Named “Best Poet in Arkansas,” Kai Coggin is the author PERISCOPE HEART, WINGSPAN, and INCANDESCENT. She is a QWOC who thinks Black Lives Matter, a poetry teaching artist with the Arkansas Arts Council, and host Wednesday Night Poetry. She lives with her wife in Hot Springs National Park.
My poetry is fiery and intuitional, struck by wonder, and driven by searching out light in the chaos. My work for the last 15 years has been about facilitating empathy, bridging language to heart, finding a way to effectively communicate feelings and experiences into tangible moments of poetry or learning— and sometimes if I am lucky, both. I have been a poet all of my life, even before I knew that how I was navigating the world had a name, had a particular magnifying lens that looked at everything a little closer, a little deeper, searching for meaning in the mundane. After a series of adolescent traumas shaped my small shoulders into weighted-down worlds, it was poetry that saved my life, literally and figuratively.
Before transitioning to a career in poetry, I was first a 9th and 10th grade English teacher, who took my students outside for poetry and drum circles on the lawn, and built a life-size balcony, and meter-stick-aluminum-foil-wrapped swords in my classroom for Romeo and Juliet. People wondered about my “radical” methods, but the students learned, were engaged, and inspired. I taught my students of the power of their own writing with a poetry project that culminated with
an exclusive classroom visit from the internationally acclaimed author of The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros. I saw the transformative power and healing of poetry, especially for young black and brown kids, like the kid that I was. I was recognized as Teacher of the Year, District Secondary Teacher of the Year, and was a top five finalist for Regional Teacher of the Year out of 85,000 teachers. I got to the top of the mountain, and then… I quit. Though I was passionate about teaching, I still had a dream to chase, and it was poetry.
Since 2012, I have been fueling the fire of my words, completely and unafraid. PERISCOPE HEART (2014) is a first step into the world, an exploration of selfhood, the body, the spirit, the striving soul, and love unfurled in words that echo with the passion of a poet opening to the world. WINGSPAN (2016) is a book of spirit, movement, mirrors, activism, love, and the fluttering song of a woman who is coming into her own beauty and beingness, her power. Activism takes on a more central role as the chaos of the world rises to the surface, and injustice seeks poetic condemnation and fierce calls to action. My poems become shields for Black boys killed by police, reckoning for school children afraid of gun violence, voice for the generational trauma of women. The ongoing peril of the world provoked the political fire of my latest book INCANDESCENT (2019)— these poems are revolutionary spears of poetic vibrations against the Trump regime’s policies that assaulted Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ people, womens’ bodies, the borders, the land, the glaciers, damn near everything. MINING FOR STARDUST (forthcoming) sifts light from the darkness of the pandemic and political chaos.
I write to give voice to unfoldment of human experiences going unheard/unseen, to magnify beauty, to illuminate injustice, to be a mouth for the marginalized, to make people interrogate their biases, to facilitate EMPATHY. Whether I am teaching second graders to write about their feelings in a rhyming couplet, or I am on a zoom call with a United States Poet Laureate, I am the same poet— flawed, growing, authentic, intuitional, intentional, and open. My poems are threaded with light— though I can be a warrior with my words, it is light and heart with which I write. My poems make people feel.
⌘ My Whole Soul Is In It (for the poets in the resistance)
“To heal, we must remember.”
- The 46th President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden
It’s already like a war story
in my mouth, making it to this moment,
the shrapnel embedded in our hearts still gleaming
with fresh wounds, and it is the morning
and trump is gone, riding still the tails
of his atrocities turned so-called wins,
tooting still his own sad little horn
even in the final moments
of his jilted departure,
“have a nice life”
he says, and you know what?
I will now,
we will now,
for it is morning,
it is this morning in America
we are awake and the sun is rising
after a four year nightmare,
and we don’t want to remember.
“To heal, we must remember.”
We don’t want to remember all that unfolded
during the demoralizing trump regime,
the times we cried and lost hope,
how we forgot to dream,
but we’ve written it all into poems, haven’t we?
Took it upon our tender hearts to chronicle the chaos,
like some weary scribes of human history,
like in the future some sentient beings will stumble
across our defiant light slivered in the darkness,
and say here— there were poets with words
holding evil to the fire.
To heal, I remember my own catalog
of American carnage.
Grab them by the pussy, a poem,
the Muslim ban, a poem,
Paris Accord withdrawal, a poem,
un-shaping glaciers, I wrote a poem,
very good people on both sides, another poem,
children in cages, a poem and a foil blanket
worn like a cape, leading a protest,
transgender military ban, a poem,
north korean nuclear face off, a poem,
the border wall, the hate, the nazis, poem poem poem,
school shootings and lockdown drills, poems,
another black boy dead,
pandemic, poems, so many poems.
I wouldn’t write a poem for the insurrection,
I wouldn’t bend my words that low.
Every day, every lie, every new fresh hell,
the rancor and violence, the taste and the smell,
and I never went poem numb from his callous (un)heart,
saw myself in the constant mode of fight or flight,
stomach tight, waiting for the next gut punch,
jaw grinding the names of the dead in my teeth,
and poetry was the only sword I had that felt right,
letters strung together to form a vibration of light.
Love poems and nature poems too,
but naming his atrocities always bleeding through.
And it is morning now,
on the day of all our Lords, January 20, 2021,
and just for today, we can put down our swords,
the vacuous stain has been airlifted to I don’t really care where,
and the sun is steadily rising over the reflection pool
shining over pillars of light that mark the 400,000 we’ve lost,
compassion and empathy made their first stop here last night,
the first act of this new administration touching down in DC
was to remember our dead, to grieve and to reflect,
to remind us we are still whole in our humanness,
fragile in our loss,
stronger together in our hope,
and a Black covid nurse sang Amazing Grace
like an angel,
and I wept at the beauty,
I wept for the return of our hearts,
the reflection of us in light shining into this morning,
this mourning, with a u, mourning with you,
the inverted mirror of backwards chaos upside-down everything
flipping back into the real, and a bird outside my window
is trumpeting a herald song, and it is morning,
and in America this morning, finally, I feel like I belong.
“To heal, we must remember”
Poets, we can look into our minds
and remember each line written into the library
of consciousness, scribbled in the dark
into the book of now,
our words running together
to form a criss-crossing network of the real peoples’ history,
the true colors of our sorrow and joy,
and this morning I am ready
to burn it all into a new fire,
make it into a star
of let’s never get this close
to destroying ourselves again.
I am ready to undocument the night
of its chaos, of its pain, I am ready
to write about hope and beauty again,
to fill all the white space with color,
stop the enjambments so we are all in line together,
walking toward a tomorrow where we are all on the same page.
Let this poem be my last reflection of that old country,
the inverted mirror we lost ourselves in
and found ourselves in again dressed as votes,
dressed as love and inextinguishable hope,
and this morning, a new chapter of our story begins,
we wake up with shattered ceilings under our feet
the glass on the ground and in our hair
shimmering like the cosmos fell,
it will be soft, not sharp,
it will sing and hum in the song of becoming sky,
and today in America
a Black South Asian woman
(all women) will RISE.
I am an American flag
on that distant inaugural lawn,
my stars and stripes waving
like a prayer and a poem in the winds of change
my colors of reclaimed red, white, and blue
shine with new and vibrant hues,
and this is my country again, my god,
this is our country again.
On this hard fought Inauguration Day,
after I sing and cry and dance distant with all of you,
after the reality of change sinks into my bones,
and my tears of hope wash my spirit new,
I will roll up my sleeves, America--
we have work to do
and my whole Soul is in it.