When Kosal Khiev was in prison, he found hope and life through poetry. Liz Waid and David Bast look at his life and writing.
Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.
And I’m David Bast. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.
Everything in the prison is gray. The walls are gray. The floors are gray. The metal fence is gray. And it is loud. There are shouts and sounds of fighting from the men behind bars. But one room in the prison is very different. In this room, spoken words bring colour and life. Here, a few men gather to listen to spoken word poetry. This kind of poetry is not only words on paper. It also includes performance - the way the words sound out loud. The men listen to another prisoner perform his poem:
if your world is black and white
let me bring the colour
let's get back to the cause
let's get back to these walls
built to separate and create hate
built to execute and create waste
so i write from a place of pure bass
all the elements put together to produce faith.
These are the words of Kosal Khiev. His spoken word poetry has helped many people, including himself. Today's Spotlight is on Kosal Khiev. He began writing in prison, but later, he performed for the world.
Khiev began writing and performing poetry in a prison in the United States. But he was not a citizen of the United States. Khiev was born in a refugee camp between the borders of Cambodia and Thailand. His family fled the war in Cambodia before he was born. They moved to the United States when he was only one year old. Khiev struggled growing up in the United States. His family was poor. And his father was still in Cambodia.
As Khiev grew up, he did not feel that he belonged in the United States. When he was 13 years old, he joined a gang. This violent group of young men accepted him. He had friends. They almost felt like a new family. But the gang also got him into trouble. When he was 16 years old, Khiev shot and injured two people. It was a serious crime. The police caught Khiev and charged him with attempted murder. The courts sentenced him to 16 years in prison.
Life in prison was extremely difficult and violent. At one point, Khiev got involved in a fight. The prison guards put him in solitary confinement. Khiev lived in a small room for a year and a half. He was completely alone. He told the BBC that his time in solitary confinement changed his life. He said,
"You come to talk to yourself. You have to look at yourself, all parts of yourself. It made me say, 'Is this it? Is this all your life is going to amount to? Are you going to die in prison?"
Khiev began writing down his thoughts and feelings, and speaking them out loud. He did not know it yet, but he was performing spoken word poetry. He discovered that his words had power. They gave him power to express pain and ask questions. They gave him power to think about things, and explore ideas. In time, words even gave Khiev power to hope. He writes of this experience in his poem, "Marks of a Man":
under the surface
lies a broken boy
feeling like he is nothing
caged like an animal
how can he know what love is
so nothing moved him
almost let the animal become him
but then spoken word came
and it changed his movements
he grew into a man
who became more than stupid
he grew into a man
and became his own movement.
When he got out of solitary confinement, Khiev was a different person. He began to attend a program called "Arts in Corrections." There, other poets taught him and encouraged him. He wrote and performed more poetry. He began to dream about his life after prison.
But the United States had a law that affected Khiev's dreams. This law is for people who are not American citizens, who commit a crime there. The law says they must leave the United States. Khiev was not a citizen of the United States. He was a Cambodian citizen. So after he served his prison sentence, he had to go back to Cambodia. But Khiev had not been to Cambodia since he was a baby. He did not know the culture. He did not speak the language very well. His family were all in the United States. Where were all his hopes and dreams now?
For almost a year, Khiev did not have a good place to live in Cambodia. He moved from home to home. Sometimes he did not have any place to stay. But he kept writing and performing poems. He kept going forward, even when life was hard. In this way, he discovered his connection with the country of Cambodia. The country of Cambodia has had many difficult times. But he found that Cambodia was still beautiful, and still strong. He told Radio Australia,
"You know, Cambodia is resilient. Cambodia can come back and keep going. And I am resilient as well. You know, I survived. Cambodia survived. Now, it is like two survivors have found each other."
Khiev wrote a poem about his special connection with Cambodia called "Cambodian Rain."
God is crying
and I am lying
if I am not crying too
I am trying to make amends
but in the end
I am dying too
So before I die
Let me cry along with you
hoping in the end
we both fly
Other people noticed Kosal Khiev's gift for poetry and his connection to Cambodia. He was even able to represent Cambodia as a performer at the 2012 Olympics in London, England. This world-famous international sports event also included a special poetry event. This was the largest international poetry gathering in history. It was a big honour for Khiev to perform.
Since then, Khiev's spoken word performances have won awards in Europe. He also teaches spoken word poetry classes in other countries.
We end this program with Khiev’s poem "Prayer." In this poem he shows his struggle with belonging among different cultures. But he also shares his hope that he is connected to all people as creations of God:
Am I Cambodian? American?
Why can't I be God's creation?
In the image of his face
Why can't we be placed
among kings and queens
if we are the creation of his make
So come on
Say this prayer with me
Say our prayer for this new day we breathe.
The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish. net. This program is called, “Kosal Khiev: Hope in Poetry."
We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!