The Power of poetry
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.