Hawaiʻi

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Managing Tourism

 

Hawaiʻi’s tourist industry is thriving. Last year, nearly 10 million visitors spent almost 18 billion dollars here, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority. However, many residents complain of beaches and trails being overrun, and of the wear and tear on Hawaiʻi’s infrastructure. More and more, we hear people saying that the industry needs to be managed, but what does that look like?

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Kūhaʻo Zane

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Kūhaʻo Zane

 

Hilo designer Kūha‘o Zane is navigating his own path in both the design and Hawaiian cultural worlds. On his mother’s side, he is descended from an unbroken line of Kanaka‘ole cultural practitioners, while his father, Sig Zane, is a renowned clothing designer. Hear how he draws on his Hawaiian roots while approaching his design work with a modern vision.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Apr. 21, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Program

 

More from Kūhaʻo Zane:

 

Q and A

 

Keeping Culture Alive

 

Negative into Positive

 

Kūhaʻo Zane Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

From what I understand currently, in a heiau, there’s always a caretaker of the heiau.  And that person that is the caretaker usually is housed on the heiau. But also, that person is the one that usually receives the signals or, for lack of better words, receives the messaging. And then, that messaging is then translated to the people.  And that person, since he is the one that talks to the gods, is not technically human. So, it’s kanaka ole.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane, a member of the Kanakaole family from Hawaiʻi Island, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  His full name is Kuha‘oimaikalani Keli‘iaweweu Tien Chu [PHONETIC] Zane, better known as Kūhaʻo Zane.  He’s a Hilo designer whose work is emblazoned on airplanes, and used on aloha shirts and company logos.  His grandmother was hula master, Edith Kanakaole.  The Hilo arena where the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival is held is named after her.  Kūhaʻo’s mother is Nalani Kanakaole, a respected kumu hula and chanter.  And his father, Sig Zane, was inspired by Hawaiian cultural knowledge to create striking and popular aloha attire sold through his longtime Sig Zane Designs Store in Downtown Hilo.  It was clear that Kūhaʻo would be expected to follow in his family footsteps, but he says his parents didn’t push him while he was growing up.  They gave him the freedom to explore his own interests.

 

It wasn’t too crazy of a childhood.  But being born definitely to my mom Nalani, and then to my dad Sig, there was definitely some large shoes that came along with this. But they were pretty good at kind of sheltering me from that, from the pressure of it, and not necessarily putting in too much attention to it, but just trying to like, usher me right into, I guess, the career that I have today, but ushering me into something that I liked.  And it took me a little while.  School was kinda rough for me; I wasn’t really the best student at all whatsoever.

 

You grew up traveling because of hula.  So, something as Hawaiian as hula didn’t keep you here; it let you go all over the place too.

 

Yeah; yeah.  I got left behind a few times.  There was a couple Tahiti trips that I really wanted to go on, but my mom just left me home.  But no, that is true.  And it’s weird that even going to Paris at such a young age, it kinda like sparked a lot of like, artistic energies.  Like seeing the Mona Lisa, like, understanding that there’s that much regard for art at such a young age, maybe that fueled a lot of my career, I guess you could say.  Like, oh, maybe I’m interested in art, for some reason.  Or maybe I’m interested in design.  Like, why is this building designed this way.  And so, travel definitely had a part to play with it, but of course, the roof of all of that was sharing hula, or sharing our culture.

 

And who would have thought that hula would be literally a ticket out.

 

Being able to travel at a young age is so important, and such a pillar of my character now.  And I can definitely see how, even with my mom in her traveling at such a young age too, she had that same type of exposure.  So, yeah, I could see how it added to her personality.

 

Your mom does hula.  And your dad did, too.

 

Dad started dancing, too.

 

When he married your mom, he started dancing.

 

Yeah.  I think he originally moved to Hilo for college.  He always tells me the story about he went to Puhi Bay with a couple of his friends, and there was a paina or a party happening there.  And there was a halau dancing, and he was watching from, you know, in the dark, and he was like, looking under the tent, and he was watching these like, people dancing.  And he said it was like, so energetic, like raw type of energy.  And he was like: I’ve never seen this in Waikiki, like what is this?  Is this even hula?  And so, he remembers the energy of that, and he wanted to be a part of that.  And the crazy thing is, he went to stand in line for food at the party, and there was this joyous like, auntie at the poi bowl, and like, scooping the poi, and he remembers that joyous like, infectious like, personality that that auntie had.  And that ended up being Edith Kanakaole.  So, it was my mom’s mom.  And I think from there, he started to go to college, and he went to class under Edith. ‘Cause my grandma was teaching at the college at that time.  And I think it was grandmother told my dad to start dancing.  My dad’s pretty high-strung.  You know, like he’s a typical dragon, Chinese dragon.  But he’s very speeded, and he’s always trying to get things done.

 

Really productive.

 

Yeah; really productive.  He cannot sit still watching TV.  That’s like torture for him, to watch TV.  And like when I was growing up, he would be ironing, or doing something, folding clothes during TV.  I was like: Dad, can’t you just, like, chill out?  And then, my mom is like, very laid back in her demeanor, as far as her day-to-day personality.  I mean, of course, in halau, very different.

 

We know that kumu hula are dictators—

 

Yep.

 

–of the world.

 

Exactly; it’s a dictatorship.  I tell that to people all the time.  This is not a democratic scene at all.  [CHUCKLE]  And you have to do what they say, period.

 

No voting.

 

Yeah; no voting.

 

I’ve heard that your mom is a very strong woman.

 

She has a really strong will for life, I guess.

 

You know, your father shared with me a really nice thing he says about her. That she gave him this great gift, which was to say: Your words have consequences, whether they’re bad or good; so be careful what you say.

 

Yeah.

 

Because they will live on.

 

Yeah.  I believe that came from my grandpa on my mom’s side.  ‘Cause he was a man of like, very minimal words; he did not talk much at all.  But yeah, words are consequence, and that’s something that was kinda ingrained in me, too.  And honestly, like today, especially with youth today, and even with social media, that amplifies it, that you have to share so much, you have to talk so much, you have to be around.  You know, it’s almost weird to have that upbringing that, like, my mom drilled that into me, that like, word is consequence, you know. And even on a business level, like when you’re trying to market something, that you have to kinda be conscious of that.  And I think that definitely adds a different tone to how we market ourselves, or how we share with share with the world ourselves.  But yeah; that was something that my kuku used to say.

 

Hula and other Hawaiian cultural practices are at the root of Kūhaʻo Zane’s career as a designer.  The hula tradition started in his mother’s family many generations ago, and continues to be as vital now as it was then.

 

Who was in the family before Edith?  I mean, what’s the family line like?

 

So, above Edith was Kekuewa, Mary Kekuewa Kanahele. And she was the one that held the hula lineage, basically, and it got passed down to her.  But that’s my great-grandma.  She was the one that was taught in hula kapu, and so, she was taken at birth and had to live away from her family.  But from birth all the way to about nine years old, she was raised in the practices of hula.  And so, she got taught down in Puna.  And understanding too, this was the time when hula was, you know, banned and it couldn’t be practiced.

 

This was all about saving hula.

 

Yeah; saving hula at that time.  So, like, since it was banned by the missionaries at that time, they had to kinda go out into the caves, literally, to practice.

 

And without her parents.

 

Without her parents.  So, she was given away at birth.  But it’s also too, like that concept that if you’re given away at birth and you go to learn hula, that you want to elevate the status of your family for the next generation, and the next generation.  I mean, that’s basically a sacrifice to be able to give away your child, you know.  And so, if it wasn’t for that one little break, I don’t even know where we would be today.  But yeah; so Mary, she was kinda like the beginning of the hula lineage.

 

Your family tends to be matriarchal.

 

Yes; definitely.

 

Lots of strong women.

 

Yeah.

 

So, what’s it like to be a man in the family?

 

I think growing up, it was a little weird.  I was always, like, looking for, I guess a masculine type of entity to look up to.

 

M-hm.

 

And my dad was that, obviously.  But also too, I was like, looking in hula, and I’m like: Why is hula like, so feminine?  And especially like when you come to Oahu, and the movements are very feminine too. But I know that when I’m dancing our style of aihaa, I’m really tired, it’s very athletic as a hula style.  So, I was always like, looking for that masculine entity to like, look up to.  But over the years, I realized that it was up to myself and my cousins that are all male dancers, that it was up to us to embody that.  And I think that we definitely hold it down for our generation, for sure.  And I even look up to even my cousin Ulu, who’s a couple years younger than me, but to me, he’s like just one of the best dancers as far as an image of aihaa as a style. He’s stylistically one of my best dancers, in my mind.  Yeah.

 

And that’s the protected, save the hula, hula.

 

Yeah; yeah.  Our style of our bent knees, and low to the earth type of bombastic—I think that’s a term that they use all the time.

 

And did Mary bring that out?  She brought out the dance, but you interpreted it.

 

I think Mary brought that style, that bombastic style. But I think it was really with my mom guys’ generation that they elevated the choreography to what we have today.  And my mom used hula choreography, as it could stand up against any of the great, you know, disciplines, no matter if it’s ballet or modern dance.  She feels that hula choreography can stand alongside those and garner that same type of respect.  And so, I think a lot of what fuels her for her choreography is to be able to show that to the world, that it can stand up in that manner.

 

And it’s rich and deep; it’s not a simple dance.

 

And it’s also a capsule for our culture and our storylines, you know, that we have.

 

Do you know that your family used to be the guardian of the heiau?

 

Yeah; it’s weird, because you can go to multiple different heiaus all over Hawaiʻi, and you’ll find a Kanakaole there.

 

Very spiritual.

 

When you think about gods as far as like, the understanding of Hawaiian gods, you can also look at it as gods are just energy. And so, certain gods are responsible for that type of energy.  And when you look at it as environmental energies, then it’s not necessarily such a religious thing.  Then it’s more just how well are you in tune to your environment and those energies that are responsible for your environment.  And so, I think that us as Kanakaoles not necessarily just trying to just receive messaging from the gods, but really analyzing what these energies are, and the intersection of these energies over a heiau, and then how to translate that into certain messaging that we’ll be able to translate for the people.

