|2008 National Poetry Slam & Lyrics on the Lake Festival
Sweet swirls of sound
By Jonathan Gramling
Dasha Kelly, the director of the upcoming National Poetry Slam that will be held in Madison August 4-9, reached a crossroads in her life a while back.
One was the safe route. She had gone to Eastern Carolina University in Greenville before transferring to Illinois State University to finish her
undergraduate degree in public relations. After doing graduate work in marketing at Roosevelt University, she got a private sector job. “I was one of
those folks who bought into — not that it was a horrible thing — getting the big office and the big, fast rolodex and the high pump shoes,” Kelly said
during an interview with The Capital City Hues. “That’s what I went to college for. I was going off to do marketing and public relations.”
The other road was filled with risk. Kelly had written all her life. Even during her marketing years, Kelly wrote to take her mind off of business. But
writing, she gradually realized, was who she was. After a friend complimented Kelly on one of her short stories, Kelly sent it off to countless publishers
and got countless rejection letters back and a nibble from Random House, whose contact encouraged her to turn it into a novel. By the time she
finished it, her contact had left Random House. Eventually, she self-published “All Fall Down.” And she has pursued the riskier road ever since.
Kelly was very engaging as we talk over coffee on State Street. She is a great communicator, comfortable in many media to deliver her ideas and
feelings. In addition to her book, Kelly has recorded three CDs of her poetry. She is a public speaker, consultant to public schools and to pay the bills,
she still does some marketing consulting on the side. Kelly hosts the Still Waters Open Mic Poetry every week. There are many other projects that she
works on through Still Waters Collective, which she founded two years ago, as a vehicle to allow her to proactively offer her and other artists’ creative
talents in the broad sense of communication..
And after listening to her, one knows two things for sure. She is a wonderful communicator and she has the drive and the passion to fulfill her dreams
as a writer, speaker and overall creative spirit and to help everyone else express themselves as well. She is single-minded in pursuing her vision.
In many ways, Kelly is breaking new ground in Wisconsin, trying to establish a spoken word organization that can actually allow people to earn a living
at it. And that road isn’t easy. “Every day, every single day without exaggeration, I’ll get a text or an e-mail or a phone call or I’ll see someone — this is
the inner-gypsy in me coming out — there’s something in the universe that will confirm for me that I’m doing the right thing,” Kelly said. “If you’re
doing what God asks you to do, He will provide for you to make it happen. That’s been my experience these past 6-7 years. I’ve become the Pied
Piper, not just in terms of poems and writing books and getting published, but also in terms of people being courageous about their own ideas.”
Kelly is willing to travel across the city or across the country to help people express themselves. She recalled one workshop she did for the Children’s
Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “They have a program called Project UJIMA,” Kelly said. “It’s for children who have been affected by violence.
They have either witnessed a violent act or lost someone to violence. I did this workshop and they were coming up with all of these imaginative
things. At the very end, I said ‘Okay now everything you’ve learned, everything we talked about, I want you to talk about violence as a living thing. How
would it move? How would it sound? What would it act like?’ A nine-year-old boy said ‘Violence is like a hungry monster, eating families and
neighborhoods and it is never satisfied.’ That’s my favorite story. I wouldn’t have gotten that at the beginning of that hour.”
Come August 4, Kelly will be taking her crusade to help people to the national level as the director of the National Poetry Slam being held ion
Madison. She promises that it will be an intensive week of a wide array of expression. “There’s going to be this gumbo of all these different people and
their ideas,” Kelly gushed. “And we want to make sure we honor the different genres. A lot of us write poetry and essays. I’m pretty excited about it,
especially the subcomponents. I hope a lot of writers in Wisconsin will be excited about coming down and being a part of that learning and
networking opportunity. And there will be the most amazing shows.”
And with Kelly at the helm, there is no doubt that the National Poetry Slam will be dynamic and entertaining for all. For more information about the
National Poetry Slam, visit www.nps2008.com. For more information about Still Waters Collective, visit www.dashakelly.com.
