The Power of poetry

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Grace Brown


poet Kai Coggin came to Hot Springs six years ago af­ter she de­cided to rein­vent her­self and fol­low a life­long dream to be­come a fa­mous poet.

Her pub­lished work has been re­ferred to as “words (of) spells, chants, prayers, (and) in­vo­ca­tions” by other au­thors, and she is rec­og­nized for her com­mu­nity ac­tivism, but the story of how she came to write poetry in the first place is not as well known.

Coggin moved to the United States with her mother and lit­tle sis­ter at the age of 7 af­ter her par­ents di­vorced. She spent the first seven years of her life liv­ing with her fam­ily in Bangkok, Thai­land, where she at­tended a Bri­tish pri­vate school and took bal­let classes, but she has no con­crete mem­o­ries of her life un­til she moved to Hous­ton.

“I lit­er­ally have no tan­gi­ble mem­o­ries of it. It’s just weird. Some­times the mem­ory does that kind of thing to like pro­tect you. Most of my mem­o­ries are shaped from pho­to­graphs and sto­ries, you know. I feel like the di­vorce was kind of a trau­matic event for me,” she said.

Her fa­ther was an Amer­i­can work­ing for the United Na­tions in Hong Kong while her mother had just left the fam­ily farm in the Philip­pines to broaden her hori­zons when they met in a post of­fice and later fell in love. Al­though Coggin never lived in the Philip­pines, she said her mother’s love for her cul­ture would come out mostly in her cook­ing and un­spo­ken things she in­cluded in their daily lives.

She grew up in a di­verse sec­tion of Hous­ton where it was more com­mon to be Filipino-Amer­i­can or Latino-Amer­i­can than it was to be white. She was raised on cel­e­bra­tions of di­ver­sity and cul­ture and grew up in more of a melt­ing pot rather than in a home hy­per-fo­cused on their own her­itage.

Coggin said a sub­con­scious de­sire to in­still a sense of pride in her fa­ther shaped much of her child­hood and early adult life. She went so far as to en­roll in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity, only to later be dis­missed for em­brac­ing her sex­u­al­ity, and as­sumed the role of pro­tec­tor over her mother and younger sis­ter.

“He brought us to the United States and like made sure we had an apart­ment and then he went back to Bangkok. The thing I al­ways re­mem­ber is he looked at me as I was hug­ging his leg and said, ‘take care of your mom and sis­ter for me,’” she said.

Those part­ing words changed her life and led her to pur­sue a path not en­tirely her own, as­sum­ing a very adult role in her fam­ily while her mother worked sev­eral dif­fer­ent jobs to pro­vide for them. Coggin said that she un­der­stood her fa­ther’s pas­sion, drive and in­ten­sity of spirit and never blamed him for the de­ci­sions he made. She con­tin­ued to have a re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther un­til his death.

Af­ter she grad­u­ated from col­lege, Coggin said

she reached one of the dark­est points of her life. The sub­con­scious de­sire to be like her fa­ther clashed with her “hippy, free spirit,” leav­ing her to sift through the wreckage and re­assem­ble an au­then­tic iden­tity for her­self. Her sav­ing grace was teach­ing poetry.

“I got re­ally heavy into teach­ing and that was like my world af­ter I got out of col­lege and I was re­ally, re­ally good at it. I had got­ten all these hon­ors and made such a dif­fer­ence but there was this nag­ging feel­ing in my heart … I was on top of the moun­tain and then I re­tired. I felt like to be a good ex­am­ple for my stu­dents, I had to go for my dream,” she said.

The death of her fa­ther in 2012 cat­a­pulted her writ­ing for­ward af­ter she used her tal­ents for the first time in a while to write her fa­ther’s eu­logy. This man she had come to know over the years as a hum­ble Amer­i­can hero was about to be laid to rest with­out a sin­gle per­son speak­ing on his be­half. She could not let that hap­pen.

“I wrote a poem in the car on the way to River­side Na­tional Ceme­tery and I did his eu­logy. It was the first poem I had writ­ten in years,” she said.

Coggin took a year to sub­merse her­self into life and re­dis­cover who she was. In that time, she and her part­ner moved to Hot Springs on a whim and be­gan their lives anew. Since mov­ing, she has fully im­mersed her­self into her own poetry, pub­lished two com­plete works, “Periscope Heart” and “Wing­span,” and be­gan teach­ing poetry to chil­dren and adults. Her third com­plete book of poetry has just been ac­cepted by Si­b­ling Ri­valry Press out of Lit­tle Rock.

“My heart is so open here. If I would have start- ed my writ­ing ca­reer in Hous­ton, it would not have taken off like it has … here it’s like, pure. I put my vi­bra­tions out onto this clean, pure can­vas and it has taken off,” she said.

Coggin reads a poem from her book, Wing­span, at a poetry read­ing in Hot Springs.

Cog­gins teach­ing at the Delta School.

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