 

There’s a burden that comes from having a huge name like Kanakaole.  You know, so your work has to be top-notch. I mean, I would imagine there’s a lot of judging, good and bad; right?

 

Oh, god; yeah.  I mean … [CHUCKLE] I get kind of told that I’m judgmental at certain points. But not in a bad way; I don’t mean in a bad way.  But like, my mom’s a Merrie Monarch judge; what am I supposed to do about it?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

She’s been a judge all my life; I understand.  But I think it’s more the proper intent to use that judging t … I mean, judging has such a bad connotation to it.

 

Well, it’s analysis.

 

Yeah, analysis; exactly.  And making sure that your judgment is of pure intent to improve. And so, if that’s there, then I think that that’s like the winning factor judging, you know.  I mean, that’s why you go to Merrie Monarch, is to um, get judged by these legends of hula, and hopefully improve your craft just a few steps at a time.

 

There’s so much intellect in hula and in dance.

 

Yeah.

 

And in music.  Do you think people appreciate that?

 

I think about that.  And same thing like, with an aloha shirt.  Sometimes we’ll be designing it, and we’re like: Oh, do you think the customer is gonna like this?  Do you think the customer is gonna understand that story?  And to me, my answer is always like: If they understand it two lifetimes from now, then you did your job.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane started experimenting with designs at a young age.  While this would eventually lead to working with his father, he had to leave Hawaiʻi to better understand the role that his cultural upbringing would play in his design work.

 

Many sons run away from being in business with their dad.

 

I tried.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Oh, yeah.  Or you try to get away, but it’s your destiny.

 

Yeah.

 

Well, how did it work for you?

 

He tricked me into it, probably.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Something like that.

 

He mentioned you for a long time, before you came along.

 

Yeah.  I wanted to run away multiple times.  [CHUCKLE] Especially when I was a kid.

 

Because your dad made it clear, this is what you’re gonna do; right?  Did he say that?

 

No.

 

Oh, he didn’t.

 

He never said, like: Here you go, this is your job, you gotta do it.

 

But you were expected to come along?

 

I think it was an unsaid, unspoken thing, you know, that I was expected to take this company over.  So, when I was in high school, I started designing tee-shirts, and that’s basically how this whole graphic design thing started.  His partner Punawai Rice, he kinda taught me how to do like the simple things on CorelDRAW, I think it was at the time. But I really had some thoughts in my head.  Like, I would see surf brands out there at that time, and I feel like they weren’t speaking to me specifically.  And so, I wanted to design my own tee-shirt and put my own ideas out there.  And that was like the start of this whole graphic design thing.  And then, so I wanted to open a surf shop; that was my initial thing.  And so, I did a business plan, and like, did a five-year projection, and I gave it to them.  I’m a junior at this time, or a senior at this time in high school.

 

How’d you know how to do a business plan?

 

Oh, my dad kinda like told me what it was, and I drew it together and researched it a little bit.  But it was a terrible business plan, probably.  [CHUCKLE]  But I gave it to my grandpa, my gung-gung on my dad’s side, and asked him for a loan. I think it was like ten thousand dollars, or something.  But he told me, no.  [CHUCKLE]

 

And that ended there?

 

And that ended right there.  And then, I ended up doing more graphic design, and so doing my tee-shirts, and I used to sell them in school.  So, like some people would be selling musubis in school, and I’d be over here slanging tee-shirts in school.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

So, that’s kinda how the whole graphic design thing started.  And then, I ended up going to design school in L.A., Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.  And that’s where I really fell in love with design.

 

Did you feel like you found your people there, another kind of creative energy there?

 

I feel like I ran into people that spoke the same language as me.  But in that same vein, didn’t.  Because that’s when I really started to figure out special the culture that we have here, how special it is.  Because I would simply like, go up to people and tell ‘em my name, like Kūhaʻo, or something. And they would tell me that their name’s Joe.  Like, not anything against Joes or anything.  But I would tell ‘em, Kūhaʻo.  And they’d go like: Oh, what kind of name is that?  Oh, what does it mean?  I’d be like: That means rain from clear sky.  And then, they would like, start reflecting upon their own name, and like, I don’t mean to do that or anything, but then I started to really like, realize that you know, what we have in Hawaiʻi is really a treasure, and how do I translate that into design.  And so, although they spoke the same language as me design wise, I realized that I had a unique voice in the culture that I could be able to now use design to communicate.  Yeah. But that was my runaway time.  Two years in L.A. was amazing.  [CHUCKLE]

 

But did you come home right after?

 

I tried to stay up there.  I did a couple internships while I was up there, but my dad reeled me back in really quick.

 

He was ready for you.

 

He was like: You know, you gotta start working.

 

And how did you folks figure out what work you would do?

 

Well, actually, I came back, and obviously, coming back from college and coming back from design school, I thought I was the baddest designer, ever.  And I quickly got humbled to that point.  But he made me work on the floor.  So, I had to work in the shop for, I think the first two years.  And so, I didn’t even touch a mouse for like the first, like, six months that I was working for my dad.

 

He was trying to let you feel what people want?

 

I guess that’s what it was.  Like, I really got to hear the customers and see what they like and understand our customer psyche to a certain degree.  But also too, like, you gotta have an appreciation from sweeping the floors, all the way to making even like HR decisions, you know.  And that definitely built some sort of perspective for me.  But yeah; that first two years, I didn’t even design anything for Sig Zane Designs.  I was doing my own things, ‘cause he wasn’t letting me.  And I think that that definitely built some perspective, for sure.

 

How well do you get along?  Are you colleagues, or is it still, you know, very much father-son, generational?

 

Mm … okay.  So, that’s a complicated answer.  Complicated order.  We get along. We definitely have a type of chemistry when we work with each other.  But it’s just like any other family business; like, we have our times that we completely disagree.  But I think that hula plays a role into that.  So, in hula, since it’s a dictatorship, it’s almost like these split personalities that like, you have this dictatorship where you have to believe and trust in everything that your kumu says.  So, if your kumu says jump in the fire, you gotta jump in the fire, no questions asked.  And I think that that bleeds over into the business world, as well.  Amongst my team, I encourage everybody to vocalize what their perspectives is, because everybody brings a unique perspective to the table.  But at the same time, when push comes to shove, and you gotta make a call, you gotta have that complete trust, just that exact same thing that you have in your kumu, exact same thing in that trust that, if you’re a leader, you gotta make the decision, and you gotta go with it.  And so, if my dad makes a call, I may disagree with it at some point, and sometimes I’ll vocalize it, but he’s the leader; I gotta follow him.  So, I think that that’s where it kinda plays with each other, you know.

 

And that’s not just because he’s your father.  It’s because he’s … what is the reason for your saying: You’re the guy.

 

Two levels.  He’s more experienced than me; period.  You gotta respect experience; period.  But on the other level, it’s like, especially on the Hawaiian side of things, if you’re given a position, that’s your title, and you’re the one to make those decisions.  And it’s up to you to make the best decision.  If you’re a konohiki of an area, and you make the decision that a kapu is gonna be set at a certain point, then you’re the one that makes the call. If you don’t make a good call, then maybe you’ll be removed from your position.  But it’s up to you as a worker to follow through on that decision, and give it your best.  And if in hindsight that decision’s not that good, then maybe your time will come up that you’ll be able to be a leader.

 

You also do things that really, he’s not around to oversee or to be the dictator at.  I mean, you’re running a shop in Honolulu, living in Hilo.

 

I think that in his time, his energy and his characteristic had to build Sig Zane to what we have today.  And that’s why that personality type was needed or essential to have a certain type of strength, and a certain type of weakness to build what we have today.  But for me, I think that I’m most excited when a team can do it.  I don’t like to do it all by myself.  I can do it all by myself, it’s fine, but I actually am a lot more ecstatic when something is achieved when I’m not there, if the team can pull things off.  We have an event happening next Saturday that they’re doing the installation and everything. And I’m watching it on Instagram, like looking at it happening without me there, and I’m completely ecstatic about it. Like, that means that we had the right chemistry to build a team that can achieve things without you.

 

That’s right.

 

Yeah.  So, that’s the transition point between me and my dad.  Like, my dad had to build Sig Zane to this point of what we have, and then now, I’m trying build a team that can carry on Sig Zane without us.

 

When you describe yourself to people, say in the Western world, I mean, it’s so strange to reduce yourself to a profession; right?  So, how do you describe yourself?

 

[CHUCKLE]  I don’t know; it’s kinda hard to describe myself.  We did a Hawaii National Bank commercial that airs every so often, and they had me say: I am an entrepreneur.  And I’m sorry, but I fought that lady.  I was like: I don’t want to say that; no, I don’t want to.  That’s weird; why are you gonna call yourself something; it’s up to the person watching, it’s up to the spectator to give you that title, not yourself. So, in that vein, I can’t really call myself anything.  It would be awesome if I could call myself a designer or hula dancer, or practitioner. But it is really difficult to describe myself in the Western context.  And a lot of times, like, going to New York Fashion Week or something, it’s hard to put myself into one little capsule.  So, a lot of times, I just tell people I make aloha shirts.

 

It’s an interesting leap into the Western world from a Hawaiian perspective, and yet, I don’t know why it surprises me that this would be something that would be successful and robust.  But I think we really haven’t seen a lot of it.  I mean, you are who you are, and you know, there are so many skills that come from being who you are, and knowing what you do.

 

It’s one of my personal things that, like, growing up, my favorite designer wasn’t Hawaiian.  You know? No matter if it’s even Steve Jobs or something, you know, like somebody that you look up to.  So, I think that when I was growing up, Na Makua, Nelson Makua was the only graphic designer that was Hawaiian, that was getting Pele Awards, that was winning advertising.  You know, so I think that having him as somebody that I looked up to, I had to make sure that I do enough in my career, or achieve enough my career that can stand as a feather in a cap for not only myself, but Hawaiians as a race.  You know.  And I think that that’s definitely what motivates me on a day-to-day basis, is how can Hawaiʻi or Hawaiians design Hawaiʻi.  Yeah.  But no, we haven’t seen full breadth of it yet.  l think it’s still to come.

