Poetry for the people

Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Wisconsin’s first Black poet laureate, shares a message of connection

Wisconsin's Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Wisconsin's Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton (photo by Tim Rickett)

On Inauguration Day, while the country was still on edge after the horrific violence of Jan. 6, Dasha Kelly Hamilton — Wisconsin’s newly inaugurated poet laureate — was half tuned in to the broadcast from Washington, D.C. 

She heard a poet’s name being announced, and her first reaction was that Joy Harjo, the nation’s first Indigenous poet laureate, was being snubbed.

Then Amanda Gorman stepped onto the podium. 

“Like everyone else, I was just mesmerized, jaw hanging open,” says Kelly. “All right, we will see your first Indigenous laureate, and raise you the youngest poet, the youngest laureate.”

Then, says Kelly, she really tuned in to the content of Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington. (Win McNamee/Pool Photo via AP)
National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington. (Win McNamee/Pool Photo via AP) CC BY 2.0

“You’re hit in your heart with the truth and the promise in the words that she was able to craft for us,” says Kelly. “The competence with which she said it, the poise, and all the preparation. It’s just watching this moment: Here’s this little Black girl, and she’s able to speak of being the little Black girl as part of her presentation to the nation.”

For Kelly, it was a moment of great emotional release. “At this point, my husband is now holding me. I’m violently shuddering, crying because she is also every student that I’ve had through the nonprofit that I founded.”

That Milwaukee-based literary hub, Still Waters Collective, has “touched 14,000 young people,” as she puts it. 

Kelly assumed the post of poet laureate in January, and will hold the post until Dec. 2022. At a time of great racial turmoil and reckoning, she is the state’s first Black poet laureate, while concurrently serving as Milwaukee’s poet laureate. 

This level of multitasking is not uncommon for Kelly. The self-titled ‘creative change agent’ has taught workshops and classes at colleges, nonprofits, schools and prisons. She’s written two novels and published several volumes of poetry. She’s facilitated initiatives in Botswana, Toronto and Beirut, and has written a touring production, Makin’ Cake. She’s appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

Poet midwife 

Despite her dizzying creative output, Kelly has the focus of a Zen master during an hourlong Zoom interview with Wisconsin Examiner, where she shares her enthusiasm and ambitions for bringing poetry to the people.

She does not hold the secrets to poetry writing close to her chest. She wants the world to read, write and hear poetry. She describes the process as taking “all of your questions and turning them into poems.” 

Since metaphors are the stuff of poetry, you could call her a poetry midwife. “There are a lot of steps,” says Kelly. “We are all able to make that happen. Some people call it ‘tricking them,’ but I think my work has been ushering, guiding people along that process.” 

Kelly says her style of teaching really is about the process. “The final poem be damned, you know,” she says. “Creative language gives us the buffer space to sort these things out, to make sense of these things.”

Gorman’s inaugural poem, says Kelly, was a shining example of a poet seizing a moment. “Watching her as an individual shine in that moment, watching her as an ambassador, of sorts, for all these young people and not-so-young people who figured out a way to master their own narrative and their perspective.”

Kelly says that moment at the inauguration was a tribute to the educators and mentors who Gorman credits for her rise to the national spotlight. “It was just celebrating every adult, every teacher who coordinated the poetry clubs after school. They weren’t doing something in their other life because they’re making space for these kids.” 

It was also, she adds, a celebration of the educators who have spent countless nights and weekends chaperoning teams of teenagers to spoken word and poetry festivals.

‘Selling bags of coffee’

The benefits of encouraging creative writing in young people are so obvious to Kelly that she laments the fact that schools and nonprofits have to scrounge for resources to fund programs. “I personally have only so many hands, so many hours, and Lord knows I have tried to borrow hours,” says Kelly. “We in the nonprofit sector subsist. Imagine what we would do if we had the resources to excel. But there is this thing called capitalism.”

She says she hopes that Gorman’s story will inspire funders, investors and leaders to recognize the importance of providing this kind of opportunity. “We all know the small arts organizations that had to sell bags of coffee to get their young Amanda Gormans an opportunity,” says Kelly. “I just hope that all of them are using a video clip of her, because every city and every part of the country is buzzing about her work.

“Hopefully, all of them are like, ‘Hey, you saw that? Now, about that funding. We’re doing that right here in San Antonio, in Madison, Sheboygan, Memphis. That’s what we’re doing.’”

