Interview conducted by Kathy M. Bates and Garrett Long
Transcribed by Savannah Moix-Rogers and Melanie Wilson
In March, poet, author, and teacher, Kai Coggin sat down with Arkana editors following her 2022 Arkatext Festival craft talk and public reading.
Arkana: As a former teacher and current teaching artist, how does your background in education inform your writing?
Kai Coggin: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me! I love what you brilliant young folks are doing at Arkana.
My background in education as a high school English teacher in Houston, and now as a teaching artist in Arkansas does not necessarily inform my writing per se. My poems and my teaching pedagogy are like two different wings of the same bird– they share a common heart. Let me explain.
As you all know, I am an openly queer woman of color living in a southern red state. This informs my writing and my voice. I write fierce and tender lyric poems that cultivate beauty, facilitate empathy, raise awareness of human struggles and human striving, fight against oppressive systems and regimes, and give voice to the marginalized so that readers and listeners can better see our commonalities as a global family working to build a better world. That is one wing. And let’s be clear, neither wing is right-wing, haha.
My teaching, especially now, is an outward-reaching and empowering agent for all of the children and adults I encounter. When I go into a K-12 classroom or lead a creative writing workshop for adults, my personal poetry and social justice work take a backseat, so I can put the imagination and wonder, and magic of poetry into the learner’s hands. I use living poets of color mostly (not old dead white guys, which is what many teachers think poetry is squarely focused upon) to show how poetry is alive, relevant, shaping, evolving, and current. As a lyric poet myself, I know the healing power that poetry can have. I give that power and agency to the children.
Let me back up a bit. My background in education was not much of one, meaning I did not get a degree in education; I got my degree in creative writing and poetry from Texas A&M University. I got my emergency teacher’s certification because when I graduated from college with a degree in poetry, I did not have the foresight or the knowledge to really understand how to turn that degree into a “career.” Basically, I graduated and was like, “Well, what the hell do I do now? How do I make money in the real world with a BA in Creative Writing? What should I do?” I helped my mom buy our first house when I graduated, so I needed to make money. I didn’t want to go back to earn an MFA right away, frankly, because being at a conservative school for four years, and being kicked out of the Corps of Cadets at A&M for violating the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy by falling in love with another female cadet, really took a toll on my mental health. I was done with school, graduating by the skin of my teeth after years of hazing and alienation hurt me emotionally. No way was I going back to school at that point. I was ready to “start my life.”
I was just kind of surviving, honestly, so I got the emergency teacher’s certification, and applied that summer to a high school in the same school district that I grew up in; Alief Independent School District, in southwest Houston. They hired me on the spot; a fresh and eager young first-year teacher, 9th and 10th grade English. The administration gave me the “troubled kids,” the ones that were “high-risk,” but I just saw them as a reflection of my own younger self, so I was able to connect with them right away. It was the poetry lessons that really stuck with those 9th and 10th-grade kids, 98% Black and Latinx, in a way that decades later they still write to me about.
There was this one lesson. I don’t know if you guys have ever heard this story of Sandra Cisneros visiting my class. It’s a long but good story, do we have time?
AR: Oh, absolutely! Sandra Cisneros? Yes! Please tell us.
KC: Okay, so this was my third or fourth year teaching, a few months into the fall semester, and it was time for the unit on poetry. After thinking about a way to hook the students at the start and keep them engaged, I picked a poem called “Loose Woman,” by Sandra Cisneros. I put it up on the overhead. It’s a poem that addresses stereotypes that were hurled at her. She gets called a witch, a bitch–all these different negative things based on being a Chicana, being a feminist, being called a lesbian. She puts it all in this poem. So the 9th and 10th graders were first just giggly: “Ooh, Miss Coggin it says bitch up there.” Teenagers. But then we started unpacking the poem and asking what it means, what she is trying to accomplish in the poem, and then at the end, the kids loved that she takes all those stereotypes and flips them on their heads and says, “I’m not that. I’m this. Watch out! Wachalė!”