 

Kūhaʻo Zane is the creative director of his father’s Hilo-based design businesses. Kūhaʻo also is the president of the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, a Hawaiian cultural educational organization, and he continues to dance hula with his family’s halau.  Mahalo to Kūhaʻo Zane of Keaukaha, Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island, for sharing your life stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

What’s expected of you in hula?

 

Definitely when I was younger, it was large shoes to fill. And the pressure would get to me every so often, but not in a bad way.  But I mean, it’s kind of a bummer, like, dampen your mood to know that you’re expected to do so much, you know.  But at the same time, it’s like that’s what kuleana is.  It’s like, it’s a responsibility, as well as a privilege. And I think that it’s up to us, each of us as family members, to be able to convert that from that responsibility into a privilege, And respectful for those, too.  So, on a hula level, what I’m expected to do is definitely to carry on the halau.  And I’m sure that being a kumu—oh, I still cringe when I hear that.  [CHUCKLE]  But I’m sure that being a kumu is somewhere in my journey down the road.

 

[END]

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Hawaiʻi Rules of Professional Conduct

 

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court oversees licensed attorneys in our state and establishes rules governing duties, fairness, communication, truthfulness and respect. The rules state that in Hawaiʻi a lawyer is “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice” – and there are consequences for attorneys who violate those rules. On the next INSIGHTS, we’ll discuss Hawaiʻi Rules of Professional Conduct.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

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INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
High Cost of Child Care in Hawaiʻi

 

Caring for our keiki is pricey. A recent study says Hawai‘i families pay an average of $700 to nearly $2,000 per month for child care. And that’s if parents can find space at licensed childcare centers – where supply is far short of demand.

 

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462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Skylark Rossetti

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 12, 2008

 

Radio Personality

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with a delightful woman with a beautiful voice – Honolulu Skylark.

 

This popular radio personality, whose real name is Jacqueline Rossetti, reflects on her early influences and what would become pivotal experiences in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance – visiting Kaho‘olawe with George Helm and others, co-founding the Nā Hokū Hanohano Awards, hosting the Merrie Monarch Festival for over 30 years, and being named Outstanding Hawaiian Woman of the Year (1984) and Hawaiʻi Broadcaster of the Year (1991).

 

Skylark Rossetti Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no, and welcome to Long Story Short on PBS Hawaiʻi; I’m Leslie Wilcox. The Honolulu Skylark. I remember the first time I heard her on the radio. It wasn’t just the beauty of her voice, or the image of a Skylark, that held me. It was her knowledge and understanding of Hawaiʻi people, music, history, values. In the radio industry where companies and personnel tend to come and go, the Honolulu Skylark has made a lasting impression. We’ll catch up with her next.

 

The Honolulu Skylark is Jacqueline Rossetti. Her warm voice and warm personality became a fixture in island radio in the mid-1970s. Since then, she’s been named Hawaiʻi Broadcaster of the Year and Hawaiian Woman of the Year. And today, she lives and works on Hawai‘i Island where she’s known simply as “Skylark.”

 

When people talk about you, they say, popular radio personality, Honolulu Skylark, or beloved personality. And they say something with you that I don’t hear about them saying with other DJs; it’s influential radio personality. What happened? What did you do?

 

I think I listened, Leslie. I had a passion and care for keeping our culture alive. I wanted to know why songs were written; I didn’t want to just hear the songs. I wanted to talk to the composers. And so I armed myself with going out and meeting them, caring about why they wrote a particular song, what inspired them. I wanted to hear about the careers of people that I had heard their music over the years. One of my favorite people, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, his big band, syncopated swing era; I loved that. And so he said, Why would you want to be interested in talking to me? I said, Because you did this, you were the ambassador of good cheer in the 30s. Why did they call you that, Uncle Alvin? And so I would sit with them, and they would tell me their stories.

 

Well, you’re going back to the 30s now. How did you know about them?

 

Well, because I had old 78s; I collected records. You know, Mom kept her collection, and that’s what started my collection. ‘Cause she would have to practice her hula to these old recordings. And so I started listening to them, and I loved the swing era, and I loved that sound of Hawaiian music with big band. And so, when I had the opportunity to seek these people out, I wanted to make sure that their stories were told, or that somebody could you know, share them with the rest of the audience so that we could all learn about that era of Hawai‘i.

 

At that time, was there Hawaiian music on the air?

 

There was one station, and that’s why I was so excited about getting an opportunity to work there, was KCCN. They were the only —

 

AM?

 

It was an AM station; it was from sunrise to midnight. And it went off the air at midnight, and it was an opportunity to share. And I have to laugh, because back then, it was the other side of Hawaiian music, as Krash Kealoha, who was the program director at the time, would call it. They were doing the Funky Hula, and they were doing you know, all this different kinds of hapa Haole, almost, music. And I wanted to bring back the Hawaiian, the traditional Hawaiian. I wanted to hear Genoa Keawe on the radio again, ‘cause she wasn’t being heard. I wanted to hear some of the traditional music.

 

And did they think that old school, it wouldn’t —

 

They did.

 

— draw an audience —

 

And they said —

 

— people don’t care.

 

No; and I kept saying, No, they do want to hear about this. I want to play chants; I opened my show every morning with a chant, because I felt that was important for us to hear that we came from, you know, beats and chanting before. And every program that I watched as a child growing up, with Aloha Festivals, you had a chanter come out and welcome everybody; and I wanted that when I performed and did my radio show. So I would open my shows with chants, and explain what those chants were about. And people started to listen, you know. They hadn’t heard the language translated in quite sometime.

 

And then you would get a chance to do something that radio executive Mike Kelly would say, changed the radio landscape of Honolulu forever.

 

 

Is that putting it—Hawaiian music—on the FM then?

 

Yeah.

 

You know, somebody didn’t want it; I don’t know why. They didn’t feel that Hawaiian music was worthy enough for FM, or something; I don’t know. Every format had been covered in FM, but Hawaiian music. And I said, Why don’t you put Hawaiian music on the FM band? And they said, Well, will you do it? I said, Absolutely. Why shouldn’t it be on the FM band? Well, what kind of music would you play? Hawaiian music. You wouldn’t put the chants on FM, would you? Yes, I would. You know. And so it was an opportunity to hear chanting, in stereo, and music that has been recorded in stereo for years but never on a stereo band. It was exciting. It was a wonderful time period.

 

A popular broadcaster today, Billy V, Bill Von Osdol, says you were his radio kumu, and he was so thrilled when you called him over to work at KCCN FM. And he said, basically, you folks built the studios.

 

We did. I mean, we hammered the nails, and we [chuckle] I mean, from the ground, up. It was nothing but an empty room and they said, Go put up a radio station in there; and that’s exactly what we did.

 

And once you got this traditional Hawaiian format going, how did it do?

 

It did really well, Leslie. I was amazed at how many people were listening. I had no idea that the young kids would gravitate to it so well. I thought, Okay, sure, we add a little color with the Jamaican music, and you know, that will keep the young kids. And then we get the kupuna and have their style of traditional Hawaiian music. But could it actually blend, and would it actually work? And it did. We did a concert at the Aloha Tower; it was the first of many which now has become the FM100 Birthday Bashes, right? And we took over Aloha Tower at the time, ‘cause it was gutted, it was empty. And I couldn’t believe how many kids showed up. We thought maybe hundred kids; there was three thousand people the first concert we threw. And it was Kapena and Ho‘aikane, and just our local bands. It was nobody, you know, fabulous to come and see; just kids that wanted to play music.

 

And pretty soon, we did these on a monthly basis. And we had to move out of Aloha Tower. We just — there was no room for us anymore. And that’s what started the first FM100 Birthday Bash at the Waikiki Shell.

 

Na Hoku Hanohano; you are a three-time award winner, and I always hear your name when people talk about the founding of the Hoku Hanohano Awards. Tell me about it.

 

It started as our small, little radio station promotion. We realized that, you know, in one year, we had double the amount of recordings. And I said to Krash, Look at this, we had thirty-six records this year recorded, and if next year it’s up to seventy-seven. And he said, We should do something about it; we should honor these people in the recording industry. And as a small, little radio station promotion, it turned into the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts, and we mimicked ourselves after the Grammy Awards because we thought that’s what we could be, a Hawaiian Grammy Award.

 

Did you have a budget for it?

 

Oh, yeah; all of three hundred dollars. [chuckle] We had to beg and barter, and back then, we you know, went to the Ala Moana Hotel and said, Do you want to have this event? And they looked at us like, Hawaiian music? Yeah, we want to honor our Hawaiian music. And it’s interesting, because people like Melveen Leed, they could walk down the street and nobody knew who they were. Now, Melveen Leed walks down the street, and she’s a star. You know, and we sort of, you know, did that; we made stars of our own entertainers that were just going unnoticed in our lifestyles.

 

You knew Brudda Iz, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole very well. And I’ve read that you pointed out something about him, which is that he really didn’t come prepared to the studio.

 

Never.

 

And as a result, for example, in the song that has gone platinum all over the world, you know, you hear some incorrect lyrics and —

 

Lots of incorrect. [chuckle]

 

— consolidating lyrics. He changes chords.

 

Israel’s own interpretation of what the song is supposed to sing like. And it’s because he gets inspired, and you go into the studio, and he’ll just sing whatever comes to his heart. And he must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when I first met him. And they would call me up on the radio; I wasn’t at KCCN at the time. I worked at a station that — KNDI, at midnight played Hawaiian music when KCCN went off the air. And I think that’s what lured them to have me come to join KCCN, was I was doing a midnight to eight in the morning Hawaiian music show. And the entertainers were calling in and — and listening to me and —

 

And I bet Iz called you all the time.

 

He did.

 

[chuckle]

 

He and Skippy.