For the past eight years, Kelly has been the sponsor of the Still Wa
Dasha Kelly – I decided I was a writer very late, even though I have been writing forever. I always wrote short stories as a kid. When I got out of
college, writing was something I would do to keep my mind off of the marketing plans and business proposals. It was a little something that kept the
creative juices going. I had a girlfriend come visit me and told me my writing was really good. And I told her ‘You love me. What else are you
supposed to say?’ And it began to become a project. I started sending these short stories out and I got a whole stack of ‘no thank you’ letters. And then
I got a call from someone at Random House who liked one of my stories and invited me to turn it into a manuscript. So it’s been this interesting,
winding way of almost. So I did it and got back to him and he wasn’t at Random House anymore. Years later, I found him where he was. That didn’t go
anywhere, so I decided to self-publish. I self published my novel, ‘All Fall Down.’ It’s a story about a woman who has a form of schizophrenia, which
she manages through medication. In her early 30s, she stops taking her medication. Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence where people think they
feel better and life is great and they don’t need these ‘poisons’ in their bodies. She slips into as delusion and believes she is having an affair with her
dead husband. So you have this woman managing her fantasies of falling apart and this other woman who thinks her marriage is falling apart and it’s
not. So I wove the two together and it was a really great exercise from going as a short story writer who thought it was done in 12 pages and what else
do you need to know. What other details do you need? But to go back and give all of these people histories and give them all quirks and ticks was
great. It really opened up my experience as a writer. I love to read. I love to tell stories. I love to speak in metaphors that drive other people crazy. That’
s always been who I am.
I’ve been running Open Mic Set for eight years. From that, people in the Milwaukee area know that I write, know that I have the book and know that I
do poetry. ‘Hey, can you come speak at this school? Can you do this workshop?’ I got to the point where I decided that instead of responding to the
invitations because I really enjoy the work, how about go ahead and step out on a little faith and be deliberate and do it on purpose. So I launched
Still Waters Collective two years ago. It’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. This was something where I stepped out and really wanted to
make it happen. So far, it’s coming together really well. So in addition to working with the adults, I do a lot of teaching in middle schools. I just did my
first artist teaching residency. I went to Miami and worked with three high schools. I did workshops in the public library system. It was really, really cool.
I’m excited to be able to encourage other local artists to do that. I like what I do and I think I’m pretty good at what I do. But I know so many others who
have just the basics. You like it. You’re good at it. You don’t have to have 19 degrees. You don’t have to be an authority on whatever your genre is.
You just want to put yourself in the position to be able to do it, to be invited to do it. I’m working on putting some training in places for other artists to
go into schools.
I didn’t know until I got to college that everybody couldn’t write. I knew that people liked it more than others. And I remember people grumbling saying
‘Oh, we have to write a paper.’ I tutored student athletes. In my junior year, they moved me into the facility. I would get the walk-ins and I became the
official ‘paper person.’ The challenge of having to explain to somebody why what they thought is not what they put on the page and they didn’t get it,
was, if anything, taught me this is a gift. It is an experience I really needed to pay more attention to. ‘You were really going great here, but this fact is
irrelevant, the fact Elizabeth never married or was left-handed. It doesn’t go right here.’ ‘Really, but it was so interesting.’ That was a good experience.
Sometimes, when you have those conversations with yourself ‘Dasha, you need to toughen up. Dasha, you need to be realistic about this stuff. You
need to be sharper and hungrier and more ruthless.’ But that isn’t in me.