For my particular kids, that empowerment within a poem really resonated deeply. As a teacher, when you get kids to care about something when they are engaged, you keep going with that thing. You don’t lose the thread. So I said, “All right class, now we are going to write a shadow poem. You’re going to write your own version of this ‘Loose Woman’ poem, after Sandra Cisneros. Take her form and basic principle, but make it your own.”
They thought about the stereotypes that have been thrust upon them at their young ages, again, Black kids, Latinx kids, kids that grew up in the hood, kids who lived against the backdrop of gangs, violence, crime, kids who were already pipelined into society’s views on who they were going to become. They knew very well what I was asking them to do–to confront those stereotypes: 15-years-old and pregnant, dead at 17, Black boy in jail, gangs, etc.
My students, like any other teenagers, were their own vast and whole human selves– each with their own idiosyncrasies, dreams, hopes, fears, loves. They had been pigeonholed into society’s stereotypes so much already, they felt trapped by them. This poem helped break those thought forms. For the first time, they were given agency and permission to put all that on paper.
“If you want to scream, do it in the poem. If you want to cuss, because you’re angry and frustrated, you can cuss. Go ahead. Put it all in the poem, then flip that script. You have the power. This is YOUR life you are writing about. No one knows you more than you,” I told them.
I was giving them that creative freedom, and oh my god let me tell you their poems were AMAZING. It was some of the best writing that I had ever seen all year from these kids– learning about them, learning their true selves and how they were going to lead their own lives and flip those stereotypes on their heads, writing their whole selves, their own person. Wow. I was blown away. Then they collaged their poems with images from magazines I brought in from the back issues I had of TIME when my father was a journalist. The kids made these really beautiful printed out poems with pictures all around them, and we hung them up on the wall in the hallway, even though a few had cuss words. These poems were alive and fiery, beautiful and vulnerable.
The old dinosaur teachers who shared my hallway called me radical. This new whippersnapper of a teacher doing all these radical things, like taking the kids outside for drum circles and stuff, letting her kids sword fight with yardsticks for Romeo and Juliet. I was that teacher, and the kids were so engaged by writing that poem, so I changed my lesson plans to keep the engagement strong. Our next unit was persuasive writing, so I told my students, “Okay, it’s persuasive writing. You’re going to persuade Sandra Cisneros to come to our school and read us that poem.” “Sure, right, okay, Miss Coggin, Like she would ever come here,” they said, but we did the lesson. I found the address of Sandra Cisneros’ agent in New York City, so I had a real place where I could send these letters. The kids typed them up. They said how her poem affected them. “Could you please come to our school? We’d love to meet you and hear you read this poem. It changed my life” etc.
I brought in fancy pens, and that was the first time for some of them that they had to sign their signature with a fancy pen at the bottom of a real typed business letter, so they were practicing on side scratch paper a bunch of times and changing it, making it more professional. “Okay, this is going to be the one,” and then their little John Hancocks. On the back of each letter, I put the poems that they had just written, too. So it was a letter and an original poem by roughly 200 9th and 10th-grade kids from the hood. I wrote a letter and I wrote a poem and I added it to the top of the stack.
I did not think that anything would come of it. I just thought it was a really badass assignment, like “Good job, Ms. Coggin, you got through the semester. Phew.” I shipped this box of letters off to New York City, thinking I would never hear anything but at least I followed it through. When I came back after Christmas, there was an email from Sandra Cisneros waiting for me, and she wanted to schedule a date to come see my kids. It turned out that the agent in New York got the box of letters, read a couple of them, got on an airplane, flew from New York to San Antonio, knocked on Sandra’s door, and was like, “You’ve got to read these.”
At that exact time, Sandra Cisneros’ mom had just died, so she herself was in this grief-stricken, depressed place. She wasn’t writing, she was just so sad, forlorn, just grieving and depressed. She couldn’t get out of this hole. All of a sudden, 200 letters from Black and Brown kids in Houston arrived on her doorstep saying “your poem helped me, changed my life, changed my thinking, empowered me.” These two worlds kind of converged– she needed our letters as much as we needed her, you know?