 

And he continued to —

 

And their group.

 

— do that most of his life, called —

 

Oh, he did.

 

— folks up, and had his say.

 

He did. He loved radio; that kept him entertained. And he said, Come on out to Makaha; I have this group, I want you to hear us. And I went out there, and there they were; just these kids in, you know, puka clothes, and just — but their harmonies and their voices, and their family unit was so endearing, and I just loved them. And I brought them to KCCN, and did their first recording, and we started playing — this was when we could play bootleg music on the air. And so that’s how they started their career.

 

And you went and sought them out, and they knew it.

 

Yeah; they did.

 

You gave them a voice they really didn’t have. But what would move you to go all the way to Makaha to talk to a couple of teenaged boys about their music?

 

Once I drove into their yard, and Mama and Daddy were out on the porch, I said, Oh, my gosh, I found myself home. And I just — you know, they were just this sweet family, opened up their hearts to us, and to me, you know, and I just, you know, I felt like home.

 

Skylark’s passion for the people and traditions of Hawaiʻi resonated with listeners at a time that Hawaiian music and culture were going through a renaissance. That’s when she really found her “voice.”

 

Well, let’s go back –

 

Okay.

 

— ‘til way before the Honolulu Skylark emerged. Where’d you grow up? What was your growing up like?

 

It was a wonderful Hawaiian family. The Mahi’s are my mother’s background; she had ten brothers and sisters.

 

Are you related to Aaron Mahi, the —

 

That’s my —

 

— former band leader?

 

— first cousin. Yeah; his father and my mother are brother and sister. There were ten children in that family, and they all had four or five children each. And so we had a wonderful family home in Kalihi, where my grandfather lived, and our families built their beach house in some property that my grandmother had right across from what we call Baby Beach Park in Ka‘a‘awa. So our family spent weekends in Ka‘a‘awa and weekdays going to schools in the Kalihi area.

 

When you say it was a Hawaiian upbringing, what does that mean?

 

When you’re in a Hawaiian family, you learn nurturing of values and living off the land. And we did things like hukilau and did our own imu and kalua pig, and you know, fished. And it was just a warm, family thing. We all slept together in the same beds, and we all bathed together. [chuckle] You know, it was that kind of a family.

 

Rossetti doesn’t sound terribly Hawaiian.

 

No, my father’s pure Italian, and Mama and Daddy met in Pearl Harbor. And he just loved our family and became more Hawaiian, almost, than my mother. She wanted to be Americanized. You know how that was —

 

That was the —

 

— back then.

 

— generation, World War II.

 

That was that generation. And Dad wanted to be Hawaiian; he wanted to learn to fish and hukilau, and you know, do all of those things. And so he gravitated more to being Hawaiian than Mama did. And he loved the brothers and sisters, and just got along very well with them.

 

And traditional Hawaiian music; when did that come into your life?

 

I think it had always been surrounded in my life. My father — and I have to give him credit, because he loved things Hawaiian. And during our raising up, Dad was involved with something called Aloha Week back then. And he surrounded us with just wonderful mentors that were our aunties. I didn’t know that they weren’t really related to us, ‘cause we always had — everybody was aunty and uncle.

 

So your pure Italian dad —

 

Yes.

 

— and not your full-blooded Hawaiian mom introduced —

 

Thank you.

 

— you to this.

 

Yes. And he was, you know, hanai’d by Auntie ‘Iolani Luahine, and Auntie Sis Wiederman, and these wonderful pillars of Hawaiiana. And they nurtured my father in this business. I remember watching Auntie ‘Iolani dancing at ‘Iolani Palace in these beautiful Hawaiian pageants. And I said, That’s what I want to do; I want to keep our culture alive.

 

I never saw her dance in person. Is it true what people said, that when she danced, it was as if something else was inside her, living through her?

 

Absolutely. Auntie enjoyed an inu, and when we were at parties, after the big pageantry, she would have an inu or two. And then all of a sudden, she’ll hear a song that somebody’s dancing or singing, and she became a whole different person. And you’d look at her like, what happened, what possessed her. And she’d just start dancing or chanting, or — she was just a marvelous woman. And then after it was pau, it was like, Oh, where am I?

 

[chuckle] And she’s —

 

And she went back to —

 

— back at the party.

 

— hanging out —

 

Yes.

 

— at the party.

 

Absolutely. And she was just a gracious, lovely lady.

 

So your dad worked for Aloha Week, or volunteered for Aloha Week?

 

It was a volunteer thing for over forty years of his life. He’s director emeritus, if you look at the — well, I don’t know where we are with that right now. That breaks my heart terribly to see an organization like that starting to fall apart on the neighbor islands. But it got to me see what life on Kaua‘i was like, what life on Moloka‘i was like. Because we would go from week to week to the different —

 

M-hm.

 

— islands, meet some wonderful people who all cared about the culture. I don’t know if you remember; we used to spend time at Ala Moana Park when there was an Ulu Mau Village.

 

M-hm.

 

And they had all the little places that you could go and visit and learn your culture, and pound poi, and watch them weave. It was just a marvelous time to grow up.

 

And later, they moved that by He‘eia Kea.

 

He‘eia Kea; but it wasn’t the same as in Ala Moana Park, where it was closer to the people, and people could come and visit.

 

And that’s what Waikiki is trying to move toward now, having lost some of that authenticity.

 

Absolutely. Yeah.

 

So here we are; going to Kamehameha. Did they infuse you with Hawaiian?

 

I think there were wonderful people up there, like Auntie Nona Beamer, who was encouraging you to, you know, learn hula and to dance. And I had always been a part of the music scene. Mama was a hula dancer with Hilo Hattie, and she toured with the Al Kealoha Perry Show and danced at the Lexington Hotel in New York. And so she — you know, she always had her music with us, and she always taught us hula. And then we went to formal training in our neighborhood where we grew up in Foster Village with Auntie Rose Joshua. So we — at the age of five, we were dancing hula and chanting, and you know, uniki’d by the age of fifteen. And you know, I didn’t know what that was back then, but it was just a part of how we grew up. You know, and how brothers and sisters would drum and beat the tin cans or the cracker cans in those days for the Tahitian music. And it was hula schools, where you learnt ancient hula, auana hula, Samoan dancing, Tahitian dancing, and Maori dancing.

 

We talked earlier about the Hawaiian renaissance. One of the highlights of that period, besides the return of traditional music, was Kaho‘olawe and freeing the island from target bombings by the military. Were you involved in that?

 

Well, you remember the gentleman who started the theme and raised the theme of Aloha ‘Aina, aloha awareness: entertainer, musician, and a dear friend, George Jarrett Helm. In fact, I named my son after him; that’s how close we were. A wonderful family of Moloka‘i. And you know, he could sing, and his beautiful voice would transcend to the kupuna. And then when he would talk to them about aloha ‘Aina, they could relate to him. And then he started to say, This island is not a distant rock; don’t bomb it. I live right there; I can hear this. It’s paining me to just watch this smoke go up. Why are we continuing to do this? And it was his thought, his vision of freeing that island from the harshness of the bombing, and watching the red dirt surround the islands; it almost looked like it was bleeding, the island was bleeding of its red dirt. And he said, We’ve got to stop this. He went to the legislature. And I’m sure you know, people can look at the history books; he gave his life for that island. And I think we were in the early stages. Women were like Auntie Emma DeFries, who I was studying under at the time, a dear friend who I grew up with up. Auntie Frenchy DeSoto said, Do you want to go to the island? And this was in the days when nobody was going to the island; they had just arrested the nine protestors on the island, and they were giving us an opportunity to go in legally and to look at the island. And I was one of those first seventeen onboard. We were called the first warriors, as they call us today, but we went to take the kupuna to see so that they could see that it wasn’t just a rock. We weren’t bombing just a rock.

 

Did you feel any mana, or anything special on that island?

 

 

Oh, you could feel the island; you can still feel the island today if you to got Kaho‘olawe. It’s just chicken skin. You were there with your camera; you saw how beautiful that island is. And you know, to walk the ancient trails, and to see, you know, poi pounders and shell carvings that you don’t see on any other island except Kaho‘olawe; it was exciting. Dr. Patrick Kirch did this whole study that we were a part of, and we looked at how the sediments of the earth and how the people — it was just m-m, magical, wonderful.

 

You’re telling me something I didn’t know. Do you think it was George Helm who bridged, you know, he went from music to cultural –

 

I think it was. I think he had this magical voice that could attract people to listen to him, and then he could tell his story. He could say, Hey, this island needs to stop this bombing. And I think that’s the way he got the message across.

 

And that was a multi-generational protest and rally, and in the end, very successful.

 

And he —

 

Except —

 

— got; yes.

 

— now we can’t free the island of all the ordnance.

 

[chuckle] And you know, it’s sad, because here we thought that was what was going to happen with all that money being dumped into — we were gonna be able to get it all off the island. And when we were there, we had no idea we were tromping around with live ordnance on the island.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, and here we are, taking kupuna and flying them from districts. And Inez Ashdown, who was raised on the island, you know, was in our party, and she was telling the story of how the goats were here, and this water tank was here. And you know, we had no idea that we were tromping her through live ordnance. But we were so passionate, and we were so excited at the time to document these stories. And Uncle Harry Mitchell being with us, and you know, him sharing his passion for the island, because his son and — yeah, it was a wonderful time.

 

Rich cultural experiences have shaped Jacqueline “Skylark” Rossetti’s life. Today she’s a single mom living in Hilo – she wanted more a country lifestyle for her children. She’s still broadcasting and still promoting the Hawaiian culture.

 

You’re still the Honolulu Skylark, but for the last almost twenty years, you’ve had a neighbor island perspective.

 

You know, it’s interesting, because I grew up on O‘ahu in a rural area, right across from Radford High School in a little village called Foster Village. And we had cow pastures in the back yard, and chickens, and so to me, moving to Hilo where my mother is from, it was almost like I had to because that’s what I wanted my children to grow up knowing, was a rural area where we could have dogs and cats, and not live in an apartment or you know, the hustle and bustle of how Honolulu had changed so. And I could go down the street, wave to my neighbor, and he would wave back to me. I mean, that’s what I grew up knowing. And that’s what I still look at Hilo – as a wonderful place to ensure that the foundation for my children was there.

