Tell Tell chats with Kai Coggin
Kai Coggin, poet and host of Wednesday Night Poetry, shares her poetry journey, experience in submitting and working with presses for her books, as well as what she’s been up to with Wednesday Night Poetry with Trish Hopkinson in our new Submissions Interview Series. Listen in to what these two poets have learned during their rather similarly timed poetry careers and hear where you can get a signed copy of Kai’s most recent book, MINING FOR STARDUST (FlowerSong Press, Nov. 2021).
Kai Coggin Interview
Trish Hopkinson: [00:00:00] Welcome back to Tell Tell Poetry Interview Submission Series. I’m thrilled to be interviewing award winning poet, Kai Coggin who has a new book out entitled Mining for Stardust just released by Flower Song Press. Kai’s previous books include Incandescent, Wingspan, and Periscope Heart. She is a queer woman of color who thinks black lives matter.
The teaching artist and poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council and the host of the longest running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country, Wednesday Night Poetry. She was recently awarded the 2021 Governor Arts Award and named Best Poet in Arkansas by the Arkansas Times. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Cultural Weekly, Entropy, Swim, and so many others.
She is Associate Editor at the Rise Up Review and lives with her wife and their two adorable dogs in the valley of a small mountain in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Welcome Kai. And thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today about Tell Tell Poetry Submission Interviews here.
Kai Coggin: .
I’m honored. I’m honored to be here. Thank you.
Trish Hopkinson: It really is. It really is such a pleasure. We’ve had a lot of virtual connections recently, and then we just found out yesterday that we actually finally get to meet in person. At AWP for a panel that we’re doing together, which is super exciting. I’m so excited.
Yeah. It’s going to be a really great panel. It’s actually about building a virtual poetry community. So certainly that ties in, you know, a little bit with what we’ll be talking about today, and then you have another panel too. Did you want to mention what your other panel.
Kai Coggin: The other panel is with JP Howard and Tamra Madison and Sandy Ianone. And it’s also about building and sustaining poetry community, um, beyond the page and beyond the stage. And so that’s really exciting. I’ve got two panels, both about community, which is the work that I hold closest to my heart when it comes to poetry. So I’m super excited and it will be the first time that I ever go to AWP.
And, you know, be awkward with all the other awkward poets and that’ll be just really fun. I’m really looking forward to meeting you and seeing you and hugging you and talking with you more about poetry. We’ve had many years together on the virtual side through Facebook and stuff. And so I’m just, I’m honored to finally like share actual space in our bodies, you know, in person, um, AWP.
Trish Hopkinson: Certainly me too.
AWP is great. It’s it really can be. It can be overwhelming, but it can also be very exhilarating and it is awesome to meet some of the people that, you know, we, we know, we feel like we know pretty well through virtual means right through social media or through, you know, other poetry, readings and workshops.
So yeah, it’s, I’m not going to lie. It was pretty awesome for me when I went in the past. So it’ll be, it’ll be [00:03:00] great to see you there. I’m really, um, I guess I just want to start with, you know, really you’ve done. I mean, really we’ve watched each other just sort of grow. Uh, we kind of came onto the scene around the same time, but can you tell me a little bit about what got you started writing poetry in the first place, and then what made you want to start sending your work out for publication?
Kai Coggin: Sure. Um, we have really watched each other grow and it’s been kind of awesome to, to lean on each other and see each other, you know, getting up this ladder of, of, of being seen more and being more visible and being more of a name that people know. Um, and you and I both have so much work and helping other communities and other people.
And so it’s been really cool to be sort of a friend and partner through this. You even, blurbed one of my books, um, early on. So thankful for that. Yeah. Um, so what got me back into poetry, I guess is, um, [00:04:00] well, I graduated with a degree in poetry and creative writing from Texas A&M and when I graduated, I was like, What the hell do I do now?
How do I, how do I become a poet? You know, what, what does that even mean? Um, and I don’t have an MFA or anything. And so just in my, in my bachelor of arts studies, I didn’t really learn too much about publishing or about submitting poems or the process or anything like that. So I didn’t actually have the logistical.