So she got on a plane, and she came to my school. I got all my kids out of all their classes for the day. We rented out the computer lab. I put all their poems up on the wall like an art gallery. They dressed in their Sunday best and brought in international cuisine from their different heritages. We spent the whole day with this internationally famous writer, Sandra Cisneros. She came to see just MY KIDS. She even brought a film crew, and they were doing a documentary about her and everything. Not only did she read her poem and give a little talk, but my kids read their poems for her. It changed their lives. Changed my life. I was like, “Man, poetry is powerful.”
And then I took her out to dinner that night and she asked me, “Well, what about you? You’re a writer aren’t you?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah, well I guess.” She reminded me that I was a writer, and invited me to a writing workshop that she holds in San Antonio called Macondo, and she fed the fire within me to make me remember that I, too, was a poet. Poetry was at the heart of this lesson, this whole culmination of beauty.
So, the long and short of it – I didn’t go to school to become a teacher. I was damn good at it, but I’m a poet at heart, and it was poetry that made this lesson so meaningful. That year, I won Teacher of the Year, then I won Teacher of the Year out of the whole school district, and then I was a top five finalist for Regional Teacher of the Year out of 85,000 teachers in the city of Houston, and then I quit to become a full-time poet. Sandra Cisneros wrote the blurb for my first book, Periscope Heart.
Today, instead of being a teacher that is chained to teaching kids how to pass standardized tests and going through all the bureaucracy, I’m a Teaching Artist in poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning Through the Arts. That allows me to go into all these different classrooms, thousands of kids across the state each year, from little ones to big ones, second graders to twelfth graders, and spend a week with them and light them all up from the inside about the magic of poetry. It’s really fun. It’s healing. I tell all those kids that “poetry is a safe place for your feelings,” and for some of them, that’s all they need to hear.
Teaching is that other wing of the bird. Poetry is the heart.
AR: In your latest book, Mining for Stardust, there’s a poem called “My Whole Soul Is In It” which takes on this powerful epic form. The epic is sort of quintessential to a lot of your work and feels steeped in a very American poetic tradition. What led you to adopt this style of writing?
KC: Sometimes, I wish that my poems were not so long. But that poem, in particular, I was leading this community through 2020, this collective trauma with the pandemic, the race riots, the summer of protests, and then this last US Presidential election. Almost my whole third book Incandescent is a rally cry of resistance against the 45th president who will not be named. Literally. My way of standing up to fascism and this dictator and tyranny. The poem you are talking about in Mining for Stardust is getting up to the other side of all that collective political and social trauma.
It is my President Biden Inauguration poem. It is very patriotic, but it was a new sort of patriotism. It is true patriotism and love for a country that I feel (many of us feel) like we almost lost, especially after the January 6th violent insurrection. In this poem, I write of an America that is inclusive of all of us who were on the margins already and were further marginalized by the previous administration. It is an epic reclaiming of our red, white, and blue. There is much work to do, and America is not perfect, but my whole soul is in it, in doing the work and voicing truth to power to create a most just and fair country for ALL.
AR: As writers, we are always talking about the importance of community. What can you tell me about the literary community in Arkansas? What convinced you to stay, and how did you make connections with other writers?