 

Are you happy with the state of Hilo radio?

 

I think it’s unique; it’s growing, it’s changing. You know, we don’t command the advertising dollars that we could get with Honolulu, but we’re a unique market. And I enjoy, again, like I did with the old kupuna, going out and meeting who these people are, what they’re doing. We have wonderful farmers like Richard Ha doing some wonderful things; Barry Taniguchi, who’s had this store in Hilo forever. And you know, bringing that into the mix, where people can understand who our community is, is just endearing to the listeners.

 

Well, how optimistic are you about this Hawai‘i nei?

You know, Leslie, I am very concerned about where we’re going. I work – another hat that I wear, Leslie, is economic development. And I find that isn’t that odd, as a Hawaiian being in economic development. But if I don’t get involved and make sure that the culture is okay, then I don’t feel that I’ve done my duty here. And Hawai‘i Island Economic Development is into sustainability, is into getting back — instead of shipping everything in, growing it, making sure that our island can be sustainable. And it’s hard. You know, there’s lots of stuff going on that are influencing, lots of pressures with Mauna Kea issues, lots of pressure with water right issues. And we just had an earth shake in October of ’06 that devastated water on our island to get the cattle fed. You know; fresh water. I mean, who is going to replace those ditches? You know. It was a wake-up call for us, on the neighbor island folks – that we’ve got to ensure, you know, that we’re strong and healthy. You know how they say you’ve been at the right place at the right time? I think I was very lucky enough to be at the right place, at the right time to be able to have mentors take me in and want to train me, like Pilahi Paki is one of my – a very stalwart woman who I just admired, and who taught me so much about who we are, and what we are as a Hawaiian, and made me proud of who I was. I endear myself to people to like Moe Keale, who you know, was this big, old bear, you know, but just had that love and aloha for people, and it transcended through his music. There’s just so many people who are – influence on me, that I want to thank them for helping to shape me. Because if they didn’t share their stories, I wouldn’t have them to share with other people.

 

Of all of the musicians, the entertainers, and others you’ve come across in your career, who’s impressed you the most?

 

You know, it’s funny you would say that. There were people, like I mentioned earlier, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs was a dear man who had that 30s and 40s era. And then in the 50s and 60s, I would have to say there were people like Ed Kenny and Marlene Sai, and those people and those voices that shaped Hawaiian music that I’ve gravitated to as dear friends. And then in the 70s, it would have to be my friend Gabby Pahinui. I loved Pops. He just transcended this down-home earthiness about him, with that little kolohe style like Israel, always getting himself in trouble with his wife. But just this raw, loving, caring person. And then, of course, my friends from when I went to high school, Robert and Roland Cazimero, and you know, we were all at school at the same time. Keola and Kapono Beamer, they were all much older than I am, but you know, that era of music too.

 

Skylark continues to share her voice and her stories, hosting radio shows and, for 30 years, the Merrie Monarch Festival of hula. She has a beautiful voice. And she is a beautiful voice, speaking with understanding and love of the islands. Mahalo to fellow broadcaster, Skylark Rossetti and you for joining me for this wonderful Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaiʻi. A hui hou kākou!

 

How would you intro a new show that you’re doing?

 

How would I intro? How about, From the snow-capped mountains of Mauna Kea, to the warm, sunny shores of Waikiki, you’re listening to Hawaiian music that will transcend your heart and deepen your soul. I don’t know; I just made something up. I didn’t know what you wanted me to do! [chuckle]

 

I wanted you to keep going! [chuckle]

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death

 

The ʻōhiʻa tree, with its companion lehua blossom, is found only in Hawaiʻi, and is the most common of our Islands’ native trees. It is the keystone of the Hawaiʻi forest, critical to the ecology of our watersheds and sacred in Hawaiian culture. And now it is under attack, with new species of fungi killing trees on two islands. On the next INSIGHTS, we’ll discuss Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death – what is it, what’s being done about it and how you can help.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

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NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Melveen Leed

NA MELE: Melveen Leed

 

Singer Melveen Leed is joined by her hula dancer daughter Kaaikaula Naluai at the PBS Hawai‘i studios. Best known for contemporary Hawaiian, jazz and country, Moloka‘i girl Melveen also has deep roots in traditional Hawaiian song.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Aunty Nona Beamer

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 23, 2007

 

Passionate, Intelligent, Talented and Truly “Hawaiian”

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian” are just a few words that describe Aunty Nona Beamer.

 

Join Leslie Wilcox as she “talks story” with the woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer – the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Aunty Nona Beamer Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another wonderful conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down with Aunty Nona Beamer whose life as an educator and composer began simply enough – teaching hula to young, local girls in Kaka‘ako and to America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford. But, as a student herself, young Nona would be expelled from school – for chanting in her beloved language. And it was her love for that school – Kamehameha – that would lead her to write a letter as an adult demanding reform of… well, let’s let Aunty Nona tell her stories herself. We got together with her at her friend’s house at Diamond Head.

 

(Nona chants)

 

You wanted to do this interview near Kamapua‘a. What’s the significance?

 

Well you know, we are not here very often. And so much of our family background is mythology and legends and history and the Pele family and the love affair between Kamapua‘a and Pele you know, and all that exciting passion going on. Here’s a chance to see a replica of that symbol of the legends of the story; so I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to come and say, ‘Thank you!” We are so happy to have the myths and legends to pass on to our children and have my daughter with me, and you know.

 

You mentioned passions. Look at you. You still have such a passion for life. Have you slowed down at all? I mean, I know you were sidelined in the hospital for four months. But there you are back at it again.

 

You know, I’m having so much fun and I am so grateful and I think, look where we are in all of this beauty and no matter where we look around us it is glorious. How lucky can we be? How lucky?

 

You’re in your mid 80’s now.

 

Sweetheart, I was 84 last week. Is that mid?

 

And a couple of years ago you where in the hospital for 4 months. You had a bypass surgery, you had a stroke and lots of people were very worried about you.

 

Bye bye Nona (laughs). I guess God had another plan for me and I thought, well I better get off my arse and do something. So I am trying to do something. Yeah, life is so beautiful. And it’s so beautiful because of each other, you know? Our kindness with each other, our voices, our smiles, the way we touch each other’s hands. It seems so corny but it works.

 

And you saw some of that when you were ill in the hospital.

 

Yes, and people that I did not know, reams of cards, school children. And I’m reading them and I had no idea who these people were, but the healing vibes were just so powerful and all the prayers. They’d come to the door and say a prayer standing in the doorway, and I’d look and couldn’t make out who they were. And sometimes I couldn’t hold my head up and somebody would be chanting at my door. I thought, isn’t that wonderful that people would give up themselves and their healing energy is healing me, you know? This business of kindness and love, it’s so, so real. And it works Leslie, in every aspect of your life. And we say to live pono. That’s not very easy, pono spiritually, pono emotionally, pono physically in every aspect of your life. Moderato, you know? So you don’t overeat, you don’t get overemotional, so your blood pressure doesn’t go, you do things moderately and that’s a pretty good recipe for us, you know?

 

And that’s exactly what you’re doing with management of your diabetes. You are, you are, talk about structure, you are using structure to keep healthy.

 

My dear hanai sister has taught me how to do that. Yeah. And I have felt so much better since I’ve known the alternative, I keep to this rigid regimen because I know it’s keeping me healthy. So there’s no, no possible way to cheat. And I feel badly with so many Hawaiians, wonderful talent, beautiful people, stuffing their mouths, drinking the sodas. Oh the big uh, I forgot what you call them, with the rice, egg, hamburger, gravy. Loco moco, oh loco moco and I think so unhealthy, oh dear, if we could just get the Hawaiians to eat sensibly, they won’t all die of diabetes before they’re 20.

 

You are really watching yourself, you’re measuring your water intake even.

 

Yes, because the kidneys are not happy if you don’t give them enough water. Then I swell up if I give them too much water. So you just have to learn what that balance is, you know.

 

On the other hand, you were telling me that yours is now a life without laulau.

 

Yes, but I can have a half a cup of poi twice a week. So I’m happy about that. But no laulau. We make it with won bok. It’s the luau leaves – that has too much potassium for the kidneys.

 

So you are motivated just to keep going. Your body may be slipping up a bit but you’re all there in every other way.

 

I’m having a good time. But I’m looking for some mischief to get into. Do you have a grandfather for me? (laughs)

 

Having a good time and waiting for some mischief at age 84. You gotta love Aunty Nona. And there’s much more to her story. Did you know that it was none other than Nona Beamer who coined the term “Hawaiiana” back in 1949? We’ll find out how – and why – next.

 

You know, you’ve done so many things in your life. I mean it’s, you’re one of those “hyphen” people: educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer. How did all that happen?

 

Well of course we’re a big family. So that we had to take care of the children, telling them stories so they would go to sleep. And then my mother was ill one summer. I was 12 and getting ready to come to Kamehameha. And my father said that your mother can’t go to the studio, Nona. You have to go and your sister will go and help you, you know. I think my sister was 10 or 9, somewhere around there, so she was going to answer the phones. And I looked on the appointment book and the first student was Mary Pickford. And I said to my father, “Oh I can’t teach this lady. She’s a very important movie star. My father said, “Get in there.” And she came with Buddy Rogers. I think they were on their honeymoon and he was so nice. She was tiny – she was smaller than I was. And her little hands, little feet, she was completely charming. Got me over the fear of teaching because we were talking and singing and doing lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds. And I got over my fear. Well I get to Kamehameha in September and there’s a notice on the board. “Any girls interested in teaching at the Kaka‘ako Mission, sign up.” I thought, I taught, I know how to teach, so I signed up. And here were little preschool children at Kaka‘ako. It was a very deprived area, you know? And they didn’t know about soap and water. So the children had sores all over their legs. And they smelled bad. And ah, so the first thing we did was get big washtubs and bathe the children with tar soap, smelly brown tar soap. And I’m crying and trying to sing and then the children would say, “Oh, come to the singing lady. Come to the…” So my line gets long as the children were waiting for their baths and nobody at the other tubs. I thought, “Hmm, singing is the way to interest children,” you know? So the first class I faced I started telling them stories and then began chanting about the kahuli and the kolea birds (sings a bit). “Spooky, spooky, spooky!.” And they were frightened. So then I put one note in the song (sings a bit more). And they smiled and weren’t frightened anymore. I thought, “That’s how I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach them little songs, tell them the history and they’ll be smiling and learning their history all in one fell swoop.”

