Phnom Penh-based poet Kosal Khiev was announced recently as a Cambodian representative at the 2012 London Olympics – in spoken-word poetry. Ironically, it is only recently that Khiev, 32, first set foot in Cambodia.
Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1981, he grew up in California after his family settled in the United States. Khiev was convicted of a deportable offense as a teenager and served more than 14 years in prison at California State Prison-Sacramento before being deported to Cambodia last year. During his time at CSP-Sac, Khiev enrolled in their Inside Circles Program. He discovered spoken-word poetry through his volunteer teacher, Rob Allbee, Chaplain Dennis Merino and Mark Elia. He worked closely with inmate mentor Martin Williams.
Khiev, who has spent the last year nurturing his talents, will join poets and authors from the 203 other countries to participate in the Poetry Parnassus – one of the largest poetry gatherings in history.
The Poetry Parnassus, which takes its name from a Greek mountain considered to be one of classical poetry’s heartlands, is inspired by the poetry that was commissioned to accompany the Olympic Games of ancient Greece.
“Poetry Parnassus will be a monumental and unique happening, which will make world history,” said Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre artistic director. “As London welcomes the world this summer, we look to art as an agent for social change and as a testimony to human inspiration.”
Khiev, one of 6,000 writers nominated to participate in the festival, will join a roster of world-renowned scribes, including Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney from Ireland and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria.
Despite his separation from his family in the United States, Khiev has embraced life in Phnom Penh and is upbeat when discussing his past.
“There were so many times I could have died, or spent the rest of my life in jail,” he said, “so I look at that and say, ‘There has to be a purpose, there has to be a reason why I’m here.’ I remember doing time during the Beijing Olympics, and I remember thinking: ‘One day I’m going to be there.’ Not to be a part of it, just to be there, to be among people of all different walks of life, from all parts of the world. And now here I am, being asked to be a part of it. It’s definitely an honor and a blessing.”
For Khiev, the chance to be in the company of international performers during the London Olympics is a dream come true.
The festival will kick off in late June with the Rain of Poems, in which 100,000 bookmark-shaped works of the participating artists will be dropped by helicopter to the crowd around South London’s Jubilee Gardens.
“We have chosen poets whose work excited us and whose presence we hoped would bring energy and integrity to the festival,” said Simon Armitage, Poetry Parnassus curator. “I hope we have reflected the range of poetic voices at work in the world today and recognised the varying forms and approaches that poetry can take.”
Khiev’s trip to London builds on his successful partnership with the Phnom Penh arts collaborative Studio Revolt, where he is artist-in-residence.
The studio is producing a documentary chronicling Khiev’s life, and a Cambodian tour is also in the works – but not before an extended sojourn in Britain.
“He’s going to be touring regionally in the UK, which we’re coordinating with Poetry Parnassus,” said Anida Yoeu Ali, Studio Revolt’s co-founder. “They’ve been quite enthusiastic about booking venues for the poets for whom they know the trip will be a good opportunity, not just an opportunity for himself but for the community there.”