Kai Coggin talks poetry, process and her upcoming collection
WORDS / KODY FORD
For poet Kai Coggin life has taken twists and turns to put her where she feels like she belongs. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, raised in Southwest Houston, Texas, she currently sees herself as but a blip in the three million acre Ouachita National Forest in Hot Springs.
After graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M University, she taught for a few years and now spends her time as a poet and freelance writer. Her poems focus on feminism, love, spirituality, injustice, metaphysics, and beauty. Her work has been published in Elephant Journal, Cliterature, The Manila Envelope, [empath], Catching Calliope and an anthology to be released this summer called Journey to the Heart. She released her first chapbook, In Other Words, in August 2013. Her first full-length book of poetry PERISCOPE HEART will be published by Swimming with Elephants Publications at the end of 2014.
She feels that words hold the potential to create monumental and global change, and she uses her words like a sword of Beauty. She can be found most Wednesdays at a local venue, reading her poems into an open mic, hoping the wind carries her words out to the world. We caught up with Kai to discuss her work and recent travels.
You just returned from a pretty exciting trip. Tell us about it.
KC: My trip to Rochester to attend the Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat, hosted by the incomparable and haunting poet Rachel McKibbens, was a really exciting opportunity for me. Only 100 female poets across the country were invited, and when I got the invitation, I felt like the Universe was offering me a resounding “YES, YOU ARE BEING HEARD” confirmation.
In Rochester, I was able to commune and break bread and write with a gathering of women who have so much talent, so much fire, so much charisma, and so much weight in the world of contemporary poetry. It was an overwhelming and emotional and beautiful ride. I had conversations and built relationships with writers that I have admired and read for a long time. It was such an honor for me. I found myself just sitting back at times, like a fly on the wall, soaking up the energy and wisdom of these amazing poets.
What were the other poets like there and what was the general vibe of the event.
KC: The poets at the retreat were not these full-time complete powerhouses of confidence and fire like I assumed they would be. I mean, of course they are powerful; they also were/are women with fears and anxieties and insecurities just like everybody else. It is easy to build someone up in your mind if you look up to them, think that they have all the answers, read their personalities as defined in the words of their strongest poems. This is unfair though. I know that I am not always the woman that I come across as in my poetry. What I had the chance to experience was the vulnerability and the humanity of these writers that I look up to. It was a unique and beautiful experience.
The vibe of the event was freeing. The days were filled with writing workshops and organic discussions (that continue today) about race, privilege, ableism, sexism, submitting, editing, process. The nourishment from the event came from the intimate conversations that were had between writing, the delicious food prepared by Jacob Rakovan and the fiery nightly poetry readings called “Poetry and Pie Night,” where the Rochester community comes out to hear words fly from the mic into the sky. We also went on field trips to write ekphrastic poems in front amazingly painted murals around Rochester called Wall Therapy, to a beautiful waterfall, and to visit the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas at Mt. Hope Cemetery. It was such an enriching and unforgettable few days.
What did you learn during your trip?
KC: I learned the importance of my voice during the trip, my unique and beautiful VOICE. I read two love poems on stage when it was my night to perform at Poetry and Pie Night. The line-up that night (the last night) was ridiculous in terms of talent. I had to read after internationally acclaimed poets like Andrea Gibson and Sarah Kay, two writers that I look up to so much. I had to read after the fiery performances of decorated slam poets that bring FIRE and pain into tangible and palpable energetic experience. I got up on that stage, behind that blessed mic… and I read two love poems from my upcoming book PERISCOPE HEART. I brought a balance of energy with my work, a softness, a depth and looking back on that moment now, I can see that was my purpose. Heart.
Why did you decide to move to Hot Springs? Why do you feel that Hot Springs is a place that allows for creative people to flourish?
KC: I decided to move to Hot Springs because of the nature, the water, the kindness of people. I have found Hot Springs to be the most beautiful place from which to fly, artistically. I started going to the Wednesday Night Poetry Open Mic at Maxine’s about a year ago. It is the longest running poetry open mic in the country; it has been going strong for over 25 years WITHOUT EVER MISSING A SINGLE WEDNESDAY. This dedication to poetry is something that really stuck with me, inspired me, and I challenged myself to write at least one new poem every week to share at WNP. This made my writing flourish in a beautiful way. The people who attend WNP are like my creative family, especially Chuck Dodson, the host. He has been this constant source of encouragement and support for me.
