Dasha Kelly Hamilton had just finished her chores and organizing for the day, incense burning, and was enjoying a fresh cup of coffee in her kitchen when the phone rang.
“Squealing, squealing like a child,” the longtime Milwaukee resident recalls of her reaction to hearing that she had been named the next Wisconsin poet laureate. “This truly has been life-work for me, and I call it that because I didn’t look for it; it absolutely seized me.”
It is difficult to imagine how Wisconsin’s poet laureate might adapt to an unconventional year like 2020 or 2021. But Kelly Hamilton had an unconventional plan: From Anchorage, Alaska (where Kelly Hamilton will spend part of the year) she will organize virtual events and will periodically travel back to Wisconsin to give speeches and hold events.
Her program A Line Meant is a monthly virtual group discussion centered around the exchange of poetry on what a single line from a poem means to each individual. She hopes to celebrate differences, and to have honest and personal conversations to humanize the other.
“You meet somebody in another part of the state who you have never met before and you have more than the surface level chit-chatty conversation,” she explains. “All because of one line of poetry.”
She will also encourage participants to engage as pen pals and exchange their own poetry through the mail.
“There is nothing like getting a piece of mail that’s not a bill,” she laughs. “I want to encourage other people to share their voice, to speak their truth, to make other people sit down and listen.”
If a resident of Wisconsin is participating, it is likely they will exchange poems with someone from one of the state’s prisons. Kelly Hamilton wants to use the principle of commonality through poetry to build connections through unique channels.
Kelly Hamilton volunteered in Wisconsin prisons for about fifteen years and considers the time she spent there transformative. “Out of all the work I do, being able to have the time [to build] these safe and generative spaces inside these prison institutions has been my favorite outreach to do,” she says.
During her workshops with the prisoners, she watched them transform as they realized that everyone has something to say and everyone deserves to be valued.
“There are a lot of talented human-beings inside these cages, inside these buildings, and I want to give us the opportunity to remind us we are all people,” she says, adding that once Wisconsin opens back up and we return to normalcy, she plans to travel the state and spread poetry in-person too.
Dan Shcidell was a product of one of Kelly Hamilton’s programs. He went from writing in the back of the room to leading a discussion and giving out assignments. She says he became more deliberate and thoughtful over the course of the class, and that he was later released through the Innocence Project because he was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
“My dear Dasha, I am so aware of your popularity, of how much you do, not only for the writers and poets, but with everyone whose life you have touched simply by being Dasha Kelly Hamilton,” he wrote.
Schidell was a part of the anthology Dasha wrote for her graduate project, and he was one of the readers at her inauguration as Wisconsin’s poet laureate.
Evolved from her communication with previous students and stemmed from her time as the founder and director, she created a fellowship that raised the voices of young creatives and poets, all of whom were former students of hers.
“But at the core, [I wanted to give] someone a chance to shine whether they knew they could or not,” she says. “I did, because we all can.”
This desire to give opportunity does not come without challenges. Kelly Hamilton expressed her frustration with a troubling idea rooted in many of her students minds: that they are less capable than they are. She recalled a conversation with one of her fellows that illustrated this problem.
“We were mad at you for asking us to do things and not telling us how to do it,” she remembers the student saying. “What we realized is: we were not mad at you. We were mad at how deeply ingrained it’s been in us of what we cannot do.”
Kelly Hamilton has recognition on a national and international level. Her performance Makin’ Cake – a program that grapples with issues surrounding race, class, gender and equity – was picked up by Siegel Artist Management and has booked venues across the U.S.
“[It’s] a creative way to have a tough conversation that doesn’t skimp on truth, that doesn’t soften hard conversations, but gives a way for everyone to be real and human,” she says.
During the performance a baker makes a cake while she dives into the history behind the pastry. She talks of how sugar used to be a luxury good that only the wealthy could afford, and that baking cake was a four-day process that was often carried out by slaves, and that women have long been associated with the task.
“The basic ingredients of a cake all tell a story of access,” she says. “You had to be rich to afford sugar; you had to have time and slaves to get yeast to cooperate.”
The show has been scheduled in several states including New York, Georgia and here in Wisconsin.
She also founded The Retreat, a once brick-and-mortar classroom and event space that Kelly Hamilton moved online in the wake of the pandemic.
“We wanted to create this space for other thought leaders to, one, monetize their work, and, two, in the age of COVID, lean into this digital space,” she says.
Recently, Bucks player Jrue Holiday and his wife award the Retreat a grant in an effort to help promote small businesses led by Black women. Kelly Hamilton is now revitalizing The Retreat to best suit an online platform.
Commission chair Nick Demske believes that “Dasha was the clear choice” for poet laureate, adding that he and the other commission members were looking for someone who could help build community through poetry and inspire change.
“She’s proven herself as a tireless advocate, not just for the arts but for the arts and community making,” says Demseke, referencing her spoken word performance Life in Motion as a highlight of her work.
Kimberly Blaeser a member of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate commission commented on Dasha’s aptitude and literacy in interpersonal connection. “Part of what Dasha Kelly [Hamilton] brings to this world is her ability to actually see the world clearly and make connections with people,” says Blaeser.
As Wisconsin’s first Black poet laureate, with decades of experience in the field of poetry, she is poised to help change the minds of a generation and help more Wisconsinites learn to recognize minority voices as valuable.
Her efforts to bring new voices to the world of poetry through fellowships and programs celebrates recent diversity in the world of poetry.
“Yes, they are there now, but that is what we are celebrating; that they are there now,” Kelly Hamilton explains, adding that spoken word poets like her were disparaged by many other poets for years. “So that means you have an entire generation of folks that had to be convinced that my voice matters.”
One of the first things that she has worked to dispel, and continues to work for, is normalizing Black and Brown people’s ability to articulate. There are many different dialects in the U.S., but she’s tired of hearing people express surprise when she speaks with academic literacy.
“As a Black woman, the first layer is when the room realizes that I speak so well,” she says. “And that speaks to the expectation that I wouldn’t.”
Kelly Hamilton has also struggled with issues of class and privilege. She described other expectations for her to fit a mold that had allowed Black women to become recognized as artists. This included filling the role of basing a career on race. While Kelly Hamilton does have many works on this topic she also writes about all the dimensions of her existence. Being a woman, mundane acts like distraction and work, nature and life, are all included in her repertoire.
“So, to stand in that and not shift my work, and shift who I am to be seen in a particular way,” she says. “That means not feeling obligated to only write about race, oppression, blight, and being a Black woman.”
Kelly Hamilton hopes, that through her work as Wisconsin’s poet laureate, she can inspire others who look like her to strive for similar positions. She also wants to continue to change the genre to strive for true inclusivity.
“There are going to be conversations that I am going to be able to bring to the fold,” she says, “that people may have not allowed themselves to pay attention to without me holding this space.”