Walk into Kollective Coffee + Tea in Hot Springs on any given Wednesday night, as I did months ago when the evenings were still warm, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat. The town’s poets are gathered, as they have done every single week since 1989.
Kai Coggin, Wednesday Night Poetry’s fearless leader, weaves through the crowd, greeting old friends and newcomers alike with a dazzling smile and a hug. When she addresses the room, the rules are clear: This is a safe space. “There won’t be any racism, no homophobia, no transphobia,” Coggin says. “And no arachnophobia. Spiders are our friends.”
For the next three hours, people share poems in memoriam and in celebration. They speak of perfect days and sleepless nights. Haikus, limericks, sonnets. Songs and prayers. The sting of the outside world’s assorted calamities becomes more bearable, if just for a little while.
Such is the ritual of the nation’s longest-running consecutive weekly open mic poetry night.
Coggin — poet, teacher and master naturalist — has led the group since 2019. Since moving to Arkansas over a decade ago, she’s established herself as a literary force. The 43-year-old has four published poetry collections, with a fifth on the way, and she’s taught poetry to K-12 students across the state via the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning Through the Arts. For these accomplishments, she holds the title of Hot Springs’ inaugural poet laureate, two Arkansas Times “Best Poet” designations and, most recently, the Don Munro Leadership in the Arts Award, which she received in late October.
Back during her turbulent teenage years, when poetry was a solitary comfort while she came to terms with her queerness, Coggin made a vow. “My soul made a promise,” Coggin said. “If I made it through, I’d hold space for others.” Now she cultivates community wherever she goes.
Initially, that promise led her to teaching in Houston, where she grew up. While teaching high school English, Coggin founded the district’s first gay-straight alliance. “It was hard to be the figurehead leading that, and there was opposition — but I’ve always pushed against opposition.”
Coggin said the benefits of helping the kids far outweighed any risks to her. She wanted a place where the “outcasts” could come and be themselves, free of judgment. “Allowing safety, even if it’s just one person you can be yourself around, that is lifesaving.”
After teaching for five years, she decided to pursue writing full time. Coggin and her wife moved to Hot Springs in 2012, and it was then that she first stumbled upon Wednesday Night Poetry. From the first night she went, Coggin was transfixed.
“I started writing something new every week because I knew there’d be someone there to hear it,” Coggin said. Those weekly poems became enough for a book, and after winning a publishing contest, her first poetry collection, “Periscope Heart,” was born in 2014. “I wouldn’t have taken those chances had I not had this community.”
Her writing began as inward exploration. In “Constant Before Picture,” for example, she examines body image: “I am a swirling galaxy in human form, / cut me cross section and see the concentric circles of my orbits.” She also wrote about identity — Coggin is Filipino-American and was born in Thailand — and the trauma of moving away from her birthplace as a young girl. “When Bangkok was ripped / out of my seven-year-old hands / and my father went away with my country, / I dropped all my memories out of a tiny hatch / in the airplane headed for America,” she says in “กรงเทพมหานคร Bangkok.”
As she grew more and more aware of the world’s volatility, however, the poems evolved to be political and defiant. As a queer woman of color in a red Southern state, Coggin writes in a political landscape frequently hostile to her own identity — but that’s not a deterrent. When shit gets scary, her pen is her sword.
“Speaking up and holding light in the face of darkness, it became my purpose. This is why I’m here,” she said.
She wrote about school shootings, about Black boys being killed by police, about Trump’s presidency. “It was my way of making a mark in the literary canon, that someone was mad about these things. Someone was not going to be silent.”
After the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, Coggin wrote a poem in honor of “the 49 queer bodies that were massacred in a nightclub when they just wanted to dance.” She shared it the next Wednesday night. “It wasn’t just me crying for those 49 souls, it was everyone there.”
Coggin firmly believes in the power of art to facilitate change, and her lamentations tend to come coupled with a call to action, as illustrated by a poem from her third collection called “Where Are The Warriors?”: “put your warrior fist in the air, / leave it there / but take your other fist and open it, / set your four fingers and thumb stretch outward with light / to the corners of our country / covered in heavy shadows.”