In terms of creating, no one can get in my head and I am never deterred from what I think is a great idea and the things I want to do. But when you
approach things with the purity of ‘This is a great idea or this is a great opportunity, can’t everybody else see this,’ either they can or they aren’t going
to support it. That frustrated me for a long time and was one of the things that really made me stop and take some time and measure to make sure I
wanted to go through and start this program. I was going to have to get people to come. I was going to have to get people to help me finance it. I had
to have courage. And it was all worth it. Right next door, you have 21 high school students battling for the opportunity of their lives. And half of them
are students who either said ‘I didn’t even know this existed’ or ‘I never thought I was this good’ or ‘I can’t believe I’m here and no one has ever listened
to me before.’ That makes a difference. I used to do a series every fall called ‘Harvest Moon.’ It was for writers who were coming out with their first chat
book or their first recording or their first publication, not necessarily a big, glossy book. We would do a series and then we would do a showcase. It
would be a big, big event. It was really exciting to see them have this piece of product, have this item that they probably never thought to do before
and never have considered they should make a CD or publish a book and they do it. So I guess I give people courage in the area of expressing
themselves and finding a way to do it and that it matters. With the workshops that I do, I have had this space this past year where it’s not about going in
and teaching your students how to write poetry or I’m going to come into this women’s group and teach you how to write short stories. It’s more about ‘I’
m going to use this process that I’ve known and even though on the surface, we’re writing stuff, the bigger picture is we’re having some really honest
conversation. You’re going to bring some things to the table and the forefront that you wouldn’t have if I had asked you about – fill in the blank.’
I never liked to read poetry in high school. I don’t read a lot of it now. I like the oral experience of it. I read novels, essays and that sort of thing. But
just the word poetry overwhelms people because they think Wordsworth and Shakespeare and all of these people you didn’t really get in high school. It’
s not that. I tell people it’s a way to tell a story. Let’s say you compare it to shopping and you have 1,000 words to work with. Let’s take a poem and you
can only use 500 words. Which words are you going to choose? Which images can you use that takes up seven words? That’s what makes poetry fun.
You’re telling a story. You’re giving them an emotion with fewer words. Poetry is a good tool for many different things and not just for arts, sake.
Obviously, we can go on all afternoon about how important it is for art’s sake, all by itself. But I think people should give themselves the chance to
explore all kinds of genres of writing and to read different types of work. If you typically read science fiction, pick up poetry. If you always read poetry,
check out fiction. I’ve learned so much about people and what I am capable of and things I would never do. It makes me stop and think ‘If I were in
this situation, what would I do? If I were in this environment, how would I handle this?’ I watch movies differently.
I started off at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. I finished off at Illinois State in public relations and I did graduate work in
marketing at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
My husband is in sales. I’ve been doing consulting on the marketing side for eight years. So I’ve always had standing projects. The work comes in so
the household is taken care of. I’m not a starving artist yet, but it could happen at any moment because the contracts I had have ended so now I’m in
the position to make some decisions. I have a friend who told me when I started Still Waters ‘Dasha, you’ve accomplished so much. You’ve had a lot
of successes, but you haven’t been successful.’ I said ‘What?’ And he said ‘Think about it. With all of these things that you do, if you could focus on
one or two of them, imagine that.’ And I think everything happens when it is supposed to. This wasn’t a new epiphany or new bit of advice I’ve been
given. I’ve always been wearing 18 hats at once. But that’s been me since I was in middle school. I’ve always been very active and very busy. People
ask me how I do it. It’s just what I do. I don’t think about it. And just when my friend gave me that advice, I was thinking about my career. I was ready to
focus. I was ready to hear that bit of advice. The reality is I have to eat. I don’t want to loose the momentum we have building Still Waters. When I go
into my workshops with the little kids, my munchkins, the first thing I’ll say is ‘You want me to come into a kindergarten class? Okay.’ And then I’ll figure
it out later. I come in and I say ‘Okay, how many of you have great ideas?’ Not even half the class raises their hands. And I’ll say ‘Okay, here’s where we
need to start.’ With the younger grades, it’s not about the writing, obviously. It’s playing some games to show them how great their ideas are. It’s like an
ice breaker game. I have a ruler. ‘What is this?’ ‘It’s a ruler.’ ‘Okay, not any more. What could it be?’ ‘It’s a microphone. It’s a drumstick.’ ‘It’s a hairbrush.’
