Interview: An Interview with Poet Kai Coggin

Poem Name and Description: “hoUSton” 


Covers 2

“hoUSton” is a poem that I wrote as the horrors of Hurricane Harvey were unfolding in my hometown.

hoUSton
by Kai Coggin

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

My city became an ocean overnight,
floodwaters drowned thousands of homes,
swallowed whole neighborhoods with one rising gulp,
brackish brown bayous
and rain,
so much rain,
a trillion gallons
pouring from the broken open sky,
this is what unfathomable looks like,
6.5 million people wondering if they can float,
people swept out of their lives
in the currents of swirling water,
where do you go when your whole world sinks
to the bottom of a hurricane’s slow dance of doom?

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

I watched for days
from too far away
to do anything but pray
as the water rose over the places of my youth,
I put a golden dome of light around my mother’s home,
texted her through tornadoes overhead
as she hid in the closet,
visualized her safe and dry,
safe and dry,
safe and dry,
and she is…
but how do I not cry
for the 32,000 Houstonians sleeping in shelters tonight?

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

This indiscriminate life breaker of a storm
ravaged the poor, the rich, the middle class
with no thought of separation,
hispanics, asians, whites, and blacks,
christians, muslims, republicans, democrats,
these false lines we use to divide ourselves break down
until all we can see is human.
How can I help another human being survive?
Where can I take my boat, my canoe, my kayak and float
to a family with water rising to their necks,
arms flailing from water level rooftops,
street rivers, trapped cars,
and the mental emotional scars
that have not yet come our from under the rubble
of this unprecedented disaster.

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

A friend of mine lost 99% of her possessions
in a house she moved into two days before the storm.
She posts her gratitude on facebook for
the man she loves saving her and her three dogs.
Another friend’s little boy is always a little chatterbox,
she worries because he is so quiet since they were evacuated,
his eyes looking at the passing water.
Another friend walks five miles with her little girl in a floaty,
hitchhikes on the back of a truck,
jumps on a boat to get to a shelter accepting survivors, she praises dry socks.
Another friend, former student, is now a police officer,
teenage boy turned gladiator diving into harm to truly protect and serve.
Another friend and another friend and another friend
millions of stories because Houston
is a city of stories,
Houstonians helping Houstonians
now more than ever before,
a Navy of Neighbors knocking on every flooded door,
finding their own humanity on the other side.

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

There is a reflection of all of US in this tragedy,
it unfolds on this national scale
in the fourth largest city in the country
to remind us that we are stronger in our togetherness,
we are better when we care for our neighbors,
we are greater when we open up our hearts instead of build walls,
when we are stripped down of everything
but the rain-soaked shirts on our backs
drowning in overtaking oceans,
we reach out our hands from under the water
just wishing someone…
anyone…
another human being…
would grab hold and say
“I’ve got you.”
“You’re safe now.”
“You’re going to be alright.”

Our hands are out to you Houston.

In the middle of Houston, there is US.

***

Kai Coggin, 2017

What gave you the idea for “hoUSton”

I am a Bangkok-born, Houston-raised poet, who now lives in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. My mother still lives in Houston, and there is always a huge soft spot in my heart for my hometown. Watching The Weather Channel’s coverage a few days before Hurricane Harvey hit, I knew that Houston was going to be in tremendous danger from the slow stalling of the storm that was projected to occur. I watched religiously as the continuous coverage started on Friday – as the storm barreled into Rockport and Corpus Christi. The outer bands began to pummel Houston, and the rain started, and didn’t stop, and didn’t stop, and didn’t stop. I was on the phone with my mom as she ducked in the closet while tornadoes swirled overhead. Houston was going to flood, and The Weather Channel kept throwing around words like “epic,” “catastrophic,” “unprecedented,” and “we have never seen a storm like this.”

I visualized my mother being safe and dry, kept texting her every few hours to make sure she was ok, and kept praying that my city would be okay through this never-ending rain. I felt helpless watching this all unfold on TV, while hundreds of my old friends and former students on FB were updating, live, the devastation that was occurring. I couldn’t just sit on my hands and watch in an anxious state; I had to write. That’s what poets do in times like these; we write.

On the Saturday of the first pourings of torrential rain, I visualized the word, “Houston,” in my mind’s eye and the “US” stuck out to me like this: hoUSton. I posted a FB graphic with the blue background and two hands holding across the bottom with the word “hoUSton” in the center. It was like a prayer, a visualization, a meditation for all of us to see the humanity of US in what was about to happen to the fourth-largest city in the country, Houston… and to hold them in our thoughts.

That is how the poem was born; from that image. A few days later, as the waters swallowed the city of my youth, I wrote the poem. My mother stayed safe and dry – miraculously – and I finally had a moment to process what was going on in my poet heart. The line that circled in my head and kept repeating was “In the middle of Houston, there is US.” The rest of the poem flowed together in one sitting as the waters continued to rise.

 

What got you into writing poetry?

Poetry was a means for survival for me, and didn’t truly emerge as a pillar in my being until I was about 18 – even though I had written stories and poems for most of my young life.  I was going through some extremely difficult circumstances, and I felt completely alone in the world. Poetry was my diversion from suicidal thoughts. Poetry was the safe, in which I could lock away my secrets. Poetry was the heart that could answer back my unrequited love poems. Poetry was there for me in every way, in those days, but I took from poetry more than I gave. It was a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on and the one I ran to when the darkness enveloped my thoughts.

Now, I give to poetry. I give my whole heart and listen to what bounces back. Poetry is a medium that allows me to microscopically view situations, people, and moments, and dissect them with precision, craft, and beauty, to offer perspectives that others may simply miss. I always try to offer a silver lining, a ray of hope, a deeper meaning in my poems. Though I write many poems on social activism, political poems, environmental poem (all poems that seem like they would be somewhat depressing), I always leave the reader with something to think about, a call to action, or a call back to what matters most: love.