Poetry can provide a channel to self-discovery and growth that leads to healthy, engaged communities, says Kelly. “We expect young people to come out on the other side of a diploma with all these thoughts refined, but just think about how long it took for us to be really clear about not just who we are, but how we move through a space,” she says. “So it’s a different kind of a fellowship inviting people to define themselves that way, and find those things that don’t often feel like they allow for language and terror and uncertainty and racism.”

Dasha’s early start

Kelly calls herself an “army brat” whose family moved a lot when she was young. At around 10, when they lived in Indianapolis, her mother encouraged her to enter a fiction contest for young writers. To keep her active mind busy, her mom offered to time her as she pecked out stories. “I know I had double whatever the word count was,” says Kelly. “I was set in this experience of creating these worlds.”

 Kelly’s discovery of her calling came after she already had a career in marketing and PR. But once she started, she found the opportunities multiplying. “I didn’t set out to start a literary arts organization. I responded to an invitation to go teach a third grade class at an after-school program,” she says. “And then that got me invited back to do something with the fifth graders, which got me invited to be a teaching artist with this arts agency.”

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She had been writing since she was a teenager, but all she really knew, says Kelly, was “I had none of it figured out.” 

“I wasn’t an expert on words. I was just doing the research on what the impact is of creative writing, of the power of play, the richness of imagination, and just kind of layering that understanding of what those opportunities spark in humans,” she says. 

She became fascinated with helping people of all ages and races overcome barriers to writing and performing poetry, helping them see that what they had to share had value. “There’s a whole generation of folks who have been traumatized by the red ink of their elementary and high school English classes. You’re either a smarty or not. You can write, or you can’t,” she explains.

‘Staring down voices’

Her work with poetry slams led her into the world of story slams, such as those hosted by

Wisconsin's Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton (photo by Tim Rickett)

The Moth. Kelly is a veteran host of Moth events in Madison and Milwaukee. Still Waters Collective has hosted hundreds of such events, and welcomed new voices and communities in the process.

“There’s a little bit of convincing and finagling to let people know that everyone is a poet, but there’s no need to convince you that you have a story,” says Kelly. But for Black and brown people, who haven’t always seen themselves represented among storytellers or audiences, it can be more difficult to volunteer to open up. 

“You go, and there are maybe 1% people of color in the audience, and definitely no one of color on the stage, or you’re the only people of color in the space.” Even though storytelling is central to Black and Indigenous traditions it needed reimagining in the modern world, says Kelly. 

“It’s reintroducing or repackaging the experience of a night out for storytelling. That’s not going to sound like going to the county fair and listening to a guy in overalls tell stories that they have no relation to. It was just taking the art form and making it relatable.”

Kelly launched a series called Fox Tails that eliminated the competitive element for people who might have been intimidated by telling personal stories in that environment. Other events kept the idea of friendly competition, says Kelly, because it is “human nature” to compete.

At its core, though, both storytelling and poetry are about liberation, says Kelly “Here’s how you stare down those voices that tell you that you shouldn’t tell your story. And then once you get over those, how do you find a story anywhere? It’s a common way to remind us that your voice is valuable in an artistic space, and there’s a way to craft a piece of art out of all the things you experience.” 

Poetry prison pen pals

Kelly says poets laureate are considered ambassadors of poetry, and are able to define their own platforms. In applying for the post, potential laureates are asked to share their vision for the post. 

“I want to build a poetry exchange,” says Kelly. “That’s going to be a conversation between traditional residents of the state and residents of state prisons. I’ve been going to prisons for 15 years now; it’s some of my favorite work to do.”

Working with prisoners, says Kelly, “fills a different part of my heart,” and she wants people to share and hear the voices of people who are incarcerated in Wisconsin, who have shared so much with her in workshops over the years.  

“Just the action of receiving a piece of mail in either direction — an inmate who receives a piece of mail from Miss Margaret, way up North. It’s a poem that she wrote and a little explanation about how she came to that poem and that little introduction. So the invitation is to create a story behind the poem.”

She says her work with inmates has transformed her, beginning when she first set foot inside Racine Correctional Institution. “You don’t forget the sound of that gate closing, do not forget the first time you looked at the razor wire around the wall,” she says. “But these are my fellows, right? I’m in a room full of men, all wearing the same jumpsuits, and we’re having this incredible conversation about our favorite candy, and having these conversations about life.” 

Poetry and storytelling bring us back to the universal truths, she continues. “In those moments I don’t ask, ‘What did you do?’ I ask, ‘What happened to them?’ Because everybody in this room was in third grade. At one point, everybody in this room was seven. At some point, everybody in this room had a favorite candy. You are reminded that everybody in this room has somebody who loves them.”