Lee Kava is a hafekasi musician of Tongan descent, currently dreaming/scheming about how she might produce an album and make it an acceptable form of completing her PhD in English at UH Mānoa. She is the founder of the Pacific Verse, a music-writing workshop series that works with participants to create original lyrics and music using indigenous Pacific languages. She dedicates her work to the genealogy of creative expression in Oceania, and hopes to make positive social change through Pacific music and poetry.
It’s great to see you in the English department! Could you tell us about your transition between programs and what inspired the shift?
I just finished my MA in Pacific Islands Studies over at UH Mānoa Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS). When I started there, I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer or poet, and it took the encouragement of good friends and excellent professors in the UH Mānoa English, American Studies, and Pacific Islands Studies departments to start working through poetry as a critical and creative means of working through Pacific Studies. I had the opportunities to take creative writing seminars in the English department that centered the Pacific–classes like Alice Te Punga Somerville’s seminar on Pacific Literature and Craig Santos Perez’s creative writing seminar on Pacific poetry. I think these seminars, the training that CPIS provided, and the opportunity to work with the Pacific Tongues organization here in Honolulu truly changed the way I think about creative writing and the power of poetry. Through the support and guidance of my professors at CPIS, I was able to foreground Pacific poetry and music in my MA portfolio, and encouraged to apply to a PhD program. I applied to the English department at UH Mānoa because I wanted to keep shaping my skills as a Pacific Islander poet and writer, and I wanted specifically to stay at UH Mānoa in order to keep working in the communities of poets/writers/scholars/musicians/activists who are changing how we use our writing and performance to make a difference in the Pacific.
How long have you been writing? What has changed, in terms of either subject or yourself as a writer, along the way?
I’ve been playing music since I was 5, and attempting to write lyrics since I was about 15. I never thought of myself as an artist, let along a “writer”, until coming to UH Mānoa. What has changed is how I’ve been taught to think of writing and the power that self-expression through poetry can have. I think the major change in my approach to the power of poetry and writing is a result of being part of Pacific Tongues and going through poet facilitator training. Through our training, we work through how we as poets and performers can get youth, and really anyone we work with in writing workshops, to speak their own truths through poetry. There is so much at stake for our youth, and our communities in general, if we do not feel empowered to speak. Pacific Tongues provides tools and stage for some of the youth of Honolulu to empower themselves through spitting their poetry, and it is this relationship to the power of the word and self-representation that reminds me what is so important about writing and performance. I think the root of this is the idea of responsibility as a writer, particularly as a writer with the opportunity to be in an academic institution where I can teach.
What kind of truths speak through your own poetry?
Perhaps words and poetry are the tools and medium for the truths I want to get at through the act of performance. It’s hard to explain – perhaps writing about and grappling with identity as a mixed-race Pacific Islander woman on a page, and then speaking those words to life on a stage, are parts of a process of getting at some truth. I want to speak truth to the importance of expressing Pacific Islander identities, that our stories matter, that we matter, our Ocean matters, and our connections to our Ocean are critical to our survival. Our words as Pacific Islanders are important to be written, and even more important to be spoken and passed along, even if it’s just to the one friend who’s down to listen, or that one family member who’s open to hearing your work and keeping you responsible to the real emotions, people and communities you bring with you when you write.
How would you describe your work thus far?
Pacific identity-centered and aimed at empowering Pacific audiences. I am still figuring out what to do with form and structure, but I do feel that I am getting to understand the importance of a sustained writing practice.
What are you currently working on?
I am the director of the Pacific Verse project, which is hosted by the ICON Creative Summit in Tonga and Pacific Tongues here in Honolulu. This project focuses on music and poetry-writing workshops that get participants to engage indigenous Pacific languages and cultural genealogies in our writing. As for my writing, I’m currently working on poems in Craig Santos Perez’s Ecopoetics writing seminar.
Could you give us a preview of what you’ll be performing at MIA?
Sure! Here’s a section from a poem I’ll be reading entitled “driving between – for Lucy”
every day, Lucy Lou drives herself
crazy long distances
on her tiny blue Toyota car, running
between UH Mānoa and keeping both eyes
on wandering grandparents, who occasionally
walk free down the road from the family house in Laie –
Lucy Lou steers one-handed between
the exit off University and her wedding
plans for June on Big Island, accelerating
to make it through intersections of good student
and responsible daughter, Lucy Lou
is not afraid of the cops
or bossy mechanic authorities
who try and dictate how “a good Tongan girl”
should maintain herself
Hear Lee read her work on Sept. 17, 7 p.m. at Manifest in Chinatown.