 

How long have you been writing?

Lifetimes.

 

Tell us about your past books and stories?

My debut collection, Periscope Heart, was published in 2014, after my manuscript won a contest put out through Swimming with Elephants Publications. The poems in Periscope Heart deal with love, body image, spiritual striving, metaphysics, and more. It is the first sounds of my essence truly spilling out into the world. My second full-length collection, WINGSPAN (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016), contains poems that reflect “fight” or “flight” themes reflected in many different personal, community, global, and sociopolitical realms.

In February of 2017, I recorded my first spoken-word album, SILHOUETTE, complete with musical accompaniments with talented friends I have around the country. I did it all on the Garageband app on my mac (the recording, mixing, layering, editing, and producing). It was such a fun and different creative process than putting together a manuscript.

 

What is the writing process like for you? What is your writing day like? What have been the biggest influences on your writing?

I am stimulated by heart. My writing follows suit. I am inspired by beauty or destruction, pain or pleasure, life as it unfolds every day. I do not follow a strict writing regimen, but write when I am moved by something I cannot contain, until the passion around a thought bubbles out of me.

There is a time every year that I really strictly write, and that is during National Poetry Month every April, where I lead a 30/30 challenge in my poetry community, to write 30 poems in 30 days. Some of my best work comes from this time every year.

 

What is your favorite book (other than your own book, of course)?

I love anything by Jeanette Winterson or Paulo Coelho.

 

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I evolve constantly, always, in relation and response to everything around me. As a poet, I like to become a deep part of whatever I am writing about. I give myself to the subject, to reveal the voice that the subject contains: the humanity waiting to be revealed, the divine spark waiting to be lit with recognition and acknowledgment in poetry. If you write with an open heart, you will continue to evolve, to grow, to understand the many facets of life all around you.

 

What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?         

An open heart. A keen eye for observation that notices tiny nuances others would ignore. Courage.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?

Sandra Cisneros, internationally acclaimed author of The House on Mango Street, leaned over her kitchen table, over the Corona we were sharing and the steam rising from the quesadilla she made me, and told me, “Tell your story. Someone needs every word.”

 

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?

I shamelessly market myself on social media. I believe that if you are not excited to share your work, no one else will be. I use Facebook more than other platforms, and it has been a really successful way for me to sell my books and CDs. There is a plateau that is ultimately reached, though, and I haven’t figured out the solution for that yet. I also do readings and book signings that get my work out there into the community.

 

What piece of your own work are you most proud of?

I am proud of every piece that I create, even the half-done, wonky pieces, the epic poems that shoot straight to the heart, and the sappy, longing, love poems. Everything is something that I birth into existence with my thought. It is an act of magic, really, this process of making something out of nothing, simply by stringing letters together and breaking lines and building pictures out of words. I love it. I am proud of everything that I create.

As for my poem, “hoUSton,” I am really thankful that The Weather Channel and The Houston Chronicle shared the poem, only because I feel like there are millions of people who need to hear the message that is intended in that poem; “In the middle of Houston, there is US.” It is the idea that we are all reflected in this tragedy and what is shining so brightly about Houston is its people coming together and helping one another.  We all need to hear of unity and togetherness during this time of divisive political agendas and hate on the rise.  This current administration will not be the end of us. We must come together with our hope for a better tomorrow for our children, and we must create that in our actions and in our words. We are still all Americans, humans, citizens of the world.

 

What are you doing next?

I will continue going into every day, armed with my open heart and my words, to bring, share, and spread Light with my poetry.

 

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Don’t quit when someone tells you “no” or when you get a rejection letter. Keep writing, even if it is just for you. Your story is important.

 

Bio:

Kai Coggin is a former Houston Teacher of the Year turned poet and author, now living in the valley of a small mountain in Hot Springs National Park, AR. She received her B.A. in English, Poetry, and Creative Writing from Texas A&M University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sinister WisdomAssaracus, Calamus Journal, Lavender Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Luna Luna, Blue Heron Review, Yellow Chair Review, and elsewhere.

Kai is the author of two full-length collections, PERISCOPE HEART (Swimming with Elephants, 2014) and WINGSPAN (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016), as well as a spoken word album called SILHOUETTE (2017). Her poetry has been nominated twice for The Pushcart Prize, as well as Bettering American Poetry 2015, and Best of the Net 2016.

 

Links:    If you would like to order signed copies of my books or CD, please order from the first link below, and they will go straight from my hands to your heart. Thank you!

Kai Coggin’s Official Website

Kai’s Facebook Page

Instagram: skailight

Twitter: @skailight

 

Reviews:

Review of PERISCOPE HEART – Yellow Chair Review

Review of WINGSPAN by Erica Charis – Yellow Chair Review

SpokenHeard Radio Show Interview about WINGSPAN
If you would like to read more poems by Kai Coggin, here are some links to a selection of publications in which her work appears.

“ten thousand wishes” – Elephant Journal

“Paris Accord” & “surrender” – Calamus Journal

“The Pulse of a Rainbow”- Crab Fat Magazine

“Keys” – Luna Luna Magazine

“Déjà vu,” “How to be Fat and Beautiful,” and “Once in a Blue Moon” – Dragon Poet Review

“palette” – Rise Up Review 

“grey horse” “this is a painting” “this is how to eat your past” – Anti-Heroin Chic

“Every black boy is a Lion” – Yellow Chair Review

“There Will Be An Orchard / I Throw Fruit into the Gully” – Drunk Monkeys

Dad & The Dalai Lama – ELEPHANT JOURNAL

“Becoming Vapor and Rain” & “You Become Me Become You” – Women’s Spiritual Poetry

 

 

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