Poetry Fridays: Kurtis Lamkin

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Kurtis Lamkin is a contemporary American embodiment of the ancient West African griot tradition, which blurs the boundaries between poet, singer and storyteller.

The griot, bard or troubadour has been a fixture in all cultures since before the advent of written language. It is believed that such bards passed down the legends of the Trojan War and Beowulf for generations before they were set down in the versions now familiar to us, and that Homer himself likely half-chanted half-sung large sections of the Illiad and Odyssey and accompanied himself on the lyre.

When he performs, Kurtis Lamkin often accompanies himself on the kora, a twenty-one-stringed West African harp-lute. He not only composes on and plays the kora, but he makes them by hand. This sense of the intimate bond between performer and instrument is also part of the griot tradition.

In recent decades, there has been much debate in academic circles in the United States regarding the place of politics in poetry. But in the griot/bardic tradition, there is no debate. The poet is seen as someone directly involved in the life of the community, and commentary on events that impact the community is not only accepted, but expected.

We assume our troubadours will sing us love songs, and Lamkin gives us one, but they have also been seen as the chief chroniclers of their times. In Elizabethan England, the news stories of the day were passed on through popular ballads. Like Lamkin, the griots and bards of the past always performed this function with humor and satire.

Lamkin has released a number of CDs of his work, including: My Juju (1995), El Shabazz (1998), and Queen of Carolina (2001).

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead.

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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10!
For more information, visit the Poetry website.

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