The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story by Lindsey Wells, pho­tog­ra­phy by Richard Ras­mussen

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

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