Know-how of how to turn this degree into a career. And so I, I got my emergency teacher certification and I went into teaching high school and I taught high school English for five years in the same school district that I grew up in Houston, Texas, and a leaf. And it was a poetry project, but Sandra Cisneros that really, um, with one of her poems that really pulled me back into poetry and showed me how powerful words and stories and agency of language and agency and power of your own story.
And so, um, this it’s a really long, really good story, but I’m not gonna, I’m not going to tell it right now, but basically the story ends with Sandra Cisneros coming to visit my 209th and 10th graders at this, you know, um, school in the hood, I guess you could say, you know, kind of in the, the bad part of Houston and, um, It really gave my students a sense of importance.
It showed them that their words mattered. And the fact that she came to see my kids and to hear my kids read their poetry, it was just like, wow. Poetry is a really magical tool. It’s a really beautiful way for students, for people, for children, for anybody to, um, express their feelings, to express their, their stories.
Um, after that whole event with Sondra, she sort of looked at me and she was like, you know, [00:06:00] you’re a poet. You have, you have this in you. And she, she also wrote a blurb for my very first book. Um, and so it was her giving me that sense of seeing she saw me. Um, and she invited me to Macondo, which was her writer’s workshop in San Antonio.
And that really just. It put me on this other path. Um, so I won teacher of the year, that year. I won teacher of the year out of the whole school district and then out of 85,000 teachers in the city of Houston. And then I quit to become a full-time poet. Um, Joanne, my, my now wife and I, we moved to Arkansas and I just, I started writing full time.
I went back into my poems and just started editing and revising and seeing what. Actually had, you know, what I had been doing, what I had been working on, but that I had put on the back burner for so long. And I brought those up to that front burner. Um, put together a first manuscript and I sent it out to a contest with Swimming with Elephants Publications and it won.
And that was, um, my first book that was picked up back in 2014, but the very first poem that was picked up, um, was it Elephant Journal and I remember screaming and running throughout the house and just saying, oh my God, one of my poems is getting published. I’m going to be a published poet. And I didn’t really know.
Uh, what that meant. I didn’t know how to do it. Um, I, it was a blog that I had followed just like your blog. You know, I followed it when I was reading about writing and things like that. And there was a little button that said, submit your story. What does that mean? So push the button and all of a sudden this world of submission guidelines and all these things came up and I was like, oh, this is how you do it.
You know? So I followed the guidelines. I sent in a poem about, um, a Buddhist temple called Bodhi. And there was an explosion at this Buddhist temple, um, and [00:08:00] how the Bodhi tree, despite the explosions, this beautiful. Ancient tree at this temple survived. And so that was the very first poem of mine that got published.
And I guess it was late 2012 maybe. Um, and that was just, it just opened my whole world. Like, this is how you do it. This is what publishing is. This is what being a poet means, you know? So that was my first experience with that. That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing that. And that’s fun.
Trish Hopkinson: I think my first.
Non-university published poem was in 2012 too. So we really have kind of, wow. So yeah, it really has, it’s felt that way, but I didn’t realize how close our journeys were. So that’s really, that’s really kind of neat. Um, so what are the most important things you learned when you were first starting to send out work or, or maybe that you’ve learned over the years?
Kai Coggin: I felt that I was pretty lucky early on, you know, getting that, getting that poem published and then finding a [00:09:00] network, um, on Facebook of really like-minded and like-hearted women, frankly, that were so supportive and that had different, um, Publications and blogs and literary journals themselves that we’re already establishing a network of other people, other readers and other poets.
And so for me personally, not having an MFA and not having a community of academic writers to be in a cohort with, um, this became my cohort and you are part of that cohort and, um, Katherine Shrieg and Christina Norcross and Jeanie Roberts. And, you know, they all have these, these, um, literary journals and, and organizations and communities that, that foster spiritual writings, spiritual poetry, healing, um, lifting up women’s voices.
