Cambodian spoken word artist Kosal Khiev went from prison to poetry

Spoken word artist Kosal Khiev is living in Cambodia as an exile sharing his story and his art.
Spoken word artist Kosal Khiev is living in Cambodia as an exile sharing his story and his art.PHOTO: CANVAS

Cambodian refugee Kosal Khiev, who spent 14 years behind bars in the United States for attempted murder, says poetry transformed him

8Q

Cambodian spoken word artist Kosal Khiev credits the late American rapper Tupac Shakur as one of the first people who led him to self-expression in the form of poetry.

"His pain, his life - it almost unfolded before your eyes. And I was living those lyrics he was writing about. It was so crazy because it mirrored my life," says Khiev, who was speaking to The Straits Times from Phnom Penh, ahead of his performance at Canvas on April 27 as part of Speak, a spoken word series.

Like Shakur, the 36-year-old spent time behind bars - for a 14-year sentence in the American prison system.

Born in 1980 in the Kao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand to a family that had fled the Khmer Rouge, he and his family -including three brothers, three sisters, parents and grandmother - moved to Santa Ana in California a year later as refugees and lived in what he describes as "the projects".

The struggle to find an identity began early in an unstable environment.

  • BOOK IT/ SPEAK FEATURING KOSAL KHIEV

  • WHERE: 20 Upper Circular Road, Canvas Creative Space

    WHEN: April 27, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $15 for pre-sale tickets, $20 for tickets at the door

    INFO: speakkosal.eventbrite.sg/

"It was interesting, trying to blend in, but never really fitting in," he says. "It was weird to know you're in a country that stands for justice and equality and then you realise in the real world, the rules of engagement are a lot different."

As the youngest in the family, he admits he got the short end of the stick. "My other siblings were busy going to school, my mum was working two or three jobs, so my grandma took care of me," he says.

So, when his grandma died, it "left a very deep scar" on him.

By age 14, he was mixing with bad company. By age 16, he was involved in a gang shoot-out in which two people were shot and injured.

He was tried as an adult and convicted of attempted murder, and ended up serving time. While he was locked up, he found solace in poetry.

After he got out of prison in 2011, he was deported from the United States - the country where he had grown up - to Cambodia, a foreign land to him.

The bachelor, who speaks with a distinctly Californian drawl, says: "I had no money, no ID, no passport, nothing, but the clothes on my back."

It was poetry that got him back on his feet again. His big break was being selected to represent Cambodia and perform as part of the London 2012 Olympics, and now, he shares his art at open-mic sessions and performances around the world.

1 What was your lowest point in your 14 years doing time?

I did 11/2 years of solitary confinement. Your lowest point hits you hardest at the beginning because you're totally cut off. I accepted the fate that I was in the beast of the belly and I was going to die in there.

But, at the end, you become conditioned and used to it, almost numb to it, in a sense.

Somewhere in between that, it broke something in me and I knew I had to make a change. At one point, I told myself - I'm going to survive this.

2 When did you discover spoken word?

Although I and other prisoners were in solitary confinement, in an 8-by-6 cell for 23 hours a day, we could hear one another through the air ducts. There were guys in there who could sing and make beats. They'd do it just to pass the time.

Some of the guys heard me (reciting my words) and one of them was like, "Let us hear it, man - we ain't going nowhere." I had a captive audience, literally. They encouraged me.

3 You said your grandmother was a huge influence on you. Have you written about her?

I wrote so much when I was doing time, but all that work ended up being lost. I had a year left and I boxed up my property.

I'd asked a buddy of mine who was being paroled in a week to drop it off at the P.O. box, but it never made it home. It was 14 years of work, of stories, pain and reflection on everything I was going through.

4 How has poetry transformed your life?

It changed everything. How it transformed me is indescribable.

At one point, I was a person with nothing of value, but poetry helped me to discover the value in everything. It gave me another extension of expressing the things that we as individuals go through on a daily basis. You start to realise that life is full of compromises.

5 Is it painful to talk about some of these experiences now and re-open old wounds?

Sometimes - it depends. In live performances, it does take me back to certain memories, but then, I find it therapeutic and self-healing. I can remember it and honour the lessons that were learnt and the people who helped me get through those hurdles.

6 What can the audience expect at your set in Singapore?

I never really know how or what pieces work well or set the mood until I read the environment, the tone and the energy of the room. That's what I usually go off at that moment, so that it comes out more organically.

There are one or two pieces that I haven't said anywhere else, so it'll be good to put them out to the universe.

7 You have come to Singapore a few times to perform. When were you last here and what were you up to?

I was recently in Singapore doing an artist-in-residency programme at United World College where I spent a week on campus. Being able to engage with the youngsters about the power of writing was cool.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

We're so complex in different ways. Any one aspect of our humanity shines differently at different angles at different times - we can be devils and angels at any given time. Some people will remember me as an ex-convicted felon, a brother or a friend, but I hope I'm remembered as a person who never gave up trying.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'From prison to poetry'. Print Edition | Subscribe