Teaching and Learning

Kosal Khiev: the man who found poetry

The UWCSEA Fund 2016/2017 supported Writers Fortnight on East. Below is an essay from one of our students on the visit from poet Kosal Khiev.

Piercing brown eyes which have experienced too much grief, yet still gleam with exuberance. Deft hands which have been beaten one too many times, yet still bear the crafty gait of an artist. A man, who has been forced to confront his darkest fears, who has been exiled from his own home; a man, who has been broken to the point of oblivion. You would expect his face to be streaked with tears, yet Kosal charges on with the passion of an ardent fire.

When we first heard about Kosal Khiev, the man who had gone from “prison to poetry”, our reactions were mixed: while most of the class were slightly apprehensive about meeting someone who had been imprisoned for 14 years, there were others who couldn’t wait. His story was a touching one, and we were all keen to hear about how poetry came to him and brought him out of the abyss of insanity he had nearly fallen into.

Before our first workshop session, the fifth floor was abuzz with the constant chatter of eager Grade 9 students: “Will he tell us about his experience in solitary confinement? Can we ask about that? How did he turn to poetry?”. The questions were infinite, and there was a tingle of excitement lingering in the air. Upon entering the room, and seeing him up close, he seemed different. We might have expected him to be cold, and quiet, but there was a glowing aura of warmth surrounding him, and it felt as if the tips of his fingers were almost spewing out energy.East_HS_Writers____Fortnight_-_with_Kosal_Khiev-6.jpgThen he began to speak, nay, articulately recite his thoughts with conviction. The poetry took over him: the words weren’t words anymore, but rather, slicing twangs of significance. Kosal was working his magic with us, transporting us back in time, back to the harsh days in his confinement cell.

The room was stock-still: mouths agape, faces hanging, and eyes bulging out of sockets, immersed in the awe-inspiring tale he was retelling—spinning, weaving, nimbly intertwining the pieces of his life together through poetry. We could feel what he had felt, understand what he had gone through as if it had happened to us. Such was the power of Kosal’s poetry. The pace, the rhythm, the pathos, was exhilarating; he had struck us, with his jagged bolt of enchantment.

But how does one create such an intense feeling through poetry? Life had thrown one of its greatest challenges at Kosal, and instead of passively accepting his fate, he had picked himself up. Instead of giving in to the confinement cell, he battled on, searching for the light in the darkness, and in the process he found poetry.

“I had the power of choice,” he said, “The power to fight, or to die.”

He found solace in poetry: he was able to express his deepest feeling and emotions through words. This did not make them go away, but gave him strength to face them. The great thing about Kosal, is that when he performs his poetry, he performs for himself—so unaware of his surroundings, that he touches the depths of a poem. And in that blissful process, not only does he rediscover himself, but he also takes the audience on a sensational journey through poetry.

“There is no umbrella, or ceiling to poetry. There is nothing new under the sun. There are ideas everywhere, so all you’ve got to do, is take what’s out there and make it your own. When one commits oneself to poetry, there is magic.”

So what can we learn from Khiev? We can learn to reflect on our past—it is not about what happened, but the important thing is how we learn from it, and how we become better people. Poetry teaches us empathy, and with that, we can turn sympathy and pity, into compassion and kindness. We can learn to stand up for ourselves: if life hurls us down, it is always possible to get back up, every time, stronger than before. And we can learn to embrace our fears, like Kosal said, “Courage and bravery cannot exist without fear, they go hand in hand. Every time you take a risk, you overcome a fear.”