KC: When I came to Arkansas, I didn’t know that I was going to be a poet full time. It was a dream of mine, but I didn’t know that that’s where I was really going to just sink in and do this. Then my father died. As a way of processing, I wrote an article about him. As I mentioned before, he was a journalist for Time magazine and had this really long history of working for the Associated Press and the United Nations. He was the only journalist in 1971 who snuck back into Bangladesh to report to the world the massacre that was happening there. He was a foreign correspondent writing for the AP, and they were all expelled from the city, and he snuck back in on a motorcycle, then on a horse, then on the back of a truck. He was the only reporter that was telling the world these atrocities that were going on in Bangladesh. He brought truth to many dangerous histories. He was even in the CIA, which I found out at 18 when I got a pension check from the government. He was like a real like Forrest Gump, in that he experienced and reported on so many history-shaping moments– Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, he interviewed Shieks and Kings, even the Dalai Lama when they were both just young men. So my dad is like a hero in lots of different places of the world. He had this innate ability to write in a way that helped and inspired people and to name injustices. He spoke truth to power before that was even a named thing. When he died, it was almost like he was standing behind me and saying, “It’s your turn now. Pick up the torch, pick up the pen. Pick up your sword. Own this.”
And I did. I started owning it and realized that Arkansas and Hot Springs are really fertile ground. You know, if you have this seed, and if you do it with good intention, if you plant that energy into something, it’ll bloom. I found Wednesday Night Poetry, an open mic, in 2013. It gave me a place to belong. It gave me a microphone to pour these poems into. It inspired me every week to have a new poem because I knew there would be ears and hearts ready to take it in. It just took that little bit of a nudge, that little community, having a listener, having an audience, that really drove my creativity a lot in those early years as a fledgling poet. It continues to drive me today.
AR: Tell us about your relationship with Wednesday Night Poetry and how that has impacted you as a writer. How did you discover WNP? What was it like taking over as host? How does it feel to be back in person?
KC: When I came to Arkansas, I Googled “poetry open mic” because I was hungry to find a space, and I found Wednesday Night Poetry, the longest-running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country. What? Here? In Hot Springs?? I didn’t go at first. I was kind of scared, but I finally got the courage after it moved to Maxine’s. After my first time, I was just hooked. There was somebody on the other side of these poems, listening, taking it in. I wasn’t just writing for myself anymore.
Having that really has been such a catalyst for all of my work here in Arkansas. I started writing social justice informed work and political work. I even really opened up the mind of the WNP founder Bud Kenny, who was not your typical old white guy. He was awesome. He walked across the country on foot a couple of times, no joke. He had stories about so many incredible experiences, and he was so funny. God, I loved that man. We taught each other things. I taught him it’s not okay to encourage the crowd to yell “Virgin!” when it’s the first time a poet goes up to the microphone. There are women in the crowd who might’ve been sexually abused, and that could be super triggering and scary. “You have to stop doing that, Bud.” And he was like, “Wow, I never thought of that.” He respected me and my opinion, and I did his; we just really clicked. We had a father-daughter connection. I didn’t really know my father that well because my parents split when I was a kid, so having Bud as my poetry dad was cool.
Anyway, he asked me to take over in 2019, at the 30th anniversary, because he wanted to just be able to chill and sit in the back and listen without having to host. He had been hosting or keeping the flame going for decades. He got on one knee, he looked like he was going to propose, and I was like, “Dude, I’m gay. Haha.” But he had his clipboard, and he asked me if I would take Wednesday Night Poetry into the future, and I accepted. I was so honored. It was such a special night.
I accepted and within a few months, he had some heart-related health problems. He was in the hospital, and he had heart surgeries, some complications, etc, and by October of that same year, my poetry dad was dead. Bud died on October 2nd on his own terms, and it was a Wednesday, and I had to go to Wednesday Night Poetry and announce to our community that our patriarch had passed away. It was such a hard day.
Taking Wednesday Night Poetry into the future became taking it into and holding it through this pandemic, which, you know, was quite difficult. I really had to think on my feet to not break that streak of never missing a week since 1989, getting people to record themselves reading a poem and putting it all together every week, posting it online. We couldn’t meet in person, but we were still gathering. And then that gathering sort of spread and it spread, and it became nationwide and worldwide. Four thousand video poems have been shared on Wednesday Night Poetry over the last ninety-something weeks we have don’t it virtually. It’s become a global phenomenon that I never would have expected this little coffee shop reading in Hot Springs to do. It’s pretty awesome. We’ve had some of the giants of our literary community featured at it: Joy Harjo, Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ada Limón, Richard Blanco, who was President Obama’s inaugural poet, and Juan Felipe Herrera, who was a U.S. Poet Laureate, as well. But, also, lots of rising poets, poets who are fresh and new, and they’re posted at the same time as these giants. It was my way of crashing down the literary gatekeeping gates, and that sense of community has really thrived and helps hundreds of people survive these difficult years.
