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Maui woman wins national poetry prize, a first for an ‘Oiwi poet

Revilla strives to represent queer community, indigenous culture

Maui’s No’u Revilla, also an assistant professor in University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of English, becomes the first Native Hawaiian poet to win the National Poetry Series competition with her manuscript “Ask the Brindled.” The recognition also secured Revilla her first-ever book deal with publisher Milkweed Editions. Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada photo

A Maui woman last week became the first ‘Oiwi (Native Hawaiian) poet to win the annual National Poetry Series competition with her manuscript titled “Ask the Brindled,” which strives to empower other ‘Oiwi women and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

No’u Revilla of Waiehu, currently an assistant professor of creative writing with an emphasis on Native Hawaiian literature in the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of English, was offered a book deal by Milkweed Editions after she topped more than 1,600 other poets in the 2021 NPS open competition.

“In the beginning, I was utterly in rapture, but the more time that passes I feel more and more rooted,” said Revilla via phone on Friday afternoon from O’ahu. “It took me four years to write this book– the manuscript was based on my dissertation which I defended in 2019 — and I just started sending the work out at the end of 2020, so winning this prize is such a huge opportunity and every day that passes, I feel closer to all the reasons why I write poetry. I feel closer to my kupuna, who’ve inspired me.”

Revilla said she is “incredibly honored” and is “very grateful” that “Ask the Brindled” was selected by NPS judge Rick Barot. The collection aims to navigate how love and aloha is possible in the face of colonization, sexual violence and homophobia.

“Aloha is complex. Aloha is intergenerational, ‘aina-based, and brilliant, so respect it as such and celebrate it as such,” she said. ” ‘Oiwi poets have been aloha ‘aina poets well before 1778, well before 1893, and we will continue to write our own stories and protect our lands and waters for centuries to come. I am just one poet in a long tradition of literary excellence.”

The book, which will feature some of Revilla’s newest poems, will be completed in fall 2022 by Milkweed, which is considered one of the nation’s best independent publishers.

“They have been a dream publisher of mine,” she said. “They cultivate bold, tender and innovative work.”

According to a UH news release, Revilla will also most likely become the first openly queer ‘Oiwi woman to have produced and published a full-length collection of poetry.

Passionate about familial roots and Hawaiian culture, she hopes her book of poetry will respond to the lack of representation of queer indigenous women in Pacific Literature, and empower future ‘Oiwi writers and story tellers.

“Representation matters, and when you see someone who looks like you, who talks like you, who loves like you, speaking their mind and creating positive relationships, your scope of what’s possible expands,” she said. “LGBTQ+ Hawaiians exist, we are here and we have always been here. We’re out there uplifting our people, we’re caring for our elders, teaching our youth, we’re growing our food, protecting our waters, we’re leading our movements, we’re everywhere.”

When people are proud of who they are as an individual, they will “love fearlessly” and “authentically.”

“When that happens, we create longer lasting pono relationships and those relationships make a better world,” she added.

And writing poetry, collaborating with fellow or rising ‘Oiwi poets, and teaching is her way of contributing toward that vision, said Revilla, who has also run workshops through UH Manoa as well as in Papua New Guinea, Canada and the United Nations.

She also taught poetry at Pu’uhuluhulu University in 2019 while demonstrating at Mauna Kea.

Some examples of her latest poems, released as singles, include “When You Say Protestors Instead of Protectors” and “Mercy” published last year in ANMLY, or “Maunakea,” or “Intergenerational Memory” published on Flux, The Current of Hawaii, in 2019.

Revilla’s first-ever poems spurred from heartbreak, she noted, but as she kept writing toward her dissertation a few years ago, the collection grew to reflect healing, culture and different kinds of love — love for “who you really are, your chosen family, love for your land and waters.”

Some of her initial teachers in aloha are her family members living in the Valley Isle, like her mother who showed her the importance of sharing gratitude and documenting life.

“All of them have shaped my writing,” said Revilla, who has not been home in over a year due to COVID-19. “No one can make me laugh as joyously as these people either, and the strength and tenderness I learned from being born and raised on Maui — you cannot learn anywhere else.”

Grandmother Henriette La’ieikawai Kanana of Hana, who helped raise Revilla and her sister and cousins in Kahului, is the main foundation of the book.

“My spirit comes from her and she is definitely a major presence in the collection because she is a source for me and my family and without her, it would have been nonsense,” Revilla said. “Some of the poems that are about her, I’m hoping some people will be like “Oh my God, there’s La’iei,’ and get a sense of pilina to her. … That would make my century.”

For more information about Revilla’s work, visit https:// www.nourevilla.com/

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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