hanau " ("Birth Land "), coming out in June.

While she will be helping fledgling poets through her work as poet laureate with writing prompts to spark ideas, she herself has a fairly simple work routine. She starts by "automatic writing, or free writing, " setting a timer for as little as five minutes to "shut out the world " and get something down on paper.

"(I'm ) trying to not put too much pressure on myself, " she said. "A lot of it is getting over the anxiety of starting something new, facing the blank page, which is kind of horrifying sometimes."

She goes through this process several times, studying where the process has led her afterward. "Maybe it shifts from the topic, but at least it's there, " she said. "And then you're like, 'I didn't know this was there, and sometimes that can relate to this.'"

Lyz Soto, director of the literary and conversation programs for the Hawai 'i Council for the Humanities, has taught some of McDougall's poetry in local schools and calls it "beautifully crafted."

"She's really playing with a lot of forms, " Soto said, referring to poems in "The Salt-Wind." "There's sonnets, there's villanelles, there's very classic European forms, and she totally makes them her own and makes them specific, which I think is really a challenge and also shows what a gifted writer she is. And I found as a teacher, I found it was a really delightful way to be able to introduce these forms to students that made it completely accessible to them.

"There's so much heart in her poetry, like the fact that she can be formally impeccable, and have these beautiful lyric moments, and then she totally captures the heart of what she's talking about, be it family tragedy, or systemic erasure. Her book covers all these difficult issues and does it with so much grace."