At age 8, Kurtis Lamkin woke from a nightmare and went to his parents’ bedroom for consolation. But instead of taking him in, they turned him away to comfort himself. Lamkin did that by telling himself poems and stories and singing.
“Poetry saved me when I was 8,” says Lamkin, now 68. “It didn’t just soothe me or entertain me. It energized me.”
“Being a poet was in my bones,” he says, but it would take time for him to fully embrace his calling. At age 16, he became a father to his son, who is also named Kurtis.
“One day I was playing baseball with my friends, and the next day I was working a couple of jobs, trying to make money to take care of our little family,” he recalls.
At age 19, the Philadelphia native earned an engineering scholarship to General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, in Flint, Michigan. Married by then, Lamkin moved his family to Michigan, where, in addition to going to school, he worked odd jobs to try to make ends meet. When the financial pressure became too much and he got behind on bills, he turned to burglary.
“It was brutal internally because I wasn’t raised for that,” says Lamkin, whose father was a truck driver and whose mother worked as a hairdresser. “Each time I did it, it just wore me out.”
His life changed while reading a book by the late poet, social activist, and writer Langston Hughes, an early innovator of the literary art form known as jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
“He had been my favorite author when I was younger,” Lamkin says. “And the thought just hit me so hard: Kurt, if you’re risking your life to make this little bit of money, why don’t you risk your life to do what you love? It made me realize poetry is what I wanted to do all along. From then on, I became committed to the poem and all the things the poem could do.”
Poetry as a Calling
Back in his native Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, Lamkin continued to work a variety of jobs, including working in kitchens and testing equipment in an engineering lab. Through it all, he wrote.
“It took the edge off the other work I was doing,” he says.
He also played semiprofessional football and tried out for the Washington Commanders. The tryout was cut short when someone inquired about his age. At 20, he was a year too young to play in the National Football League (NFL) at that time. They asked him to return the next year, but by that point, Lamkin was immersed in his poetry.
Lamkin, whose first marriage had ended by then, moved to New York City in 1978. While he still worked odd jobs, he focused his energy on writing. Since he didn’t know how to type, he asked Gladys Barnes, a secretary he worked with at a cigarette company, to type his poems for him. She later introduced him to the late Claude Brown, author of the best-selling novel Manchild in the Promised Land (Macmillan, 1965), about surviving street life in Harlem. The book was one of Lamkin’s favorites.
“I gave my manuscript to him. It was wintertime, and we went out on the street, and in this little car was [best-selling writer] James Baldwin. Minutes after meeting me, Baldwin said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t write. It’s so hard,’” Lamkin says, chuckling at the memory.
Brown also introduced Lamkin to poet Quincy Troupe. Lamkin joined Troupe’s poetry workshop and met poets and writers like the late Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, and the late Amiri Baraka. Through those interactions, he saw the work that went into cultivating great writing.
“I saw their dedication to the craft,” he says. “I learned you can have ups and downs, but there comes a point where you have to have that kind of dedication. You don’t realize you’re sacrificing anything because it’s devotion. And the devotion is a wonderful feeling.”
Lamkin, who lived in New York City until 1996, also taught poetry in schools.
While music had also always been a part of his life—singing, like poetry, helped him as that 8-year-old boy—it became part of the work he did in the world after a friend invited him to West Africa in 1990. Back home after the trip, Lamkin received a gift of a kora, a West African lute that sounds like a harp. But of the instrument’s 21 strings, only four were intact. Lamkin took it to the African Market in Harlem to get it restrung. Instead of stringing the kora for him, two kora players at the shop came to his house and taught him how to build and string the instrument himself—as well as how to play it.
“I don’t know what they saw in me,” he says. “It came out of the blue.”
Lamkin played the kora all around New York City—with jazz quartets, tap dancers, African dance troupes, and more.
Before going to West Africa, Lamkin had begun composing poems by heart instead of on paper. He started sharing those poems while playing the kora and singing. He loves the kora for many reasons, he says, but mainly because he sees it as a form of prayer.
“When I’m playing the kora, especially at night, I can feel the response to the prayer I’m making,” he says. “I can’t catch the prayer. I hear the prayer.”
He calls music “a language of the Spirit.”
“I try to stay open to the Spirit when it comes through me, and, in my compositions, I get to shape that Spirit into a being that can enter people aurally and keep company with their soul for a while,” Lamkin explains. “I get lost while I am doing the poem, but it refreshes me when I’m done.”
Lamkin now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife, fiber artist Catherine Lamkin, with whom he has a daughter named Kebe. His album Love Life came out in fall 2022. He sells it on his website, allowing buyers to name their price. “To share it is the main thing,” he reasons.
He’s pleased with his latest work. “Once I am done with a project, I usually just put it behind me and move on,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve gone back and listened. I think it’s beautiful. This is also the first time I’ve let work I’ve done inspire me. I like to think it also inspires other people.”
His friend best-selling poet Mark Nepo calls Lamkin “a gem, a light.”
“Kurtis is a singular talent of our generation entering his years of mastery,” Nepo says. “His compelling work unites many artistic forms. Like author Howard Zinn, his vision bears witness to a fair and equitable human history. And in the tradition of Homer, he travels the country singing the truth of our history, the hope of our humanity, and the imagination of our community. He is a unique talent and a truth-seer of our time.”
Kurtis Lamkin combines poetry, song, and music. To learn more about him and to purchase his music (including his latest album, Love Life), visit kurtislamkin.com.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.