Words Spoken Behind the Bars KOSAL KHIEV How did Khiev end up with poetry? What were his 14 years in prison like?

In February, poet Kosal Khiev visited United World College Southeast Asia, from Cambodia. Khiev shared his life experiences with Grade 9 students in an open interview.

Kosal Khiev performing one of his poet at UWCSEA, East Campus
Who is Kosal Khiev?

Kosal Khiev is a Cambodian spoken art poet. He was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 after his parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In 1981, his family then fled to the US but became separated from his father who was not accepted in the US. When Kosal turned into the age of 13, he joined a gang which later got him involved in a shoot-out where two people were shot and injured. Kosal was given a 14-year sentence in jail after he was tried as an adult and convicted of attempted murder.

What was his life like in the US?

Growing up in the US, Khiev says that he felt isolated from the surroundings, even to his family.

Khiev struggled to find an identity, something he could define himself as. For this, he had joined a gang. “The gang somehow felt like a replacement of my dad.” For Khiev, spending his time with a group of people from the same background as him helped him find an identity.

Khiev in film"Cambodian Son", directed by Masahiro Sugano.
Khiev at a Slave Labor Camp

His mother sent him to New Bethany home for boys and girls in Arcadia, Louisiana. “I was more confused than angry. Just wondered why.” Khiev described his feelings when he was sent to a slave labor camp at the age of 15. Khiev attempted escapes from the slave labor camp. Later, the camp was shut down for child abuse.

“All I ever wanted to do was come back. But I didn’t expect it to be this way.” Khiev said. Soon after Khiev came back from the slave labor camp, he was involved in the shooting and was sent to prison.

Khiev (fourth from right) with his family in the US
Khiev about his past

Then Khiev started talking about his involvement with the shooting after a request from the audience. “I’m not proud of it. If I had another chance, I would do it differently.”

“I did not make a lot of great choices, growing up,” Khiev said. “And I always blamed my family for making those choices.” He says that he was angry, sad, scared, confused, lonely... but did not realize that his family was also suffering.

However, Khiev also declares that he does not have concerns with his life he has now. He is happy that he had the chances to do the things he is doing now. He says, “I am who I am now because of the past I went through.”

Khiev at the London Olympics, 2012

In prison, Khiev had various of new experiments. Not just poetry, but also the many tattoo paintings on his body “represents the past”, Khiev says.

Khiev and Poetry

Khiev describes poetry as his ‘spoken art'. He says that poetry found him, instead of him finding poetry, while confinement. “It was as if I always belonged to poetry.”

For Khiev, poetry gave him an identity. He would always be questioning about himself until he met poetry. “It gave me a better understanding,” he says. “Who I am, where I came from, what I live for."

Many of his artworks display freedom, different cultural backgrounds, or generally describing his life.

During the interview

In this interview, Khiev had mentioned many times that poetry has influenced and changed him a lot. He says that he came to poetry when he was stuck in a solitary confinement, where he was locked up in a small room, alone. He was forced to confront himself, he says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Is this it?’. ‘Is this who I am?’. ‘Am I going to end my life in prison?’”

I would say that poetry is a language for Khiev. He sees poetry as if one way of connecting and communicating with people around the world, the ones who had similar experiences to Khiev, or the ones from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In one of his poem, “Why I Write”, he is speaking out to various people around the world. He is talking to his family, talking to his younger self, but I felt that he was trying to reach out to the people who are struggling, just like Khiev was.

After his performance, I felt that reading his poetry and watching him perform his own poetry gave people very different impressions. Performing, Khiev was almost dancing. He looked as if he was trying to emotionally connect with the audience, speaking from his heart to tell us something.

  • Cheung, Helier. "Kosal Khiev's Journey from Prison to Poetry." BBC News. BBC, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24923096>.
  • Khiev, Kosal. "Spoken Kosal." Spoken Kosal RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. <http://spokenkosal.com/>.
Created By
Rene Koike

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