Poet slams crisis into UN

I t was no surprise to friends of Marshall Islander Kathy JetnilKijiner when her delivery of a poem about the looming climate crisis sparked a standing ovation from heads of state at the United Nations General Assembly hall in September. That four-minute oratory titled “Dear Matafele Peinam” — a poem to her infant daughter — electrified world leaders at the opening of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit in New York City, and has since gone viral on YouTube, with over 300,000 views.

But the roots of that poem and its superb delivery go back to Jetnil-Kijiner’s Hawaii high school days a decade ago when she was first exposed to “slam poetry.” “It was like lightning went off in my head when I heard it,” said JetnilKijiner, now 26 and an instructor in Pacific studies at the College of the Marshall Islands. She was an avid writer in high school and achieved a journalism degree before completing a master’s in Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii earlier this year. “I’d never seen poetry performed this way before, or the dialogue with the audience,” she said. “I thought, this is it. It was something I wanted to do.” Her poise wasn’t always there.

She tells of fretting about her first performance, staying up all night working on the text of the poem, and having to work up the courage to stand in front of people. In her last semester in high school, she competed in a slam poetry contest to represent Hawaii in a New York City contest. Jetnil-Kijiner was selected to go to New York for the competition, another in a line of eye-openers for the then-high school senior. “Slam poetry has its roots in hip-hop music,” she said.

“It was much edgier than anything I’d done.” Participating in the New York contest opened her eyes to a new world of performance poetry, hip-hop musicians, and New York City. “I was in shock the whole time,” she recalled. But these public performances were showing her the value of this form of oratory to tell people about her part of the world. “I knew certain stories that no one else in the world was talking about,” she said. “And I knew a way to do it.”

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