And so I started sending out my poems to these different organizations and journals [00:10:00] that were on vibration and we’re on that level. And they started also getting published and the luck that I had with Swimming with Elephants publications to get my first book out, you know, I’ve been, I feel like I’ve really been held in a lot of ways by many different publishers, many different communities, um, here locally, you know, with Wednesday night poetry, that was a big driving force for me also.
And I will probably talk a little bit about that later, but, you know, just, just community has always been something that has really helped me. Um, but what I’ve learned through these years now, almost 10 years of sending workout and. Um, being published is that rejections are not that bad. You know, when you get a rejection, it’s not, if at first it felt like a rejection to like who I am and myself as a writer and those things.
But I’ve really learned over the years that when you get [00:11:00] rejected from a journal, it’s just that, that poem just hasn’t found the right place. You know, there’s going to be a perfect place for that poem. And now as an editor myself, you know, I can empathize with editors and readers of journals that they could be having a bad day.
They could be going through a divorce. They could be having kids screaming in the corner, or, you know, their dog chewing on her leg while they’re reading your poem. And everything is just so subjective. In the poetry world that, you know, you just can’t take it personally. And so, um, I’ve, I’ve just tried to just send more and more workout, different packets and really looking into what a journal publishes, uh, what their guidelines are, the kind of work, the kind of, you know, vibration energy themes that they put out, you know, and, and it takes a little bit of work, but I’ve, I’ve had some pretty good luck with that.
So, yeah, rejections are not that bad. It’s just, it’s not ready yet. And it’s not the, it’s not the right place [00:12:00] for it just right yet.
Trish Hopkinson: That’s so, so true. Like you said, there just so many variables. So, I mean, sometimes it could be, they received, you know, five poems about. I don’t know, puppies. And so, you know, they can only put one poem about puppies in the issue.
So they have to choose from maybe five really great poems. I mean, I don’t envy that of editors because I think a lot of times, you know, they do get a lot of brilliant work that they have to somehow, you know, select just certain ones and then they have to leave all these others on the table, you know? So I do, I certainly.
Empathize with how editors, you know, work through all of that too. So, no, that’s, that’s a really great point. I’m so glad that you shared that. Uh, you mentioned Wednesday Night Poetry, so we are going to talk about it really. I mean, it’s definitely you and I both, you know, do a lot of work in our local communities.
Right. And we were talking before we [00:13:00] started the interview about. How great it is to get that, you know, instant feedback and to work with individuals on that kind of in-person level, which, you know, once the pandemic hit, uh, that opportunity, I mean, just got shut off, like instantly, right? So we all had to sort of, you know, adjust and, um, And that’s what happened with Wednesday Night Poetry.
And you just did such a phenomenal job, really taking this, you know, beautiful local community, open Mike to a global level and, and really. You found this incredible blend of these well-known poets that you were able to, you know, through your network connect with, um, and bring those to the stage along with, you know, your local regulars and with, you know, emerging poets like me out in Utah or [00:14:00] whatever, you know, we all got to participate in, in this really great format that I know.
So much time putting together and they’re just, they’re just beautiful. And I love to go back and like just kind of skirt through them and pick out little ones to go watch. And, uh, it, it really is really is great. So I wanted to ask you, uh, what surprised you the most about the response that you got when you went virtual with Wednesday Night Poetry.
Kai Coggin: first of all, I want to say that you are not an emerging poet. You are a well-known poet, a celebrated poet. And, um, if you’re still emerging that I’m still emerging, honey, we are, we are emerged. I would say we are out of the chrysalis and we’re out here doing our.
Trish Hopkinson: Our work to be fair. I don’t have a full length out yet, although I am sitting.
So that’s why I don’t know. I still consider myself emerging. I, I, okay. I feel like I still have a lot to do so maybe that’s for, that comes from. [00:15:00]
Kai Coggin: Well, that’s just because you’re because you know, you’re such a giver and you help so many other people in other journals and other organizations, you know, but we see you out here, Trish, we see you, we see your work, we see your poems.
