As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Dasha Kelly Hamilton in response to a video of her reading her poem “All the Lives We Are” aloud. Dasha Kelly Hamilton wrote letters back to seven of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Dasha Kelly Hamilton also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you, most sincerely, for listening to my poem and taking the time to write such strongly- crafted letters. I thoroughly enjoyed pondering your questions, processing your insights and savoring your generous stories. I most appreciated learning that, for most of you, my poem was striking because it was unexpected and still familiar, odd and still accessible. Similarly, I had little appreciation for poetry when I was in school because I also found poetry to be unnecessarily ornate and, often, painfully cryptic. Moreover, the poems my teachers assigned rarely spoke to me or my lived experiences. They were frustrating puzzles that, as one of you wrote, “tried too hard to say too much.”
As a young writer, fiction was my first love. I started writing short stories at nine. A children’s book project at seventeen. Magazine articles in my early twenties and novels before my thirties. I reconnected to poetry by attending open mics and spoken word events. In addition to the raw, personal narratives and gorgeous language, I became mesmerized with the power of sharing our stories in public, social settings. For 25 years now, I’ve gathered youth, leaders, inmates, creatives and entire cities to spend time listening to one another and sharing their poetic perspectives. It’s been an incredible privilege to travel the world wielding poems as tools for building community. Along the way, I’ve heard a zillion heartbreak poems, revolution poems, survivor poems, Earth poems, tribute poems, my-parents-don’t-get-me-poems, love-is- all-we-need poems. At the same time, each one a testament to one person’s experience and proof of the zillion ways we can exist in this world.
I wrote “All the Lives We Are” after hearing a news report about the number of small dairy farms closing in Wisconsin. A quote from one of farmers begins my poem: “Stop calling things that aren’t milk milk.” The statement resonated with me in the moment, but the poem didn’t stir until I added oat milk to my next grocery order anyway. The poem depicts how our individual decisions are rarely isolated. My oat milk preference will impact a small family farm. The tip I give the shopper who delivered the oat milk will impact their monthly budget and mine. My curiosity about the shopper’s companion and the story I assigned the two of them prompted a string of warm and positive thoughts, ultimately shaping how I saw them.
Choosing to make “generous assumptions” is a mental habit, a muscle to build. We’re human, so judgment and opinions will still happen in the process. With a habit of generosity first, though, we can better navigate the inconvenient fact that our opinions are largely what we think we think we know. Making space in our head and heart for “all the lives we are” will gift us a rich repository of how our own life –any life—could be.
Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Creative Change Agent
Wisconsin Poet Laureate
Laureate Fellow, American Academy of Poets