UO alumna is named Hawaii's new poet laureate

Brandy Nālani McDougall, a graduate of the UO’s Creative Writing Program, has been selected as the 2023-25 Hawaii state poet laureate.

McDougall is an associate professor of indigenous studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and director of the Mānoa Center for Humanities and Civic Engagement. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the UO in 2001.

Born and raised on Maui, McDougall is Hawaii’s second poet laureate, succeeding Kealoha.

“I’m a strong believer in the healing power of stories and poetry, which I would say is a way of telling a story or stories with the musicality of one’s voice and a depth of meaning that relies on human experience and knowledge,” McDougall said. “I see poetry as, above all, a form of connection, of pilina, that was created to help us humans to remember, to dream, to empathize, and to hope, and all of these ways to connect are really core to healing ourselves, our ʻāina (land) and the planet.”

Brandy Nalani McDougall
Brandy Nālani McDougall

She said poetry has the power to bring communities together in healing ways, “but as the ʻāina of our beautiful islands in Hawaii have taught us, poetry is also a way to connect and heal through, and with, ʻāina.”

McDougall was recruited to the UO’s MFA program, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, by Garrett Hongo, Distinguished Professor in the Creative Writing Program and an acclaimed poet and writer. Hongo said he sees McDougall’s appointment as a capstone of the MFA program he’s helped lead.

“I look at it as a huge confirmation of a long foreground of dedication and effort, and I have to say, I take it as a matter of pride myself that she has ascended to this position,” Hongo said.

Hongo said McDougall is one in a long line of writers who have come through the program and gone on to success in the literary world, including Chang-rae Lee, a novelist and professor of creative writing at Stanford University; Major Jackson, a poet and director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University; and Keetje Kuipers, also a poet and editor of Poetry Northwest.

“To me it is not only her honor, it’s an honor to our program at the U of O and what we’ve been able to accomplish, encourage and establish,” Hongo said.

In Hawaii and in Japan, there is a tradition of legacy and lineage in the arts, “and this is what I think this represents,” he said.

“She brings together the Kānaka Maoli community, of Hawai’i natives; she brings together the academic community of indigenous and ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii; and globally she brings together a lyric and a political voice of upraised consciousness among all peoples who have been marginalized and colonized,” he said. “And she brings recognition of her own intellectual dedication and fervor. Finally, she represents the University of Oregon MFA program, so she pulls together many families, many communities.”

While earning her MFA at Oregon, McDougall also spent time teaching poetry and ethnic studies. After graduating from the UO, McDougall was awarded a Fulbright grant to study in New Zealand and then earned her doctorate at the University of Hawaii.

McDougall first poetry collection, “The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai,” was published in 2008. Her second poetry collection, ʻĀina Hānau, Birth Land, is set to published in this summer.

The laureate role is a collaborative initiative between the Hawaiʻi Council for the HumanitiesState Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the Hawaiʻi State Public Library System. The honor recognizes a Hawaii poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment.

McDougall grew up watching her father write and perform his own “mele” — chants, songs and poems — which sparked her own interest to do the same, according to a University of Hawaii news release. As a child, she often made up her own songs and enjoyed hearing and telling the stories of her kupuna, or grandfather. Today, she sees poetry as a source of healing, strength and resilience.

McDougall said her vision for her poet laureateship is to show how poetry and ʻāina — the land —  together can be a strong source of healing and connection for the people of Hawaii.

“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,” McDougall said. “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.”

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,” or the Hawaiian language, featuring poetry and mele by students as well as other Hawaiian language speakers. The other will be an online poetry archive, Puka Kinikini, which will feature poetry by local poets throughout Hawaii.

By Tim Christie, University Communications
—Top Photo:
Brandy Nālani McDougall at the University of Hawaii at Manoa