We see. Um, so I just wanted to say first, thank you. Um, yes, you’re welcome. So Wednesday night poetry. The thing about it is that, you know, there’s this streak that we have, and this week it’s going to be a 1000 week wait. Now 1,708 weeks in a row that we’ve had 1,708 weeks. And so that’s over 32 years that we’ve never missed a Wednesday.
So when I was asked to take over as the host back in 2019, The founder, uh, bud Kenny, who passed away later that year, he wanted me to take it into the future. And I didn’t have any idea that the future was going to be, you know, this global pandemic. [00:16:00] Um, and so that, yeah, so our, our last in-person was March 11th, 2020, and that next week, March 18th, I was like, oh God, we’re on lockdown.
What do we do? How do I, how do I do this? I don’t want to break the streak. You know, it’s not going to, I’m not going to break the streak on my watch. I’m not going to be the person that just ended our street. Like, no, hell no. When I went to Facebook and I just asked, I messaged our local poets and I just said, send me a video of yourself, reading a poem, and I’ll post it at the same time that we would normally meet in person.
And because we were all in such a, a state of shock locally, and we didn’t know what was going on. And there was so much. Palpable fear and tension and anxiety in the air and in our feed was all frenetic and crazy. And everyone was just, it was so scary that first week. And you can I get chills now thinking about it first week, you know, we didn’t know what [00:17:00] was about to happen to all of us, you know, globally, everyone was feeling this at the same time.
Um, and so having this sense of normalcy. Um, and community just for our locals, you know, to send me a poem, send me a poem and I’m going to post it at the same time. Just so we’ll still have Wednesday night poetry. So I have like 50 people send me a poem that first week. Right. And I was like, oh God, what the hell am I doing?
How do I upload 50 videos to Facebook? And, you know, I’ve, I’ve made, um, A lot of strides in like learning how to compress files and easier upload and faster, but you know, making them smaller. But I was uploading these ginormous file sizes. And, uh, it would take me hours, literally like 12 hours of uploading.
Um, it was ridiculous, but I didn’t know what I was doing. And I feel like a lot of the other organizations and series and things that go on across the country, they had sort of a, a time of adjustment, you [00:18:00] know? Um, I didn’t have that learning curve. I just jumped right in literally the first Wednesday of lockdown.
And I didn’t even know what zoo was. Yeah. Didn’t I never zoom. I don’t Skype. You know, I FaceTime my nephew every once in a while, but that was pretty much the extent of my like video calling live, you know, knowledge. Sure. What sets apart Wednesday night poetry is that I’m still doing it the same way. I’m still uploading, you know, between.
30 and 50 videos every week. And this week we’ll be 75 weeks that we’ve had the virtual Wednesday night poetry, 75 weeks over 3,500 poems and features have been shared. And so what’s been the most surprising is that after that very first week, when I opened it up to poets anywhere. It took off, you know, it really took off because it was so bleak.
It was so dark. We felt so [00:19:00] isolated and people were just hungry for commuting. For hungry for warmth. And it was that second week of the virtual that I did that thing that I do putting my hand up to the screen, you know, and that just came from, I don’t know, it just came from my heart. It was just a gesture that came right from my heart.
And I, I just wanted so desperately to touch people to feel that touch again. And that gesture, that, that vulnerability. Warmth that love that I really intentionally cultivate on Wednesday night poetry. Um, so many people have told me that it’s just really helped them get through such a dark and isolating time.
And honestly, it, it gave me purpose during this time because. Normally I’m in the classroom, teaching poetry to kids, you know, and just like that, that’s where all my, my heart energy goes. And so I had nowhere to put that. So I put it into you poets, you know, and it really, really took off when, uh, [00:20:00] at earth.
Earth day. Last year we had Jane Hirshfield, joy Harjo and Naomi Nye, one reading. And then, so when that got out, people were just like, wow, what, what is she doing that, that could have attracted this level of energy, these poets, these, these stars. And they were all the three of them, the earth mothers, they were.
So they were so happy to read with each other. Um, And to do this and something that the pandemic has done in the poetry community is that it has really kind of taken away a lot of the gates, the walls that separated, you know, the different levels of, of poets, because these are the, the cream of the crop.
