Unless you're familiar with the city, Hot Springs probably isn't the first city to come to mind when you think about arts destinations. New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas, maybe, but Hot Springs? Our city is a diamond in the rough, and poet Kai Coggin is creating big waves in the Spa City's art scene.
Born in Bangkok, Thailand, to a poet mother and a journalist father, Coggin is a poet, writer, teacher, author, creator and activist. She describes herself as a “creative person who's warmhearted, compassionate, and really, really sexy — and sarcastic too.”
Coggin grew up in Houston, Texas, and majored in poetry and creative writing in college. After college graduation she obtained her emergency teaching certification and right away became a high school English teacher in Texas. In her five years as an English teacher she was named Teacher of the Year, District Teacher of the Year and Secondary District Teacher of the Year out of 85,000 teachers in the region.
“I kind of climbed all the way up to the mountaintop and then I retired,” she said.
Coggin then moved to Hot Springs and said her poetry just started naturally flowing out of her. She published her first poem three years ago.
“It just naturally started happening because it's so beautiful here. I can look out
the window and see all the trees and the animals and the deer and I just started writing again, and in three years I put out two books,” she said. “I've put my whole heart into it so it's taken off. Hot Springs is so fertile; if you plant a seed here of creativity, it'll flourish if you're pure with your heart.”
To Coggin, poetry is her way of expressing herself and making sense of the world. She uses her words to open other peoples' eyes to things that are going on and force them to look deeper into things.
“Poetry is something that I can't not do. It's apart of me. It's so much apart of me that I don't even have a one-word explanation for that,” she said when asked what poetry means to her. “I am poetry. I teach poetry. I try to be poetic just in what I wear and how I act. It's more than just writing.”
She writes about the easy things — love, beauty, sex, spirituality — and the hard things too. Coggin said with her poetry she tries to “give a voice to what doesn't have a voice,” adding, “any injustice that's going on or any situation I can bring light to.” Most recently she has written about the Black Lives Matter movement and activism.
In her most recent book of poems, “Wingspan,” you'll find a poem called “An Open Letter to My Arm Flaps.”
“It's a letter about beauty and about reverence and loving these things on my body that are flapping around. There's a line in there where I call them my `glorious wingspan.' It's obviously about a bird's wings but it's something that spreads so wide and far and can pull people in.”
Coggin and her best friend and partner, Joann, who's an artist, designed the book cover themselves after Coggin had a dream about it. Joann painted the covers for both of Coggin's books, “Wingspan” and “Periscope Heart.”
Coggin now makes her living as a teaching artist of creative writing. She's on the Arts in Education roster for the Arkansas Arts Council and teaches an adult creative writing class at Emergent Arts every couple of months called Words and Wine. She is also working with Arkansas Learning Through The Arts to bring poetry into Garland County classrooms beginning in the next school year. Part of her income comes from her book sales, which can be purchased at http://www.kaicoggin. com. Coggin personally signs and places a feather in each book.
“The feather is the bookmark. I tell them that I rip them out of my own angel wings and it just ties it all together,” she said. “People love that little personal touch. That also came in a dream; I have lots of dreams — to get help from that side, you know.”
On any given Wednesday, whether in the audience or on the stage reciting her poetry, Coggin can usually be found at Kollective Coffee+Tea for Wednesday Night Poetry, the longest running open mic poetry event in the country. The open mic is held every Wednesday beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Coggin has performed at open mics across Arkansas and has been the featured poet for various events. One event that sticks out in her mind is the 18th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast, which was held at the Hot Springs Convention Center on Jan. 18 this year. She recited her poems “Standing Where a King Once Stood” and “Every Black Boy is a Lion” at the breakfast.
In addition to her mother and sister, Coggin credits her college professor, Chuck Taylor, for inspiring her poetically and helping her get where she is today.
“He really took me under his wing and said `you know what, you've got something,' and I didn't even know that I did, so I believed him. All these years later he's still buying my books and encouraging me.”
Coggin serves on the board of the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance, the purpose of which is to “bring together all the different kinds of arts — visual, music, poetry, literature, painting — all of those different arts together under this one umbrella organization,” she said, adding, “just being apart of that in the past year has shown me how much this town has going in terms of art. There's always something on the calendar. It's like a mecca of art but it's so little and the people here don't have a lot of money to spend on art, but they appreciate it with their hearts.”
Of her creative process and how she gets “in the zone” to begin writing, Coggin said, “I like to wake up before everyone else in my house wakes up and I go into my office and sometimes I'll read the news or whatever's going on, or sometimes I'll just sit there and scroll on Facebook, and I don't force it; it just happens, things just come and usually when something comes, it all comes out at once. It doesn't take me weeks to write a poem, it just comes.
“As long as I get up and I'm kind of in that head space and I let myself go to it, something comes. I do a lot of writing at Words and Wine because I write while my students write, so that is also cool, to feel the vibe of everyone else's creative energy all together in one room.”
Coggin has had great success with her poetry. She's been widely published and has won several awards, but she said she hasn't really “broken into the big market” yet.
“I just want to keep going with it and get as big as I can so that I can give more people my work, my art. I feel like it's helpful and I feel like it gives people direction and teaches people how to look at things,” she said, adding that there's a difference between spiritual poetry, or poetry with a purpose, and slam poetry.
“Not that slam poetry is negative or anything but sometimes it's just a lot of spewing out all these negative things that happen to you. I talk about negative things that happen, but then I always like to end it with light, with some kind of hope. I think that's how my poetry is different from a lot of other poetry. There's always a message at the end of each poem, there's always a way to keep going, like, even though the world sucks, there's still this, there's still that light, still that flower, so that's my purpose and I want more people to be able to hear that and feel that because I think people need it, especially right now.”
Kai Coggin with her book ‘ Wingspan’ at Kollective Coffee + Tea