We are back in person at Kollective Coffee+Tea in Hot Springs now, but I continue to have the virtual space on the second Wednesday of each month as well, through 2022. I think Bud would be proud. Actually, I think BOTH of my dads would be proud of me.
AR: You’ve always been an advocate for local members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially youth, and social justice at large. What inspired your focus on advocacy, and what impact do you hope to have on marginalized communities?
KC: I hope to be a representative of it. I help LGBTQ+ youth because I needed help as an LGBTQ+ youth. If I had a queer poet in front of me, a queer adult, that was like, “Hello, I exist, I am a real thing, and I am happy and normal,” it would’ve saved me from so many years of pain and trauma and drug abuse and just plain hardship and isolation. Representation DOES matter. I put it in my bio now: “She is a queer woman of color who thinks Black Lives Matter.” That same bio was given to Governor Hutchinson who voted for the state’s Poet Laureate. I was nominated for Poet Laureate of Arkansas this year. I did not win, probably because of those words, and my identity and politics in this red state, but I am the first Brown queer woman to ever have been nominated for that coveted Laureateship, and I was nominated by the outgoing Poet Laureate Jo McDougall. That is progress. It’s slower progress sometimes than we all hope sometimes, but it is progress nonetheless.
I was planning my project as Poet Laureate to focus on marginalized youth, marginalized kids in the schools, and creating book clubs and safe spaces to write as their whole authentic selves. I feel like now, I am the Arkansas Poet Laureate of the streets, of the margins. I focus on helping these communities because I AM THESE COMMUNITIES. It’s all about love. That’s why I do it.
AR: What are you working on now?
KC: I’m working on rest. I’m not doing a very good job at it today, as you can see I am running on fumes. I taught poetry to hundreds of elementary school kids last week. I taught middle school kids this week. I hosted Wednesday Night Poetry last night and woke up super early to drive here to UCA to deliver this Keynote. I’ve been giving so much, for these last two years especially with the community work, that I am actively seeing that I need to take some time to replenish with some self-care. I need to go sit by some water, have a good meal, make a fire outside, and just live, sit, watch spring bloom, and not pressure myself to write poems about it for once. I’m going to try that this April for National Poetry Month. This will be the first year in 8 years I am not doing the 30/30 challenge, to write 30 poems in 30 days. This year, I am resting and resisting the constant productivity in which we poets live.
Instead, I will be challenging myself to experience 30 naps in the middle of the day, 30 breaths of fresh spring air, 30 days of wishing over planted seeds in the garden, 30 walks in our woods, 30 koi pond mind meanderings, 30 moments of stillness, 30 days of sitting on the back deck naming birds with my wife, 30 snuggles with my sweet Pekingese Genghis and Layla, 30 deep exhales, 30 kisses with my wife, 30 looks in the mirror thanking my own reflection for my light, strength, beauty, and warrior heart.
I’m going to rest so I can keep this little bird flying high, reaching as many people with poetry as I possibly can. Thank you both for such a fun interview.
AR: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Kai Coggin is the author of Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press 2021), Incandescent (Sibling Rivalry Press 2019), Wingspan (Golden Dragonfly Press 2016), and Periscope Heart (Swimming with Elephants Publications 2014), as well as a spoken word album Silhouette (2017). She is a queer woman of color who thinks Black Lives Matter, a teaching artist in poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council, and the host of the longest-running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country—Wednesday Night Poetry. Discover more about Kai Coggin at her website.
Image Credit: “Dreaming of Colors That Won’t Wash Out, Botanical Series” by Nina Tichava