Story by Imama Khawaja
Photos by Priyanka Podjale
Kush Thompson, 23, is surprisingly soft - spoken for someone whose words speak so loud. At only 19 she published her first book of poetry, A Church Beneath the Bulldozer, has her work featured in multiple publications, is a teaching artist at YCA (Young Chicago Authors), paints As Told By Ginger prints on the side, and co-hosts The Lady Church, an inclusive discussion space for femme poets. She is quiet and doe-eyed, a Stargirl tattoo visible under her sleeve, hair done up in neon scrunchies and lashes lined in silver, but she articulates firmly in a way that demands well-deserved attention. We had the opportunity of getting to talk with her about her work.
How did you get into poetry in the first place?
I can’t remember ever not writing. I think it peaked in the third grade. I was a really shy kid who wouldn’t talk to anybody unless they lived in my house, and I would just sit during recess at the picnic table and write poems. That was my thing.
My mentor Kevin Coval and I had been talking about a book for awhile, that happened when I was 19. I’ve always been a very introspective writer and my work has always been deeply personal, so the idea of putting it into a book was earth-shattering and nerve-wracking to me. I felt like it wouldn’t matter to anyone except me. It features a lot of photocopied diary entries and it felt almost post-partum afterwards, like now this isn’t mine, it’s everybody’s. It was having this thing that was a monument to where I was at the time, nineteen, just moved out of my mom’s house, adulting for the first time in my life. All of those feelings of loneliness and confusion and reflection are in there. It’s bittersweet.
"It’s impossible to extract someone from their politics, or the politics from their being."
You call yourself a political-romantic poet. What does that mean to you?
I might have coined that term, I’m not sure, but I got the idea from Angela Davis who said that the personal is always political. It’s impossible to extract someone from their politics, or the politics from their being. And I write about it in a very romanticized way.
How did you end up so involved with YCA?
Kevin Coval, who I met during my second year of Louder Than A Bomb. He came up to me while we were on the final stage, congratulated me on my work, and said that if this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I could do it and he would help me.
Wow... that's huge.
It is! So I never really went to college, I dropped out after a couple semesters. But I was able to get right into the work I wanted to get into, through YCA. I’m part of the YCA Cohort program, so we’re teaching artists - we get paid to focus on our craft while also teaching our craft to students.
What’s your meeting space The Lady Church all about?
A Lady Church is a series of monthly meetings we have in the YCA space. We also do a showcase every year of some of our favorite femme poets from Louder Than A Bomb, giving them another platform to perform. It’s me and Jasmine Barber, my cohost and co-facilitator. We would go to YCA’s weekly open mic, Wordplay, but as much as we try to make it a safe space we still felt not enough female or femme voices were being heard. We wanted another kind of open mic space, but more just like us hanging out, just vibing with each other. We started it in 2014 and have been doing it ever since. It’s taken on so many forms.
"I feel like the first poems I ever read were in Psalms."
Religion seems to be a common theme in your work. What meaning does that have for you?
It’s funny because religion actually…doesn’t mean that much to me. But I was raised Christian, and that’s another thing you cannot extract from yourself. I feel like the first poems I ever read were in Psalms. It’s hard to take that away. As much as I don’t agree with the church, my roots as a poet started there. The Bible is such a good tool for storytelling.
You’re super into As Told By Ginger. How did you get into making art about it?
Growing up I was always into cartoons like everyone else, but I really resonated with Ginger Foutley. It’s like, the most normal cartoon ever. Nothing that wouldn’t happen in real life happened on this show. I found comfort in it because although my growing up was nice it was dysfunctional, so I would look to the show as sort of a parallel universe. Ginger had a little brother and I have a little brother, she loved to write and I love to write, she was quiet and I was quiet. But she is white and didn’t look like me. I wanted to create characters that looked like me while also showing their multiplicity in different facial expressions.
Okay, so... you were part of the What’s Goin’ On tribute for Marvin Gaye, and Michelle Obama was there?
Yes! Brother Mike, my mentor at YouMedia, took a small group of us to D.C. for the showcase. It was a long time ago. But I got to read a poem with John Legend playing piano behind me! He’s a lot shorter in person.
I feel like most celebrities are a lot shorter in person. What kind of themes do you see showing up in your work?
Lately, a lot of girlhood is showing up. I’m trying to connect with my younger self. What’s the word for going back in time and fixing something? I’m just trying to root around my fascination with whiteness, why I tried to be normal so bad, things that I suppressed back then.
What’s next for you?
That’s a funny question... I have no fuckin’ idea. I’m moving to New Orleans in the fall. I’ve never really had that college experience of going away and I don’t know what I’m going to do there, so that’ll be fun. There’s also this book i’m writing called Side Eye that I’ve been trying to write for years, about girlhood and childhood. It’s just me taking a step back from things and trying to really figure out what this all of this experience is leading to. I’ve been going really hard the past few years and really in it but not really taking a step back and looking at it. That’s what I hope comes next. I just wanna be in a quiet place with my writing for awhile.
You can check out Kush’s poetry and art on her website.