Poet and tattoo artist Kosal Khiev was born in a Thai refugee camp. In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge war he fled with his family to the USA. At the age of 16 he was arrested in a gang fight, charged with attempted murder and tried as an adult. While serving 14 years in a state penitentiary he was introduced to spoken word poetry by a Vietnam War veteran. Upon his release in 2011, the US government deported him to Cambodia, a country he had never been to. He hopes that one day the USA will repeal the current deportation law so he can be reunited with his family. Until then, he lives as an exiled American in Phnom Penh.
SJF: Your journey is a truly remarkable, and at times it must be said, a fundamentally tragic one. Let us beginning with your emigration from a Thai refugee camp in 1981. Two years before Pol Pot had been removed by the Vietnamese, had your family fled Cambodia in connection with the political situation in the country?
KK: Yes my family fled during the aftermath of the war. We were very fortunate. There were nine of us. My Grandmother, mother, three brothers, three sisters, and my mom was pregnant with me. I never knew my father but I was told he was killed during the war. Mind you everything of my childhood is a blur and what I remember is not clear.
SJF: You grew up in the US, where did you live? Were you exposed to poetry at an early age?
KK: When we as a family came to the United States I was just a year old. I grew up in east bishop street in santa ana California up until the fifth grade. Afterwards we moved around a bit. A year here a year there and so on up until I got arrested. But as a child my closest memory to maybe poetry was nursery rhymes and edgar allen poe. I remember hearing a tale tell heart and that story too was poetry.
SJF: You were convicted at the age of 16 for attempted murder and served 14 years in prison. Why were you tried as an adult? This experience of being incarcerated must have been so immense, so traumatic, that it must affect you for the rest of your life, have you been able to dissociate yourself with the brutal regimen you lived for over a decade?
KK: Yes I was 16 years old when I got arrested and charged with attempted murder. It was my first offense I had ever committed. I was told because I had committed an adult crime that I was going to do adult time so I lost my fitness hearing and was tried as an adult. They wanted to throw away the key. I remember being told by one of the investigative officer that I was a killer and that they’re going to lock me away for good. That there will be no second chance given. That very thought almost sent me over the edge among the dead ones, but somehow I went through it and by God’s grace and mercy I made it through. It’s hard to say if I am able to dissociate myself from the time I have served. Sometimes I feel still trapped within that concrete box, having nightmares waking up, thinking i'm still in a cell only to wake up to a different type of prison. For over a decade and a half I have been fighting to go home. To see my family and give my mom a real hug and now I am in a country I have never stepped foot in until now. But as life gives you lemons you make lemonade. Sometimes it’s bittersweet but I do feel blessed and fortunate to be able to live out my dreams. The same dreams I dreamt when I was laying on a thin mattress slapped onto a cold concrete slab. I had always loved poetry but as a kid it was something fun . I never knew that it would end up saving my life.
SJF: You have spoken of your time in solitary confinement being the catalyst for your calling as poet, could you explain how this happened?
KK: Solitary confinement for a year and a half was brutal. At times I felt nothing and at other times I thought I was going to go crazy. But it was one night 8 months in and I woke up from a bad nightmare dripping in cold sweats. I woke up with a start, jumped off my soaking mattress and went to wash my face from the stainless steel sink. The cool water felt good and cleansing. And I remember looking into the scratched up graffiti mirror and look up only to see my fractured face. That’s how I felt. I felt fractured, and broken. But it was in that moment when I stared into my own two dark orbs that I had to ask myself will this be my life. Is this the cycle that that I will be revolving around. And as one question tumbles out, more questions seems to have a snow ball effect. I was barraged with questions of my life and how did I want it to play out. I always wrote while doing time but this time my words felt different. I wrote with an urgency..i wrote to exorcise my fears and inner demons that had threatened to swallow me whole. I wrote.
SJF: You were then exiled upon release, sent back to Cambodia. Had you ever been to Cambodia before this time? What were your feeling upon returning, not speaking Khmer I assume?
KK: Coming back to Cambodia was a feeling of mixed emotions. I have always wanted to return but not in the way I did. I remember feeling afraid and alone not sure as to how will I survive in a country I know nothing of. I did not know how to read or write and could only speak and understand a little of khmer. What was I suppose to do? Luckily I had the love and support of my family to make my transition a little bit easier. It was only after 2 months in the country side with the pressure to get married and live the farmers life that I decided to make my way to phnom penh the capitol city of Cambodia to see if I can make my mark. Freedom was taken in apprehension not knowing my purpose and ignorant of my place in this country. But I still loved poetry and poetry was very much a part of me. I had a story to tell and I had to tell myself that there was a reason I wasn’t given a chance in the states,that there is a reason as to why I was here. Fortunately I was able to meet Studio Revolt; a media lab that is based out here in Phnom Penh for the moment. A husband and wife duo whom I owe love and gratitude towards. Masahiro Sugano who is a filmmaker and Anida Yoeu Ali who is also a spoken word and performing artist. With their love support and belief in me none of what I am doing is possible. And with their help I took every opportunity that came my way.
SJF: You have made remarkable strides in Cambodia to inject life into poetry and arts and youth programs since your return there. Do you feel a responsibility to yourself and a younger generation to share your work and your story, and to inspire them to write and perform?
KK: I do feel a responsibility for the younger generation here. Luckily I was introduced to some non profit orgs such as a New Day Cambodia and started to teach poetry there. We started off with one class and now it has grown into four. The kids are amazing and smart and bold. They yearn to find their self identity. And I feel that poetry can somehow lead them to themselves as it has led me to myself. We all have stories and in the end we have to ask ourselves do we want our stories told by someone else or do we take that power and tell our own story. I feel that if we tell our own stories then we have the power to dictate how our stories play out.
SJF: Do you think you can spearhead a new generation of poets in Cambodia
KK: Yes i truly believe that there will be a whole new generation of poets here by the time I am done. Or at least that is my hope.
SJF: Do you wish to return to the United States, and would you move back permanently if you could?
KK: I do wish to return to America If I could. My whole family is there but by no means will my back be ever turned from Cambodia again. I love it here and I am Cambodian so I will always be a part of cambodias growth in its culture of arts, music, dance, and poetry.
SJF:When you think about Poetry Parnassus and that you will be sharing the week with over 200 poets from around the world, are you excited at the dialogue that could take place between artists on this immense scale?
KK: Parnassus is a dream. Wow! I am humbled and honored. Truly I broke down in tears when the news was processed that day upon hearing that I was invited. Just to be there among so many people from all walks of life and from different parts of the world, I dreamt about how it will all be never realizing I would be invited to be a part of it. I am excited and thrilled. And to be given a chance to meet this many other poets from different parts of the world is a dream come true. I am especially looking forward to meeting the poets from America... LOL.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.