On Jan. 1, Grand Rapids gained its newest poet laureate in Ericka “Kyd Kane” Thompson. She is the seventh to take on the title and the first Black woman and openly queer person to hold the role.
The poet laureate is selected by Grand Rapids Public Library’s Poet Laureate Selection Committee and acts as an ambassador of poetry for the city. Throughout the three-year term, they are meant to create programs that encourage the writing and reading of poetry among Grand Rapidians of all ages and walks of life.
Thompson is a self-taught, multidisciplinary spoken word and visual artist from Grand Rapids’ southeast side. Her work explores the good and bad of human experience through themes like poverty, privilege, gentrification, resilience and identity through community conversation, poetry, installations, video and photography.
“Language-based arts puts us in the position to express ourselves in a way where people clearly understand what you’re speaking of. It allows you to transmute your experience from something negative into something transformative,” said Thompson, on the power of poetry. “It gives people the opportunity to see that they’re not alone in their experience. When we are candid and authentic about what we’re going through, we give people the chance to take that in. We can tug on some heartstrings and make questions arise that bring about change.”
The Kyd inside
Thompson was first introduced to poetry at the age of 8 at a poetry festival. Hearing young people express themselves freely and openly was a profound moment for her. “I got obsessed with words from there and started reading anything I could get my hands on, from dictionaries to phone books. I watched shows like ‘Def Poetry Jam’ on HBO. It really opened my mind to the art of beat poetry and spoken word,” said Thompson.
The name “Kyd Kane” comes from a combination of childhood and young adult experiences. Growing up, Thompson’s family used to watch soap operas and would refer to her as “Erica Kane,” after Susan Lucci’s character on “All My Children,” who is best known for her desire for love, independence and fame.
“Kyd” represents the kid inside of Thompson. As a teenager, she rapped with a group that had the idea of “kidnapping the hearts and minds of people” through their music. Having helped her mother raise her three other siblings early on, Thompson felt as though she was an adult longer than she was a kid. The name “Kyd” is meant to reclaim the childhood she never had.
“The Kyd kind of stuck. I recognize that I didn’t get to be a kid or be jovial or play while I was growing up. I get to do that now as an adult through this art form,” said Thompson.
From office space to open mics
Before making waves in Grand Rapids’ art scene, Thompson worked in customer service, at a mortgage company and numerous other corporate spaces over many years of adulthood. After a sudden layoff, she took a part-time pizza delivery job, which she now says was “probably my favorite job.”
“Driving from place to place gave me the opportunity to sit with myself, helped me find calm and let me actually hear my own thoughts,” she said. “When you work at an office, you’re kind of on go-mode the entire time. By the time you get home, your brain is just trying to unravel everything that happened that day and there’s no mental capacity for anything else. Delivering pizza allowed me to own my mind for the first time as an adult trying to sustain a living. It made me remember how I used to rhyme, write poetry and reignited my passion to put words together and express myself.”
Kyd Kane’s daily practices to increase mindfulness
Interact with something that reminds you of childhood
Not long after that, she and a friend produced a video of her piece titled “Awaken” on YouTube. She then received an outpouring of support in the community, and the local poetry scene took notice. Eventually, after many instances of silently attending open mics (but badly wanting to get up on stage), she performed live for the first time at the Eastown Hookah Lounge. Despite describing herself as “a paper shaker” at that first performance, she committed herself to a life of creative expression.
Since then, Thompson’s art has taken her to numerous venues such as the Detroit Masonic Temple, the Michigan State Capitol Building and Kalamazoo Institute of Art, among others. Her voice has been featured on NPR, WYCE Electric Poetry, TEDx and many more platforms nationwide.
At 33 years old, Thompson is thankful she “found a way to navigate this life through art instead of giving my time away for money.”
The power of prose
Despite her lifelong love for arts and culture, Thompson did not grow up seeing artists that represented her identities and experiences as a Black woman or an openly queer person. “I do feel saddened that it’s taken a long time for opportunities to open up for people of color. There are so many different areas where we need to see new faces and see change,” she said. “I’m excited to use this position to continue to break glass ceilings and put other people in positions to do things for the first time.”
Presently, Thompson is a teaching artist with The Diatribe, a nonprofit organization that uses poetry and art to empower students to share their stories, raise awareness of social issues, and create change within their communities. She also is a co-host of the Creston Vibes open-mic series, currently on hiatus during the pandemic.
Her first project as poet laureate, titled “Elevated Love Language,” took place this past February in downtown Grand Rapids. Through a grant from Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., she and a group of local artists projected poetic expressions rooted in love for an entire month on billboards, buildings and other pre-existing screens all over town.
Through The Diatribe, Thompson also is organizing a monthly afterschool program for young people with the goal of empowering them to read and write poetry. “With me finding my pathway and love for poetry at school, I’m excited to introduce this art form to students for the first time,” she said. This program will take place virtually during pandemic times.
Throughout Thompson’s life, creativity was a source of joy, a platform for clarity and a means for survival. Each work of artistic expression enabled her “to fill holes, to feel whole and to connect with others.” Through her new poet laureate position, Thompson is committed to using her platform to help creative souls bloom all over Grand Rapids. “I hope that in the coming years, we create a community that is rooted in the acknowledgment of all voices and that there’s space for everybody to express,” she said.
This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here.