Wednesday Night Poetry has served as a constant reminder that many other artists are taking a stand through their work. “We’re not isolated blue flames in a red state — there are many of us that want a better world,” Coggin said.
Coggin first met Bud Kenny — much beloved author, adventurer and the founder of Wednesday Night Poetry — when he returned for its 25th anniversary. Initially, she thought, “who’s this dude in a top hat?” But they forged a fast friendship, what Coggin calls a father-daughter poetry family. On a Wednesday night in 2019, Kenny knelt down on one knee and offered Coggin his clipboard. He wanted to sit back and relax, and asked if she’d carry their group into the future.
Coggin became the new host in February 2019, and that October, Kenny had a heart attack. It was a Wednesday when he died, and Coggin had to go to poetry night to tell their community he was gone.
Six months later, COVID-19 set in and everyone was under lockdown. “I wasn’t going to let this legacy fail when it’s in my hands. Oh hell no,” Coggin said. There was a streak to continue, so she put out a call to Arkansas poets and uploaded videos to Facebook of them reading their work.
What usually stayed within the confines of a little coffee shop became a worldwide community of poets. Through the 100 weeks of pandemic, 5,000 people from six continents sent in their work. Folks who’d never written a poem in their life shared their first writing alongside literary giants like Ada Limón and Jane Hirshfield.
Though Coggin hosts the poetry readings in person now, the second Wednesday of every month is also live-streamed. “All this time, Wednesday Night Poetry has been an anchor,” Coggin said. “A place to be in community, but also to make that community something global.”
Knowing how poetry can be a survival tool, Coggin wanted to share it with the kids of Arkansas. Since 2015, she’s taught poetry workshops to thousands of students around the state, a feat for which she won the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award. The priority when she goes into the classroom is always building trust.
“There are a lot of kids that have never had a safe space to just feel — they can’t talk about their feelings in math class or history or on the playground, but they could put it in a poem,” Coggin said. “Even if they never show it to anybody. It’s like they don’t have to carry it around on their shoulders anymore.”
It’s fraught, though, to teach such novel concepts as empathy these days. People might get suspicious.
In May this year, shortly after the LEARNS Act was introduced, Coggin was invited to teach a workshop to fourth-graders. She read selections from “Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship” by Irene Latham and Charles Waters and “The Same Inside: Poems about Empathy and Friendship” by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Roger Stevens; shared her experience as an immigrant; and then asked the kids to write and read their own poems in response. After two days, the school sent Coggin home. Two parents had called to complain that she was indoctrinating their kids with woke ideology. (Coggin declined to share at which school the incident occurred.)
“I was crying in the principal’s office because I told [the kids] they were safe with me, I told them they could write anything, and then it looked like I didn’t show up.
“The adults wage their culture wars,” Coggin said, “but it’s the children who suffer.” The May incident, heartbreaking as it was, seemed a clear sign that a realignment of energy was due. She’s taking a step back from teaching, just for now, and leaning into rest and inspiration.
Her fifth book, “Mother of Other Kingdoms,” which she hopes will be published in the spring, takes great notice of the natural world. It’s an exploration of resistance in a new form: fighting apathy by illuminating the things which bring us joy. This shift is embodied by “I Sit with a Master,” a poem in the Spring 2023 issue of Blue Heron Review that will be included in her forthcoming collection. “All of my eyes are open,” she muses. “I try to catch all the images moving / like salmon in a stream before me, / try to hold them slippery and fleeting / in an act of poetic preservation.”
When I visited Kollective Coffee + Tea in the summer, Coggin read one of her own poems after everyone else had spoken. She’d written it that day, she said, and was met with an enthusiastic “New shit!” from the crowd. She explained it was written in mourning for an onslaught of regressive attacks from the Arkansas legislature.
“How do we fight against a darkening world?” Coggin said. “I’m asking! How?”
The coffee shop was quiet, but one small voice from the crowd answered with confidence: “Love!”
Percy Shelley (Romantic, rapscallion) once wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Two hundred years later, the sentiment still rings true. Considering our actual, acknowledged legislators haven’t done such a bang-up job as of late, maybe it’s time the poets step in.