But, you know, these are the highest echelons of our living poets right now, the chancellors of the blah-blah-blah and the U S poet Laureate. And so when those gates are, are destroyed or knocked [00:21:00] down, you know, that sense of community again, really opens up to people. And so having emerging poets, rising stars.
First-timers on the same platform as the us poet Laureate. You know, it was a really neat thing to be able to facilitate for people and to, to, to do. And it was so surprising that it all really manifested. And since then, I mean, pretty much any poet you can think of. I have been able to, to get. Perform and be a part of our community.
Um, there’s still a few that are holding out, but I’m still working hard to get Natalie. Oh yes. But she’s pretty busy with. Sort of women. Yeah. Yeah. But anyway, it’s just, it’s been surprising how much people have been reciprocal about the warmth and, you know, just, just being a part of it. So I’ve been really honored.
It’s really one of the honors of my life to have been able to do this during such a dark [00:22:00] time to be at, to be a light. And it certainly was.
Trish Hopkinson: I mean, I was super grateful for it. I know that it, it certainly turned some of my Saturdays into better days. So I know that, I know that the rest of the poetry communities is really grateful for that.
And it really did have that. Hometown feel about it, you know, where you have some features, but then you have all your local favorites, you know, and you have such a wide variety of people and voices and different styles and types of poetry. And I really enjoyed that. I mean, there were several where I literally watched every single one and just felt like I was at an open mic.
So I, it really, it really is. It really is a great form of.
Kai Coggin: So it’s really different from hold on. It’s really different from the way that the zooms are, because once zoom has done, it’s done, you know, you can watch the replay or whatever, but these videos take off once they’re posted, [00:23:00] like they’re on, they’re just rippling.
For forever. I go back to some of the features and stuff, and there’s like 12,000, 15,000 views on some of them. And it’s just like, they, they live on. So it’s been really interacting, you know? I mean, they really do continue. Yeah. They do so it’s, it’s sort of like creating a poetry time capsule for us, you know?
Cause we went through week by week, writing everything that happened. We wrote about George Floyd. We wrote about the election. We wrote about, you know, Elijah McCain and Brianna. All the things that happened in 2020 and beyond, you know, we directed our thoughts as poets every week. Um, because I consciously did that.
I, I said, let’s all write about black lives matter. Let’s all write about blue. Let’s all write about water during the wildfires in California. So, uh, poetry is a powerful thing. It’s a type of magic. That’s right.
Trish Hopkinson: Nope. I agree with you completely. And I think that’s, I love thinking about it as a time [00:24:00] capsule, you know, for everything that we experienced in that year and, and going forward.
So I’m, I’m definitely excited for you to be able to take it back local. Um, we will certainly miss the online iteration and, you know, maybe someday in the future, something else might blossom from that. Um, but I certainly am looking forward to being able to. Bring it back home, uh, be able to do those in person again.
Kai Coggin: Well, I may be crazy, but I’m going to continue doing the virtual also throughout the year.
Trish Hopkinson: Okay. Well, yeah. Right, right. No, that’s excellent. That’s excellent. If like, you know, a couple months. Okay. Okay. That’s that’s good. At least have a little bit before. Um, But there is something that’s really exciting that I want to make sure that we talk about.
And that is your new book Mining for Stardust. It’s, it’s just released in mid November. [00:25:00] And it’s your fourth book and you’ve also worked with four different presses each time. Um, so did you have like some aha moments working on publication with each one? Like I dunno something that, um, surprised you or, or excited you about the publication process.
And I imagine that. Each press was a little bit different and how they manage things. So just curious what those experiences were.
Kai Coggin: My first experience with, uh, Swimming with Elephants Publications. I was still in such a state of just perpetual shock that I was going to have a book coming out. That I was just like, here it is, do whatever you want with it.
You know? Um, my, my wife Joanne painted the covers for all of my books. So really the only input that I had in that first book was here’s the book cover, you know, that she painted. And they did an amazing job, publishing it and putting it together and stuff. The second, my second publisher of [00:26:00] Wingspan with Golden Dragon Fly Press.
