Kosal Khiev's journey from prison to poetry

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Media caption,

Kosal Khiev served a 14 year prison sentence for attempted murder

Cambodian poet Kosal Khiev first discovered poetry in solitary confinement in a US prison, serving a sentence for attempted murder.

Born in a refugee camp after his parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, Khiev grew up in the US after being granted asylum, and had joined a gang by the age of 13.

At 16, Khiev was involved in a shoot-out in which two people were shot and injured. As a result, he was convicted of attempted murder and spent the next 14 years in jail.

"I remember someone telling me it takes only a couple of seconds to make a mistake, but it takes a lifetime to correct it. I'm still paying for my mistakes now," Khiev said.

Because he was not a US citizen, Khiev was deported to Cambodia, a country he had never visited before, on his release from prison.

"There was happiness when I first came back [to Cambodia], but there was also confusion, anger, bitterness and a huge fear," Khiev said.

"I've always wanted to come back to Cambodia - I just didn't think that it would be in this way."

'Fractured skull'

Khiev discovered poetry while in prison in the US. He has since established himself as a poet in Cambodia, representing his country at the Poetry Parnassus, a festival held as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Kosal Khiev's parents fled the Khmer Rouge

Khiev, who describes himself as "a spoken word artist, an immigrant and an exile", says his story began in a refugee camp in Thailand.

"My parents fled during the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge war," he said. "My mum saw her first husband executed in front of her, and the only thing she buried was a piece of his fractured skull."

At the age of one, Khiev was accepted, along with his grandmother, mother and six siblings, to the US as refugees. However, they were separated from his father, who was not accepted to the US.

"I always thought my father was dead, I didn't know he was alive until I was 25," Khiev said.

Life in the US was difficult, and Khiev said his sense of isolation contributed to his joining a gang.

"I remember we were living in this two-bedroom apartment, the nine of us, trying to make ends meet."

Image source, Courtesy of Khiev Family
Image caption,
Khiev (fourth from right) and his mother, grandmother and siblings were granted asylum in the US

"I started hanging with guys that were coming from the same background as me, who felt like they were alone in the world."

Khiev was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his involvement in a shoot-out.

While Khiev says he regrets his actions, he is also unhappy about the way he was sentenced.

"I'm not proud of hurting anyone. I wish I never did. But I got locked up at 16, and I got tried as an adult... why would you throw away the key? Then you're saying that this kid has no more redemption."

The two people who were shot "didn't die, thank goodness, and they're well now", Khiev said.

Prison performance

Khiev spent time in nine different prisons, and describes parts of his time in prison, where he witnessed violent riots, as "crazy" and "like a battleground".

"When you're in an environment of monsters you almost become a monster in order to survive."

Media caption,

Kosal Khiev credits poetry as the inspiration he needed to turn his life around

He was eventually released after serving 14 years of his term.

Although unhappy with much of his experience in prison, Khiev said one of his most transformative moments came when he was locked in solitary confinement for his involvement in a fight.

"They kept me in the hole [solitary confinement] for one and a half years. I almost went crazy," he said.

"You come to talk to yourself, and you're forced to confront yourself, all parts of yourself. It made me say - is this it? Is this all your life is going to amount to? Are you going to die in prison?"

"I wrote everything out, fears, hopes, dreams and nightmares."

"Whatever I was writing I would talk it out, and people [in the other solitary confinement cells] would hear me and say: 'Let us hear something man'".

"In a sense it was my first performance - it was dudes just being lonely and bored."

'Return' to Cambodia

On his release from solitary confinement, he met other poets, and took part in poetry classes in an Arts in Corrections programme.

"I discovered the power that poetry has to change a person's perspective and outlook," he said.

Khiev took part in outreach programmes speaking to young people at risk of offending, and worked as a facilitator in The Prison Peace Project, a corrections programme.

Image source, Tori Green
Image caption,
Khiev discovered poetry and tattoo art while in prison

Khiev said he "felt his calling" during the outreach programmes. Following his release, finding out that he would be deported to Cambodia was difficult to accept.

"I had all these dreams, all these plans [in the US]," he said. "When I first came to Cambodia I didn't know what I was going to do."

"I worked in a cinema as a movie projectionist, and on my day off I was teaching volunteering, trying to do creative stuff. It was hard, until I got mixed up with Studio Revolt [a local arts studio]."

Khiev says he cried when he received the invitation to perform as part of the London 2012 Olympics.

"I was homeless at that time - I had quit my projectionist job to do my art... I was sleeping on people's couches or staying up all night riding around. I was about to go back to the cinema, it was getting so hard."

"And finally I got the letter of invitation, and I couldn't believe it. [Performing in London] was an amazing experience."

Khiev dreams of being able to return to the US and reunite with his family one day, although for now, Khiev is working as an artist-in-residence at Studio Revolt, and running poetry workshops with young people.

"Now I've come back, I just want to do good," he said. "I just want people, when they talk to me, to get the feeling that this guy is doing good. And just continue forward, you know?"