By Toni Nealie
Spoken-word artist Dasha Kelly performs around the country, leads workshops on creativity and has written several collections of poetry and two novels including last year’s “Almost Crimson.” She lives in Milwaukee, where she is a founder of the Still Waters Collective. In 2014, she was a United States Embassy Arts Envoy in Botswana. She just returned from an artist-in-residence engagement leading student workshops on writing, creativity and group performance at Rafik Hariri University and American University of Beirut.
What are the writers’ communities like in Milwaukee?
In addition to separating ourselves by genre, many of our writing circles are defined by those hoping to find their work published and those who enjoy writing as a hobby. I suppose [it’s] understandable: not wanting to subject your casual pastime to an intense and expert scrutiny. Understandable, except that every writer sharpens their pen in the company of other committed writers. To be fair, I don’t know that this is endemic of our city as much as it may be a statement about the withering sanctity of the arts. These days, we aren’t encouraged to pursue artistic interests unless book deals, recording contracts or museum commissions are part of the conversation. So, the notion of investing time in a writing group is often a quiet endeavor. I continue to be warmed and inspired when I discover “unlikely suspects” who have journals filled with poems and hard drives loaded with unfinished manuscripts, plays and essays. We’re everywhere!
The fiction writers don’t necessarily know the essayists, who don’t know the poets, who might not be familiar with the spoken-word artists, who don’t think about the playwright. These smaller writing circles do work closely together and incredibly hard. Most of them have longstanding practices or programs for editing and sharing work. I’ve had a chance to curate a few events where writers from various circles share their works from the same stage. I would love to see more live lit events in the city.
Where is the vigor?
Much of the vigor is borne in those writing circles. While their branches may not fan broadly, their work is rooted deeply. Many of these smaller groups stay connected for years, challenging, encouraging and consoling one another throughout this writing journey.
Are there any impediments to the success of writers? Is opportunity evenly distributed?
Every writer can benefit from a workshop or a conference or a peer group. The impediments I’ve most observed have been writers who have restricted their writing experience by undermining their talent or interests. Other examples would be writers who are only scouting resources within their small personal networks rather than exploring other local, regional or even national opportunities. While there are not abundant local outlets for getting creative works published, I think there could be more outlets and opportunities if more writers held themselves as capable and worthy. I appreciate the practiced moderation, though. For as many years that I’ve been writing, publishing and performing, it’s only been in the past five years that I’ve given myself full permission to be what I’ve always been: a writer.
What writers or events do you think people should be paying attention to?
I would love to see more live lit events in our city. I’ve had a chance to participate in readings and showcases in other cities and they offer a fresh dimension to celebrating literature. Live lit events draw together writers and fans from different genres, mostly in social venues, such as bars, outside the intimidating walls of academia. They offer writers the immediate gratification of having their words and stories heard; they reinforce commitment to craft and excellence, because no one wants to spend an evening listening to poorly crafted or delivered stories; and they remind us that everyone with a pen, pad and breath has a story to share. If you attend a regular reading, suggest a theme to connect all of the stories or maybe a musician to add a different pulse. If the readers are not as engaging as their written words, suggest guest readers. I suggest venturing out to discover as many outlets and artists as possible and being an active member in making the community vibrant.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a short story and a new manuscript. I hope to have both completed this summer. After a year of intense travel, I’m looking forward to staring out at my backyard and building these. I anticipate doing more residencies in the coming years, where I spend a week in various communities teaching, facilitating and performing. I enjoy that exchange of energy and ideas and having a role in igniting individuals and communities.
I launched a program to share creative writing and performance poetry with local teens. The program has grown to where we are present in as many as sixteen high schools each year and half a dozen middle schools. The program hires alumni—college students—as coaches and mentors and has added a fellowship in recent years. I’m pressed to continue building infrastructure for these brilliant scribes and change agents. After more than sixteen years of doing the work, now I describe my challenge as adding bones to an active body. I’m motivated by seeing these young adults embracing their unique talents and witnessing how they individually and collectively affect change in the city.