 

You composed music that stands forever. Every school kid, virtually, in Hawaiʻi knows Pupu Hinuhinu. You wrote it. How does that feel? I mean, virtually every child grows up knowing your song.

 

Well it’s a sweet little simple thing, you know. But I think that it’s appealing to all levels, children and grandparents, just the sweetness of it, you know? I think we are very lucky, if we can sing sweet little songs it kind of calms us down and maybe we’re not raising our voices, maybe there is more calmness in the family, you know? So I think it has a lot of uses.

 

So storytelling is really the basis of so much of what you’ve done and what your family has done as well.

 

It is, yes. Well we didn’t have books, we didn’t have you know, lot of authors writing about Hawaiian culture. In fact, I didn’t even know about the overthrow until I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission. I didn’t even know about the politics of those times, you know?

 

Where do you get your knowledge of Hawaiianess? From your family experience?

 

Yes, well it was from grandparents, grandmother.

 

But you don’t speak fluent Hawaiian?

 

No, no. We were not allowed to. And then the suppression at Kamehameha. I think psychologically it caused a lot of damage among a lot of Hawaiians in my age group, you know? Because we were forbidden, we were punished. Yeah, it was a psychological block.

 

And yet, as a teacher you had to have structure?

 

Well you know we didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t have curriculum, you know? We didn’t have a term Hawai‘iana until ‘49 when I coined it. And it was at a workshop with the department of education teachers. Well it was called Department of Public Instruction then – D.P.I. So I wrote on the board “Hawai – glottal i – dash – ana.” So I turned around, I looked at the teachers.. I said, “I’d like for us to study this word ‘Hawaiiana… Hawaiiana.’” Now the “ana” is the root word “to measure, to evaluate, to determine what is the best.” So we’re going to concern ourselves with that and teach only the best of Hawaiian culture in the classroom. And that was my reason for that word “Hawaiiana.”

 

You made it up.

 

Yes. And I didn’t mean “-ana” like Americana, Mexicana like a conglomerate of things, you know. But I meant to measure everything that we’re going to teach, and offer the children the very best in the culture.

 

That’s one of the many one-of-a-kind things you’ve done, firsts you’ve done. What about when you were a student at Kamehameha Schools and got briefly expelled?

 

(Nona holds up two fingers)

 

Twice you got expelled?

 

Well it was strange. The first time, the President of the Trustees, Frank Midkiff, was having a tea in the pink garden, in the bougainvillea garden – so pretty. And so he asked me, I had started the Hawaiian Club and it was simply because my friends had said, “Can we learn a song? Can we learn a chant? Tell us a story.” So we’d gather Monday after school and we would learn a chant. Unbeknownst to anybody else, but Mr. Midkiff was a champion of mine, a personal friend and hero. So for him I would do anything. So we came into the garden chanting (sings the chant). And we finished our chant and we bowed to everybody and we walked out. And then my principal said, “Winona you may pack your bag and leave this campus.” It was a sacrilege that I committed – to chant and do motions as we were walking.

 

Because?

 

Because it wasn’t allowed. No language, no chanting, no dancing, no nothing.

 

But you could do western dancing?

 

Oh yeah, we could do anything else, yeah.

 

But that’s how it was in those days at Kamehameha Schools.

 

Absolutely.

 

Because everyone was on this western path.

 

Well, it was just the mindset of the time, I think, you know? They were there to school good and industrious men and women, you know? And there was no further look about advancing us, as students or Hawaiians! I wanted to go to college. “Winona, there’s no reason to go to college.” I mean, my principal! I though, what kind of principal would tell you not to think about going to college? So it kind of hurt me that they wanted to keep us so subservient.

 

Have you had kind of a love-hate relationship with the school since you were a kid?

 

You know, I’ve loved them all my life, all my life. In 1927 my grandmother took me to the old chapel where Farrington School is now and I heard the voices of the Kamehameha men. Oh, the stone walls were just vibrating with these wonderful voices and I fell in love with Kamehameha. Didn’t know anything about it except just a name, you know? And I knew later on about the campus where my father had lived as a child. And then later on when I was hired we were given living quarters there where my father was when he was 6 years old. He was in his dormitory, you know? So there was a lot of joy in my heart for Kamehameha just from that initial love of the sound of their voices, the men singing. Of course, my grandmother was a graduate and my parents had attended. Of course all of us in our family had attended. And now it was time for the grandchild, and you know, they have been as close to me as my own blood family.

 

The school which expelled you twice was the school where you dedicated 40 years of your teaching life.

 

And $87,864 scholarship money I have raised in 35 years for scholarships for Kamehameha. Yes, I love them like my family. Well now they’re coming into the sunlight.

 

And you were part of that. You were part of bringing back the Hawaiianess into the school.

 

I like to think I was, but there’s a whole faction of us. Class members, students, they were asking. Why can’t we have Hawaiian? Why can’t we be what we are? Why do we have to be who we are not?

 

And the school was acting in what it thought was your best interest?

 

Yes, and yet they said Princess Pauahi, in her will, stated that we were not to speak, we were not to chant, we were not to dance. So when they hired me, the first thing I did, “Could I see the will? Please may I see the will?” Nothing in it about Princess Pauahi saying there would be no language, there would be no dancing, there would be no – they lied to me, they lied to me all those years. So my estimation of administration went (motion of hands going down).

 

Well and then what happens many years later, your idea of the administration had again fallen. You wrote a letter to the State Supreme Court in the late 1990s, in which you said, “Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Lokelani Lindsey, a trustee’s micromanagement methodology is an utterly diabolical plan of a self-serving egoist.”

 

Oh, I didn’t know her at all. But it was just an abomination that had happened.

 

In your letter, you were expressing what had been an inner angst, many people upset with what was happening at the trustee level at the old Bishop Estate. But so many people didn’t want to lose what they had and you were the one who brought it out.

 

Well, you know they were afraid of their jobs. The students were afraid of their scholarships. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had no children in school. I had retired. And I thought this was just not right. So when my hanai son Kaliko Beamer Trapp came home and told me that Lokelani had sent a directive to the University Language Department that the vocabulary they were developing could not be taught at the Kamehameha Schools, you know? So I just felt that because if it was spoken during Pauahi’s time we could have spoken it. But I thought ah, we’re back to the middle ages. We can’t speak it ‘cause Pauahi didn’t speak it 50 years ago. Something’s wrong, you know? So that really sort of capsulated it from there. We had to do something about it. That was the straw.

 

And there was a firestorm after you wrote the letter.

 

True. Well, I think it gave other people the courage to speak up too.

 

And that triggered an overhaul, a reform of the old Bishop Estate.

 

It was about time, about time. Well, I wish it were as lasting and as meaningful now. But they aren’t there yet, they aren’t there yet. I think they have to do more on campus with the old guard. I love them dearly. We’re all good friends. But they have to be more mindful of Hawaiianess, you know? Not to be thinking of all the business and the dollars and the cash register. Think about the students. That’s why we’re there – for the students. Not to amass fortunes in the bank.

 

The woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – lives it. Aunty Nona Beamer stands up for what she thinks is right – what she feels is pono. We don’t have much time left, so we’ll make the rest of this long story, short. Stay with us as we continue “talking story” with the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Are we going to see you in future years standing up again, doing the kind of things that got you expelled, that triggered reform in the old Bishop Estate?

 

(Laughs) You know I am getting a little more outspoken and Keola says, ”Ma, you’re swearing more these days.” I used to say dammit, but now I say dammit to hell. (Laughs) Well I think that’s one of the perks of the elderly – that we can speak up, that we’ve been there and we have the courage ‘cause we know what it feels like to be denied your language, denied being a Hawaiian. So there’s no, I don’t think there’s any guilt. It’s just positive affirmations.

 

You’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again.

 

Do it again? (laughs) Thank you honey.

 

You know, you have so much love, so much aloha and yet you believe in principles and standing up even if it ruffles feathers and makes people lose their jobs.

 

Yes. Well it seems, if it’s right, if it’s reasonable, it’s good you know, you should try to keep as much goodness as you can. And sometimes we just need a little help from one other. Just hang on to one another and make it better.

 

But I think what you’re telling us is it’s not just about being nicey nice. It’s about following principles, and values.

 

True, true, yeah.

 

Let me ask you one question – this may be dicey so let me know. One of the things that we do is we ask viewers what would you like to ask Aunty Nona? One of the questions that people always ask about and you may not want to talk about it, I understand. A viewer in Hilo would like to know if you see any mending between your sons Keola and Kapono Beamer?

 

Well you know there doesn’t need to be mending. They have diverse careers.

 

So your sons had a personal and professional parting of the ways. Does it hurt or is it something a family deals with?

 

Well I miss them together, I miss the sound of their singing. At my father’s funeral I was just weeping because I heard them singing together when I hadn’t heard them for a while. I miss the mellowness of their sound. But I see it coming in my grandson now. And I think of all the good things we’ve done. So if their direction is different, so be it. We can’t just stagnate in our same place. We got to grow or we die. So I don’t see that there’s a lot of mending because the love is still there. I don’t know that they’ll sing Honolulu City Lights together again. I don’t know.

 

But they both came to see you when you were in the hospital?

 

Yes they did.

 

Must have been nice to see both of them at once?

