By S. Marty Williams
I first met Kosal Khiev in the mid-to-late 2000s while we were both in California State Prison–Sacramento. Young, Cambodian, covered with tattoos and still wearing the gangster mystique of refugee street life, he haunted the Arts In Corrections writing workshops, rap ensembles, and Men’s Support Group meetings for several years.
He was born in a refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge regime, to a French father and Cambodian mother. His father remained abroad while Kosal, his mother, and his siblings came to the United States. From boyhood, he ran with Cambodian street gangs until ending up in an Alabama youth detention facility. He was extradited to California on an attempted murder charge at age 16, and sentenced to 16 years.
While in prison, his talent with words put him among the rappers in the music programs, but he never quite fit in. In open-word poetry, he found the freedom to shape the flow and beat and cultural tone, and soon became a master. He walked the oval asphalt track of the prison yard every day, memorizing hundreds of words, shaping their sounds and rhythms, reciting, reworking, and searching for the soul of his own poems. To the casual observer, he looked unhinged. When he performed in yard shows or for visiting artists, his words and presence were mesmerizing, full of hope, pain, pleading, and just a little nihilism, the voice of those who have lost everything except their souls.
Kosal was released from prison in 2011. Due to strict immigration enforcement laws following 9/11, he was deported to Cambodia. With his family still in California, he found himself alone in a country where he didn’t speak the language, and had the added stigma of being an ex-con from America. Yet, Kosal continued performing poetry on the streets, enthralling passers-by in spite of the English words. The media lab Studio Revolt took notice and featured his poetry, and he soon became their first artist-in-residence.
In 2012, Kosal was invited to join 200 other poets representing their respective countries at the Olympic Games in London. He would represent Cambodia at a unique cultural event called Poetry Parnassus, in the company of international poet laureates like Seamus Haney and Kay Ryon, one of many “Cultural Olympians” from around the world. His journey to, and experience of, the London Games would be the subject of the documentary Cambodian Son, featured on PBS World’s series “America Reframed.”
During those days, I received a letter from Kosal. He wrote, “Life has been a journey for sure, and as you read this letter across space and time know that I am well. Know that I am thriving and surviving … know that I am living life, taking and breathing in and capturing all the beauty that surrounds me.”
He traveled a long way to find his voice. He found it right out of prison, as did Pablo Neruda, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Etheridge Knight. Sometimes we don’t know what the dream is until we’re living it.
Originally Published in the Mule Creek Post