I got to work a lot closer with her as an editor, um, going through and doing a lot of the design, some of the design elements to it. Um, again, the cover art was, was front and back, and I wanted that to be perfect because the wings, when you open the book, the wings open. It’s beautiful. Thank you. And, and so, uh, Alice Maldinado over there at Golden Dragonflies, she was just, I’ve just been really lucky, Trish, all, all of the editors that I’ve worked with.
Um, Brian Boylan and, um, and Seth at Sibling Rivalry Press here in Arkansas. That was my third book within Candice and, and now Edward, we doubted. Flower song. They’ve all been so warm and open to working with me because I’m kind of a perfectionist, I’m a Capricorn, I’m very like goal oriented. If I have a vision, it needs, I need it to be exactly how I see it, you know, because I’m very, I’m very particular [00:27:00] with, with design and where the words fall on the page and we’re, you know, pretty much all of it.
I I’d imagine that, um, it’s kind of. It’s kind of probably kind of challenging at times. And so before I go further, I just want to say thank you to all of the editors out there at all of the small presses that are putting books out. Um, because working with, you know, just with me, you know, it’s probably a handful, but they work with dozens and dozens every year to, to put these collections out there.
And a lot of the times they’re doing. Not getting paid too much, you know, small pressures, independent presses. They’re not making a lot of money. So it’s a, it’s a labor of love. Um, And I’ve seen how hard they work. And so mostly what I feel is gratitude for small presses. You know, they, there are so many small presses out there and many more that are starting every day.
You know, that just want to put more books out there and [00:28:00] represent. Voices of color and queer voices and, you know, indigenous voices. And, um, it’s just amazing to watch what’s going on in the publishing world. And to also see that, um, with the uses of social media, especially Twitter, um, that a lot of the small presses are.
getting bigger footing, bigger reach. Um, they never just five, five years ago, you know? And so I’m happy to see more of that playing field, getting, getting leveled in our industry. Um, so it’s really cool just to watch on the outside, but also to be a part of what’s going on in publishing. Uh, it’s neat. Yeah, no, definitely gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.
Trish Hopkinson: Sure, sure, sure. No, I’m glad you said that. I think that’s definitely something that, um, there could be a little more of that in the literary community. Right. I think, you know, um, they’re they’re I, I too off, well, I shouldn’t say often, but occasionally I will get, you know, a nice message or comment from someone that says, [00:29:00] Hey, thanks for everything that you do.
Um, and we probably all need to work a little bit more. It, you know, reaching out to, to those that are really volunteering their time. And I mean, I think since we’re both volunteers ourselves, um, you know, we’re usually so busy with that stuff. I’m like, goodness, I have some work to do. I probably need to say thank you, you know, explicitly a little more often.
So I really appreciate that. It’s great inspiration. I think for everybody. So tell us where people can find you online and also where they can get a copy of Mining for Stardust.
Kai Coggin: You can find me online on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Um, I don’t understand Tik TOK, so I’m not doing the Tik TOK yet either. I know I’m like, I can’t, I’m barely dipping my pinky toe into Twitter kind of late to the party, but it’s fun.
I like it. So I’m @skailight on Instagram and Twitter and it’s @skailight. So it’s kind of a play on words, skylight and on Facebook I’m just Kai Coggin. You can order signed copies of mining for starters from my website, kaicoggin.com or you can order it straight from the publisher at flowersongpress.com.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us. So tickle to meet you in person in March. I really just can’t wait. It’s going to, I know it’s just going to go super fast, but right now it feels like it’s way too far away, but this was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us and for all of your words of wisdom and sharing your experience and all the inspirational things that you gave us today, really.
Just always such a pleasure. So thank you again for joining us and thanks to Tell Tell Poetry for putting together this incredible interview series.
So I will, oh my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate all that you do [00:31:00] for our poetry community and thank you, Tell Tell Poetry for hosting this event.
Um, and I can’t wait to see you in person either give you a big hug.
Trish Hopkinson: Absolutely. It’s going to be great. Thanks again. I have a have a great rest.