 

The same room – we were all talking together. Yes, yes. And I’m glad that it happened before I “make die dead”! (Laughs) Well I do think that they have a lot to contribute. I don’t know what direction. But I think we’re going to see something through Kamana. And his generation will probably mend the fences that their parents have knocked down.

 

They’re the next Beamers.

 

I think so. I think we are going to see some interesting things from him.

 

So what do you, what do you look ahead to? What’s ahead for you?

 

Well you know, I want to keep the Hawaiianess in things as much as possible. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that important. In fact, it’s kind of corny when you say, “What is the Hawaiianess?” you know? It’s this aloha feeling – the kindness between people. You know, speaking nicely, looking at each other smiling, you know. Oh, it seems like so little. But it’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world. And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts – to keep this aloha. Not easy.

 

You know when people who’ve known you a long time and know you well describe you, the personal qualities they tend to talk about are: courage, stubbornness – and they say you’re full of aloha. Are they right?

 

Well, you know I’m very grateful and that’s a big stabilizer in my life – that I’m so grateful for all the things, the goodness of family and everything you’ve had behind you, you know. But you’re not here by yourself. Oh, my great-grandmother’s here, my grandmother’s here, everybody’s here behind me. And I think oh this is part of our aumakua, our belief in our guardians that are around us. But we have to listen. We have to be in tune because they’re all here to help us. But sometimes we get so busy we just run rough shot over everything. And life has so much beauty underneath it. If you just be quiet enough to listen to it.

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian”… just a few words that describe Nona Beamer. It was a pleasure sharing stories from Aunty Nona – and sharing them with you. I wish we had more time. But we have to make this Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kākou!

 

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
The Hawaiian Language

 

Ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, once forbidden in schools and nearly lost, is flourishing again in these Islands. In 1978, it became the official state language along with English. It lives in song, in books, in the daily lives of Hawai‘i residents and in schools dedicated to perpetuating native culture. On the next INSIGHTS, we’ll discuss the Hawaiian language with guests Christopher Kaliko Baker, Assistant Professor, Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa; Manu Boyd, kumu hula, musician, Cultural Consultant at Kamehameha Schools; Kamalei Krug, a graduate of the DOE’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program; and Amy Kalili, Director at Mokuola Honua Global Center for Indigenous Language Excellence.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Facebook:
Visit the PBS Hawai‘i Facebook page.

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
W.S. Merwin

Original air date: Tues., Dec. 22, 2009

 

 

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

 

In his more than fifty year career, William S. Merwin has received nearly every major award for poetry, including two Pulitzer prizes. He has traveled widely and lived in Europe, but since the late seventies Haiku, Maui has been his home. It is also where he found an affinity for native Hawaiian culture and where he crafted a mythical, Hawaiian narrative. He talks to Leslie about how his love for words began as a child, when his mother would read to him. He also reads from some of his poetry collections.

 

W.S. Merwin Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

All day, the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going now. When you are alone, you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain; all the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning.

 

That’s one of Maui’s most honored residents reading his work…he’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, W.S. Merwin. Yes, a major American writer whose poems, prose and translations have brought him international literary standing…he has lived in Ha‘iku, Maui since the late 1970s. W.S. Merwin, or William as his friends call him, next on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. From childhood, W.S. Merwin has loved the sound of words and putting them together. He’s won nearly every major award for poetry in his five decades as a writer.

 

Born in New York City, raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Merwin traveled widely before coming to Maui in the late 70s to study Zen Buddhism. He built a house on old pineapple plantation land in Ha‘iku, Maui, and found himself drawn to native Hawaiians, their culture and their causes. Words remain a constant in his life. In April 2009, he won his second Pulitzer prize for poetry, for his 21st book, The Shadow of Sirius.

 

Well, let me ask you…kind of daunted to be talking to a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Any advice—

 

Forget about it.

 

—for me?

 

[chuckle]

 

What annoys you when people…in terms of how people react to you as a poet and as a Pulitzer winner?

 

Well, I don’t think of myself that way at all, obviously. I mean, pretty silly, wouldn’t it, if I walked around thinking, I’m this, and I’m that. All my life, I’ve wanted to write poetry since I was five years old. I’ve always thought when I finished—when I got a poem to where I was ready to let it go, ‘cause I couldn’t do any more to it, or for it, I thought, Well, I may never do that again, it may never happen again. ‘Cause I don’t think, for me, that it’s an act of will or an act of reason, or any of those things. Suddenly, I think to me, it’s something that you hear. I mean, suddenly, there’s a phrase or there’s a moment in your life, or something which brings up, some words, something that have to do with that. And they’re maybe words you’ve known all your life, but you never paid any attention to them. But all of a sudden, there they are, they’re alive and they’re going somewhere, and you listen to them. And I think that the whole secret of poetry is listening. And children know how to do this. Children start listening. Even before they know what words are, they’re listening, they’re paying attention. And then they learn to read, and in our culture, they’re discouraged from reciting poetry or from the pleasures of poetry, which they know all about when they’re very small. And if they’re lucky, they catch up with it again, and they realize that it’s a matter of not of just understanding, it’s a matter of hearing something, and it’s a matter of pleasure. It should be pleasure. And just as people say, Oh, I can’t do that. Well, you don’t think about a rock lyric, you don’t think about whether you understand it. If you like it, you remember it, and you find that you’re humming it in your head, after a while. And you haven’t thought about whether you understand it, or maybe you don’t understand it. I mean, back in the days long ago, when we all listened to Bob Dylan…I mean, the great lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles I don’t think anybody was supposed to understand then.

 

Somehow, it resonated.

 

What about the Yellow Submarine? I mean, what is understandable—

 

Or—

 

—about a yellow submarine?

 

Or who was the Egg Man?

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

You know, I’m thinking of my daughter who wants to be an artist, and I think from the very beginning, I said, Well, make sure you can earn a living at it. Did you ever say, I want to be a poet, and a parent or someone else said to you, Whoa—

 

Oh, they all said that.

 

—be practical.

 

They all said that. And they said, What are you going to do to earn a living? And I said, Well, I’ll find out that as I go along. But I didn’t do it the other way around. I think I’m going to have a career, and then I’m going to write a little poetry in my spare time. I never ever thought of it that way. I thought, this is what I want to do with my life, and maybe I’ll find some way to stay alive. And I lived on very little money for quite a few years. A lot of artists, in all the arts were that way until very recently. And it’s only in recent generations that people thought that the first thing was earning a living. And as long as you think that, I mean, as long as you think that, you’re not gonna do it. A friend of mine said, Well, I really want to try to translate Hawaiian poetry and I’m gonna do it when I get a grant uh, to do it. And I said, You’re not gonna do it. You don’t care enough about it. He said, What do you mean? I said, You like surfing. And I said, If you want to go to surf in Australia or Bali, you find a way to get to Bali and Australia, and you go surfing. You don’t worry about somebody giving you a grant to go surfing in Bali and Australia. You get on with it. If you want to start translating Hawaiian poetry, which I think is pretty well impossible, you try. You get to work, and you devote a lot of time to it, and you don’t wait for somebody to subsidize you. [chuckle]

 

Why do you think it’s impossible to translate Hawaiian poetry?

 

Because in the first place, the melodic—the lyric aspect of the great chants is… hano hano hanalei I ka ua nui. I mean, how do you ever translate a line like that? It’s so magnificent. But you can’t—there’s nothing—no way in English that you convey that sound. And then underneath; so much of Hawaiian poetry is the overtone, all of the things that it’s referring to, all of the myths that it’s referring to. I mean, if you look at a book of translations, classical translations of Hawaiian poetry, about three-quarters of the page is footnotes, to say what all this really means. I mean, the rain always has an erotic meaning to it, and it has a reference to the place. And that place in other legends. And if you don’t know those things, you don’t really know what the oli is about.

 

You wrote an entire epic narrative of Hawaiʻi, your—

 

Yeah.

 

—adopted home.

 

That’s right. You know the story of Koolau and Piilani. Koolau was famous as a young man. He was the best shot on the island. And they said he never missed. He had one rifle that he was very proud of. And his wife—everybody believed that—you can’t tell from the photographs, but she was considered very beautiful as a young woman. And they were in love, and they were married, and had a little boy, Mana, out on the western corner of—

 

Kauai.

 

Kauai. Koolau was fingered with leprosy, and it was at a time when they wouldn’t let people with leprosy—they would ship them off to Kalaupapa to the leprosy colony over there. And they wouldn’t let anybody from their family go with them, or even accompany them over there. And they never came back. And so the Hawaiians’ name for leprosy was the separating sickness, because it broke up the family. And of course, for Hawaiians, nothing could be worse that that, because the family unit is integral. Koolau and Piilani, they suspected that their little boy probably had it too. And he did. And they decided that they would not allow him to be arrested, and they were going to stay together. And they went over to Kalalau to the valley on the north coast, where there were already a number of Hansen’s Disease patients staying, to stay out of reach of the law. I mean, this was a very wild place, Kalalau, and then was one sheriff that wanted to capture him and make his political name doing that. And Koolau let it be known that they would not leave the valley alive. And that meant, obviously, that anybody who came for them was risking his life too. And the sheriff tried to get the jump on him, and Koolau killed him. And then, of course, they sent the army in after him, and they escaped and I was absolutely fascinated the story, and I suddenly realized that if someone were to want to write about this—I couldn’t write the history, I’m not a historian. I can’t write an essay about it, that’s ridiculous. And so I just sort of carried it around, that story. And I finally thought, the only way it’ll work is as a poem. And the only way it’ll work as a poem is if the central figure is not even Koolau, it’s Piilani. It’s a Hawaiian woman. And I said, I can’t write a whole poem in the voice of a Hawaiian woman. Once I got started, this one night, I just saw her starting out at night, going up the trail,

 

You saw her in your mind? It was a visual—

 

Yeah, yeah. And I started the poem, about her just going up this trail. And the whole of her journey up, who she met, the places she went, and so forth, until she went down and the whole story. And then from there to the whole history of Kauai, because you can’t separate them totally, it’s all the same story. That was the poem.

