University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Brandy Nālani McDougall was named the 2023–25 Hawaiʻi State Poet Laureate. She is the second Hawaiʻi State Poet Laureate, succeeding Kealoha, who served for 10 years from 2012 to 2022.
McDougall is an associate professor of Indigenous studies in the American Studies department, and the director of the Mānoa Center for Humanities and Civic Engagement. Her first poetry collection, The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai was published in 2008 and her second poetry collection, ʻĀina Hānau, Birth Land is forthcoming in summer 2023.
McDougall’s vision for her poet laureateship is to show how poetry and ʻāina together can be a strong source of healing and connection for the people of Hawaiʻi.
“I plan to work with folks who are already doing such amazing work to protect and heal ʻāina. I also plan to work with organizations and schools who serve underrepresented and vulnerable communities,” said McDougall. “I believe writing poetry can be strengthening and transformative for them, but all of us need to hear their poems/stories so those poems can transform us, too.”
Fulfilling role as artist, poetry ambassador
The Hawaiʻi State Poet Laureate role is part of a collaborative initiative between the Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities, State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the Hawaiʻi State Public Library System. The honor recognizes a Hawaiʻi poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment.
During her three-year term, McDougall will hold public poetry readings and offer workshops at schools, public libraries and other community spaces throughout the state. She will also produce two poetry publications. One will be a print publication in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), featuring poetry and mele by Pūnana Leo and Kula Kaiapuni students as well as other ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi speakers. The other will be an online poetry archive, Puka Kinikini, which will feature poetry by local poets throughout Hawaiʻi.
“We have had such a strong and vibrant poetry community here for generations now,” said McDougall. “I hope that both publications will be great resources for teachers and families to use so everyone in Hawaiʻi can read, learn from and celebrate our poetry—and better yet, if they are moved to write poems, too!”
McDougall grew up watching her father write and perform his own mele, which sparked her own interest to do the same. As a child, she often made up her own songs and enjoyed hearing and telling the stories of her kūpuna. Today, she sees poetry as a source of healing, strength and resilience.
“Writing poetry is essential to healing because you really need to lay bare your own stories, to do the work of facing difficult memories and emotions. The poems then hold all of that for you so you don’t have to hold it inside anymore,” explained McDougall. “It’s so freeing and then to see that something beautiful may even come out of that experience—there’s so much life-affirming power in that.”
As a professor, McDougall uses poetry in her Indigenous studies courses to help her students think critically and creatively and to honor the power of their own stories and those of others.
“I find it helpful to use poetry to help students empathize and think beyond the politics of a particular Indigenous issue to also think about the experience of historical and ongoing trauma in our communities,” McDougall explained.
Inaugural poet laureate event
McDougall’s inaugural event as Hawaiʻi State Poet Laureate will take place on Friday, January 13, 6–9 p.m. at the Hawaiʻi State Art Museum (HiSAM). She will be sharing poems as part of HiSAM’s monthly jazz night, The Vibe.
For more information about the event, visit the HiSAM website.
—By Alisha Churma