Hot Springs, as a community, has been a tremendous source of creative support for me this year, and I think that living in such a welcoming and nurturing artistic community has allowed me to have all of the successes that I have had over the past few months (getting invited to Pink Door, getting featured in a statewide newspaper, getting a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council, and the upcoming publication of my book, PERISCOPE HEART). People genuinely care here. The community and Maxine’s helped me raise money to get to New York. That would’ve never happened in Houston, where I lived formerly. I am truly blessed to be where I am in this moment, in this beautiful hidden gem of a city.
Are there any notable life experiences that have shaped your work?
KC: For the past six years, I have been on a road to knowing myself, my higher Self. I have had the help and guidance of an amazing woman named Joann, who has helped me to unlock the chains of my past traumas and/or attachments in order to give birth to the new woman that I am today. My poetry reflects a lot of that tumultuous journey that one takes when going deep inside and coming our victorious, on the other side of life. I have been unraveling my pain, my love, my heartache, my joy, my growth and blooming it into poems.
Tell us some of your publishing history.
KC: I was a Poetry and Creative Writing major in college. I started writing poetry full-time a little over a year ago, after moving out of the education sphere, where I taught 9th and 10th grade English. I taught for five years because, out of college, I did not know what I could do with a degree in poetry. In this last year, I learned everything myself, basically from the advice and unknown guidance from my poet friends on Facebook. I started friending poets, slam poets, writers, and now have a connection with people from novices to Presidents of national organizations dedicated to the craft. I learned how to submit poems. I started working on my manuscript by editing and typing up my old poems from handwritten filled-up moleskin notebooks. I wrote new work by engaging in 30/30 writing challenges online where participants write a poem a day for 30 days during National Poetry Month. I immersed myself in poetry.
The first piece that I sent out for publication was a poem called “Bodhi.” It was published July 17, 2013 on Elephant Journal. Since then, I have been published in Elephant Journal, Cliterature, The Manila Envelope, [empath], Catching Calliope and an anthology to be released August 10, 2014 called Journey to the Heart. I released my first self-published chapbook, In Other Words, in August 2013. My first full-length book of poetry PERISCOPE HEART will be published by Swimming with Elephants Publications at the end of 2014.
I continue to submit poems to journals and literary magazines regularly, and get rejection letters regularly. The occasional acceptance is a magical feeling. All part of the craft.
Describe your creative process.
KC: I usually start with a phrase, a phrase or a line will pop into my head and just keep pulsating in my head until I write it into life. Once I sit down to write, it just pours out. I hope that never stops. God, I hope that never stops.
What themes do you like or find yourself drawn to in your poetry?
KC: Love. Feminism. Sex. Freedom. Sexuality. Spirituality. The Journey of the Soul. Justice. Peace. Metaphysics. Beauty.
Any favorite poets or other non-poetry influences on your work?
KC: I love anything by Rumi (especially The Book of Love), Rabindranath Tagore, Kahlil Gibran, Torkom Saraydarian, Mary Oliver, Sappho, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Hafiz, Ai, Shakespeare, e. e. cummings, Ani Difranco. I love the writing of Anais Nin and Jeanette Winterson (my absolute favorite author); their writing touches me just as poetry does.
Some contemporary poets that have spoken to my heart with Beauty and Fire include Andrea Gibson, Jamaal May, Jeremy Radin, Rachel McKibbens, Airea D. Matthews, Dominique Christina, Muggs Fogarty, Natalie E. Illum, Ashlee Haze, Dalton Day, Siaara Freeman, Danez Smith, Sarah Myles Spencer, Sarah Kay, Katie Wirsing and Tarfia Faizullah.
Tell us more about your upcoming collection.
KC: My upcoming first full-length collection PERISCOPE HEART is an opening into the window of my psyche. It shows how I love deeply, how I grow, how I fight growth, how I transcend, how all souls can transcend, how I open myself to the wonders of the Universe inside me. It is a collection of observations and confessions, endings and beginnings, dreams and celebration. It is my whole damn heart. It’s hard for me to capture it in a few words to describe it, because it is so big for me. It is everything I AM, in poetry.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given on writing or life?
KC: The best advice I’ve ever been given to trust myself. And Write. Just WRITE.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KC: I’s like to give a shout out to my two little dogs, Genghis and Layla. Also, Hi MOM! I love you. Okay, that’s it.