 

It was a novel-in-verse called “The Folding Cliffs.” He was born William Stanley Merwin and from an early age he had a fascination with the magic of words. In his home on Maui, he writes only in longhand—daily—in a room with a view of the outdoors. Nature is an inspiration.

 

Can you tell me where you were, and what you were doing when you heard your first poetry inside?

 

Well, you know, I was very lucky. This is another thing that a lot of children don’t have. Maybe they never did, I don’t know. But my mother read poems to my sister and me; everything from silly childhood jingle poems to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson spent several years here in Hawaiʻi on the way to the South Pacific.

 

Yes.

 

And I can remember her reading Tennyson’s The Brook, and I love that poem.

 

You loved it as a kid too?

 

Yeah, even when I was a little boy, before I could even read. I think some children are lucky and their parents read stories to them. And that’s great. But prose and poetry are different, and hearing their parents read poetry is, I think very important. My father was a minister, and the sermons, I didn’t pay any attention to. But we had to go to church every Sunday, and sometimes more often.

 

He was a Presbyterian minister, wasn’t he?

 

Presbyterian minister; very strict Scotch Presbyterian. But he read the King James version of the Bible, the psalms and lots of the Old and New Testament, and that in the King James version. And that was the version that really seemed like magic to me, and I really listened to that language, and I know I knew quite a lot of those passages by heart by the time when I grew up and moved away from the whole thing. But I still remember that sound of hearing, hearing the psalms and hearing the proverbs, and hearing the prophets and hearing the New Testament. That’s very valuable for children to hear that.

 

So when you’re writing, do you come at it from a place of joy?

 

Yeah, I really love everything to do with poetry. And I feel very lucky if something ever begins to sort of happen. I think there was a great French novelist, Flaubert, who somebody asked him about inspiration. He said, Inspiration consists in sitting down at the same table, at the same time, every day. And waiting—waiting—wandering around hoping to be struck by lightning, I mean, that doesn’t make much sense. I mean, Keats, the sort of archetypal romantic of English poetry, very great poet, worked at it all the time. He tried very hard to write all the time.

 

And yet, you say when it happens, it’s an accident.

 

Sure. It is; both of these things are true. When you look at dance, I mean, take ballet dance, for example.

 

M-hm.

 

It looks effortless, doesn’t it?

 

It does.   That’s the point, isn’t it?

 

And it’s certainly not effortless. I mean, the effort that went into being able to do that. When you hear someone play Mozart, or any instrument, or whatever kind of music you like, a saxophone playing jazz and improvising; it looks effortless, doesn’t it? It looks as though it happens—

 

Yes.

 

—all by itself. And you know perfectly well it didn’t happen all by itself. This is a whole lifetime that’s gone into that. And I think that’s true of any of the arts. The arts have to be sort of partly an obsession. You have to be a little—

 

Partly an obsession.

 

—a little bit obsessed to make it work. Look at the great surfers. I mean, did they learn how to stand up on a surfboard with a with a big wave curling behind them all by themselves? It looks like the easiest thing in the world. At that point, it is the only possible thing to do. If you change your mind, you’re—

 

[chuckle]

 

—you’re wiped out right there.

 

And for years before, they’ve been on the alert for any bump in the surf, and they’ve been out there.

 

That’s right.

 

After graduating from Princeton, W.S. Merwin began his literary career by translating in works in Spanish, French, Italian and Latin into English. He also worked as a private tutor to the son of famous author and poet Robert Graves. It was through Graves that Merwin met many other literary greats, such as T.S. Elliot. In 1952, when he was only 24 years old, he became a published author, with a book of verse titled The Mask ofJanus. He lived in England, Spain, France, and New York, before settling in East Maui.

 

And what brought you there? You’ve lived in many parts of the world by then.

 

Yeah. I kept a little rent controlled apartment in New York for many years. I wanted to live there part of the year. I came out to Hawaiʻi, and I really fell in love with Hawaiʻi. And I met Robert Aitken, who was the Zen teacher here, and I wanted to stay and spend more time with him. Little by little, the longer I stayed here, the more I wanted to stay.

 

Was it just the nature that drew you?

 

It was partially the feeling of the remains of an ancient culture too, and of an ancient language and culture. And suddenly, here were the real remnants of it, I mean, with the hula and the chants, and the things like that, things that. Everything about it fascinated me. And they were still related to a place, and you could see the place that it was related to. I’m not a wannabe Hawaiian. I mean, that would be very silly. But I had I had, and still have, enormous respect for everything to do with Hawaiians.

 

You’re a very successful poet. But what if you needed to pay the bills, you needed to publish poetry.

 

I would do something else. Then I would—

 

You couldn’t force poetry?

 

No. I would take on a prose writing job, or go do some readings, or something like that to pay the bills. I’ve had to do that all my life. I never expected to earn a lot of money. I think that’s been true of artists all through the years. I mean if money is the first thing, there are very few artists that, for whom money was the first thing. I think there are usually quicker and faster ways of earning money than writing a symphony or writing a few poems, or even writing a novel. I mean, sometimes you make it big with a novel, but sometimes most novelists have got five or six novels in the drawer that never even got published.

 

Do you always pay attention to how many books are selling, how you’re doing in the—

 

No.

 

—marketplace?

 

No, when I get a royalty return or something like that, I look and see how they’re doing, and then I put it in the file and forget about it. I think, sometimes I’m agreeably surprised, and books of poetry don’t sell an awful lot.

 

You’ve won two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry thirty-eight years apart.

 

[chuckle]

 

And yet, you’ve written more than twenty collections, more than twenty books. What was it, do you think, that won you those two Pulitzers for those specific books?

 

I have no idea. I really don’t. I don’t know how people felt when they opened those books and read them, and what other books they were looking at that year that they were comparing them to, and all the deliberations that they went through. And what made them like that book more than another one. And a lot of it is not exactly politics, but it’s chance. It depends on what book came up the last time, and so on, and so forth, and the shuffling of the cards. I mean, part of it is chance in that sense. So I don’t know. And I’ve never tried to double guess editors or if prizes come, I’m delighted, I’m always surprised. I’m very happy and it’s very nice. But I certainly don’t spend my life thinking, I wonder if I might get such-and-such a thing, or anything like that.

 

W.S. Merwin is also a pacifist, anti-imperialist, and an environmental activist. His poems are known for their awareness of the natural world, their intimate feelings for natural landscapes. But they’re not always light and upbeat. Some of them are dark and foreboding.

 

You seem like such a pleasant, jovial, happy person for having an apocalyptic view of the world, as I read your poems.

 

I don’t think these are incompatible. I’m on one level, extremely pessimistic. And you don’t want me to pursue that line of thought either, I don’t think.

 

You’re pessimistic about what humans do to nature.

 

That’s right.

 

I know that; that’s very clear.

 

I don’t think that we’re separate from nature. I mean, this is one of the things in which I differ from Presbyterianism, and a whole lot of that tradition. I don’t think that we’re distinct from the rest of the life at all. And I think that if we damage the rest of life enough, we’re damaging ourselves, and we’ll pay for it.

 

You think we’re continuing down that path.

 

Oh, I certainly do. I think that we can only think of it in terms of our own economic advantage, and this is deadly. The human population reached one billion in 1813. It’s now somewhere around nine, and heading for eleven; and that’s only in two hundred years. Now, what does that mean? That means you’ve got your foot on the accelerator as hard as you can, and you’re heading straight for a stonewall. I mean, the first law of thermodynamics, I believe, says that you can’t have an infinite amount of material in a finite space. Something’s gonna happen, it’s gonna explode. And I think that is why everything seems to be speeding up, and speeding up, and there’s more and more conflict. I mean, look all around the world now, people are at war with each other. And I think that every effort in that direction is a hopeful sign. Every act of kindness simple goodwill toward any living thing is a good thing. I don’t think there’s ever enough of it. And I don’t think we can ever learn too much about it. We never do quite enough of it. We all feel that, don’t we? You know, that we’re never quite nice enough to our parents, or to our friends, or we always forget all those things. I think that’s all true. And it seems so simpleminded that it’s hardly worth saying, but we obviously ought to think about more often.

 

Well, would you do us the favor and the pleasure of reading some of your poetry? Some—

 

Well—

 

Perhaps a couple of selections?

 

Sure. Well, the last book, I think it’s probably—the last is the best place to choose them from. That’s The Shadow of Sirius.

 

Pulitzer Prize winning book.

 

That’s the one. Sirius is the dog star. And it’s the brightest star in the visible sky, in visible humanity. And there are lots of stories about Sirius. But the middle poems of the middle section of the book is a series of little elegies, and they’re all poems to do with dogs. Which is not very common. So let me read a poem. This was about a really great black dog, who was blind, and we used to walk every day together. And it’s called, By Dark. When it is time, I follow the black dog into the darkness that is the mind of day. I can see nothing there but the black dog, the dog I know, going ahead of me, not looking back. Oh, it is the black dog I trust now in my time, after the years when I had all the truth, all the trust of the black dog through an age of brightness, and through shadow, on into the blindness of the black dog, where the rooms of the dark were already known and had no fear in them for the black dog leading me carefully up the blind stairs. She was a creature who was never afraid of anything. That was the wonderful thing about her; there was a real nobility to her.

 

W.S. Merwin and his wife Paula live surrounded by hundreds of species of palm trees that they planted and maintain. The poet rarely ventures far from his sanctuary on Maui. Mahalo to two-time Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin, and to you for joining me on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaiʻi. A hui hou kākou.

 

This a poem to my wife called, To Paula in Late Spring. Let me imagine that we will come again, when we want to, and it will be spring. We will be no older than we ever were. The warm grieves will have eased like the early cloud to which the morning slowly comes to itself, and the ancient defenses against the dead will be done with, left to the dead at last. The light will be as it is now in the garden that we have made here these years together, of our long evenings and astonishment.

 

Oh, that was wonderful.

 

Good. I’m—

 

That was wonderful.

 

—glad you liked that.

 

 

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