Phnom Penh-based spoken word poet Kosal Khiev was announced yesterday as a Cambodian representative at the 2012 London Olympics – with a slight twist.
Instead of thrusting a javelin into the sky or sprinting the 100 metres, Kosal will be joining wordsmiths from the 203 other countries to participate in one of the largest poetry gatherings in world history.
The Poetry Parnassus event, which takes its name from a Greek mountain considered to be one of classical poetry’s heartlands, is inspired by the poetry commissioned to accompany the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.
Poets from each country competing in the 2012 games will descend on London’s Southbank Centre – the UK’s largest arts centre – for a week-long literary festival in the lead-up to the game’s opening ceremony.
“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.”
Kosal, one of 6,000 writers nominated to participate in the festival, will join an roster of world-renowned scribes, including Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney from Ireland and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria.
Ironically, it is only recently that Kosal, 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 US. Convicted of a deportable offence as a teenager, Kosal served more than 14 years in prison before being sent to Cambodia last year by the US government.
Despite his present circumstances, his separation from his family in the US and his part in campaigns to change US deportation policies, Kosal 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,” says Kosal. “So I look at that and say there has to be a purpose, there has to be a reason why I’m here.”
The poet discovered spoken word while incarcerated, and has spent the last year nurturing his talents and performing around the capital.
For Kosal, the chance to be in the company of international performers during the London Olympics is a dream come true.
“I remember doing time still, 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 honour and a blessing,” he said.
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.”
Kosal’s trip to London builds on his successful partnership with the local arts collaborative Studio Revolt, where he is currently artist-in-residence.
The studio is producing a documentary chronicling Kosal’s life, and a Cambodian tour once he returns 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.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]