Everyone has something different to say, but they were all great ideas. So the whole first part of the discussion is ‘Your ideas are great because they
are yours. If you spend time with them and you work with them, they are yours and that makes them fabulous.’ Now at the end, I ask who has great
ideas and the whole class raises their hands. Then you go from there to age appropriate. Then it’s writing words. A lot of this is to get the kids excited
about language, their own language.
When I’m not doing workshops in a school setting, I’ll go and do some reflection type things. There’s a group in Milwaukee that works with men who
have been charged with domestic violence, everything from the vicious visual that a lot of us get down to ‘She said for you not to call her anymore.’
You need to be aware of what you think, especially in this fast-pace society. We say it, but when you stop and understand that most people are
reacting to their lives and not living their lives, you have these men, women or children or couples who get caught into a bad habit of movement, of
provocation and they don’t even think about it. I ask people to explain to me what anger is like. One guy was talking to me about it as a poison that
builds up and seeps into him. They need to become aware of how they get angry and what happens and how it overtakes them and feels like. And
once they have said it out loud, they can never say they don’t know. So whether it is a public workshop or a private journal, take ownership of your
ideas. And the next step is to make them sound good.
Still Waters Collective works in three different areas: education, community and art. For art, we run Open Mic. I have annual shows. We try to give
them opportunities to perform and to develop their craft. In the future, I’d like to expand it or incorporate other art genres such as dance, the visual arts
and photography. I did a project with the Milwaukee Ballet. I went in and talked about the creative process. I’m a writer, so I have my process. And you
are a dancer and you have yours. I don’t know what that is, but I know it is a process. I talked through that and I did a couple of pieces. Then I came
back at the end of the semester. They had grouped up and worked together and created original choreography to my poems. It was really amazing.
So I watched and said ‘If I was a dancer, that’s exactly how ‘Sticky Fingers’ would look.’
I can’t teach you how to be a better photographer because I don’t know anything about it. But I can give you some inspiration on how to be more
deliberate about the way you compose your photos.
I go to the Racine prison once per month and I do a workshop. The inmates have coordinated their own open mic. For them, it’s a leadership
opportunity. I’ll do a competition once per year and those ten guys who are the best become the Circle of Scribes. During the next year, they plan the
scene and host the shows.
I’m in the schools doing things directly with young people. There’s a mentoring component that we are going to add next year. Again all of this is
using poetry and spoken word as a basis. And not that it is not the focus, but it is the purpose unbeknownst to a lot of the people who participate.
Still Water is a resource network. For a long time, I did the work. I did the projects. I did the events. It’s just what I do. After all of these years, it’s finally
too big for my hands. It was a good problem to have. I’m stepping back and I’m thinking about what staffing needs that I have. Oh my goodness, I’m
training other people to do the teaching.
I’m the go-to person for spoken word. I’m the slam master in Milwaukee. David Hart is the slam master here in Madison. On a national level, I’m the
director of the National Poetry Slam. It’s the Olympics of spoken word. We’ll have 84 cities from across the country. There are four Canadian cities.
There are some European cities competing this year.
It will be here in Madison August 4-9. It is really exciting. What we are adding this year is making sure that individuals who aren’t a part of the scene
feel just as welcome. There’s a whole track on people considering spoken word as a profession. There’s a track for education. I’m excited about it. On
top of the workshops, there are showcases and readings and other workshops on how to manage depression and how to improve your relationship. We’
re going to have women’s readings, gay/lesbian/bi readings. The competitions are at night. The workshops are during the day.
Two of my students got accepted to the UW-Madison and will be receiving full scholarships as First Wave students. We hope to expand from three to
five schools next year. We have things in place to actually start a high school league. Next month, five high schools are going to get together and
|Dasha Kelly's Still Waters Collective is one of
the sponsors of the 2008 National Poetry Slam
being held in Madison August 4-9