Dasha Kelly Hamilton, poet laureate of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the state of Wisconsin, is the author of Life in Short (Boswell Book Company, 2020) and an Arts Envoy for the U.S. Embassy. In 2021, Hamilton received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to create a Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate program and position, which will be an immersive and divergent approach to youth dialogue, leadership, and literary arts. The inaugural Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate will be selected through a contest. Top pieces from the contest will be included in an anthology and finalists will advance to a recognition showcase. The showcase winner will serve as Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate through their senior year and graduation and earn scholarships for college, or seed funding for a business.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Wisconsin? What support do you hope future poets laureate have?
Dasha Kelly Hamilton: I’ve experienced poetry to be a unique connector. My hope is to experience more curated events and projects with the expressed intention of expanding horizons first, showcasing rich language second. Poems, without question, will happen. Exploration and inclusion, however, will not happen organically, especially in a state with deep racial, class, and rural/urban divides. Poets celebrating poems, without question, will happen. Engaging non-poets in the art form will not happen if there is an elitist stronghold on who and what are considered to be poetic. As someone who arrived at two concurrent laureteships as a spoken word artist, I have experienced the unfounded dismissal of my poetry. I hope to nudge more people into poetry, who will scribble, share, and nudge others. For future laureates, I hope they will receive stipends commensurate with the amount of focus, time, travel, and commitment required to serve as a statewide ambassador for the craft. In conversation with other Black laureates across the country, we’ve discussed often how our creative work is intrinsic to our community work, but the laureate appointments are not structured to manage, support, or compensate for such a commitment to community building. We talk about whether the laureate position is merely a recognition of past accomplishments or an invitation to imagine forward. I don’t know that I have a definitive answer, but I would like for laureates to be connected with corporate entities that can financially support robust stipends. All of the state laureates won’t—and shouldn’t—be tenured professors with retirement plans. City laureates, especially, should earn a hefty honorarium to make them more available for citywide partnerships.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
DKH: Poetry invites us to stand outside of our linear selves and lean into all of our systems of logic. In my classes with new writers, I tell them to “let their creative brains win the argument with their logical brains.” Turning people towards their creative sensibilities encourages the habits of whimsy, curiosity, and humility. When we don’t quite know what’s happening in the text, but still understand the poem to be about sorrow or love or freedom, we are accessing that other logic, that inexplicable intuition of knowing. Poetry gives us all permission to be not quite right and still perfectly within our right. A poet is an asset to a community because they serve as both griots and translators, repackaging dense topics and carving out space for marginalized voices. One of the things I love most about open mics and curated events is how poetry will invariably shrink the room due to everyone giving audience to other people’s ideas of living, one poem at a time. We are enthralled by the humans’ sharing of themselves—-the bravery, the vulnerability, the unexpected challenge and insight. The gorgeous, gorgeous language. Poems and poets capture our curious humanity in careful scribbles and rhymes; the same way a catchy song can articulate our love, our fears, and this shared time alive.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
DKH: Being poet laureate has given me permission to write...whenever I want to! For twenty years now, my writing “practice” has been to pen poems in between everything else. My work as an adjunct professor, workshop facilitator, curator, and creative change agent are the efforts I know will keep the lights on. My laureateships delivered more speaking and residency opportunities—with greater honorariums—allowing me to guiltlessly write poems before emails, pitch letters, or grant proposals. I still write the messages and proposals, of course, but I don’t have to feel selfish, absurd, or reckless about tending to my poems first. It’s taken quite a bit of mental and emotional re-wiring (I’m still not done), but I’m grateful for the time and grace to consider and shape a true writing practice.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
DKH: The BEST parts of my state laureateship project have been the new poems from incarcerated writers and the excitement from other writers across the state who volunteer and teach in carceral spaces. For my city laureateship, I’m incredibly proud of the high school curriculum I’ve created and the coalition of institutions that have signed on to launch the Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate Program this fall. It’s been countless virtual meetings, but the deeper we get into the weeds, the closer we are to realizing a new era for our city.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
DKH: For the state laureateship, A Line Meant, the greatest obstacle was realizing our laureate commission was not in a position to support, promote, or scout funding for the statewide initiative. For the city laureateship, Milwaukee Youth Poet Laureate Program, the greatest obstacle has been keeping all of the partners on task once I got them to the table, and pressing them to identify internal funding. At our turning point, after months of emails and one-on-one meetings, I told them that we’d moved beyond “helping me out” and that we were co-creating a legacy together. I asked for their institutional WIFMs (“what’s in it for me”) to be sure their organizational goals were embedded in the design. We’ve all sat around exciting tables discussing exciting ideas that didn’t hatch or didn’t embody all partners. Addressing this reluctance, and emphasizing a true collaboration, proved incredibly helpful in advancing our collective plans.
Poets.org: What will the youth poet laureate bring to Milwaukee through their tenure? What was lacking in Milwaukee that inspired you to begin this project?
DKH: I ran an intramural high school poetry slam league for thirteen years, including coaching teams that traveled to an international teen poetry slam competition and festival each summer. One of the things I learned in that experience is that, while most young people wanted to be a voice of their generation, most were not confident in their understanding of the news and issues of the day. Like the rest of us, teens are also at the mercy of algorithms, a surface understanding of complex issues, and exposure to the conversations of people around them. I wanted our program to be a coaching opportunity for social discourse, an invitation to strengthen critical thinking, a charge to connect the community to youth voices, and to rebuild a community of young scribes and new-thought leaders. Programming the initiative as a for-credit course, as well as a community offering, will elevate the visibility of the program and, ultimately, the youth laureates. MYPL will be an aspirational rite of passage for Milwaukee youth.
Poets.org: You have stated in an interview that you are excited to “build portals for people to fall into poetry, for people who didn’t know that they were already poets.” Could you tell us more about these “portals?” How are you encouraging those who may have given up on poetry to look for, and still find, the beauty in it?
DKH: For my State project, I commissioned the development of an actual portal. It presents monthly poetry lines as writing prompts and invites people to use their full name or (for the shy) pen names. At the end of each month, participants will receive a poem from someone else in the state who has written to the same prompt. I created a conversation series with the same name, A Line Meant, as a way to bring unlikely guests together in dialogue and to broadcast the introductions, conversations, and the poetry prompt. For the city project, poetry is the entry point into dialogues around a broad range of societal topics. Offering poetry as a tool for teens to explore, examine, and express will undoubtedly invite young minds into the world of figurative language and poems. For the general public, I believe encountering poems and poets in unexpected contexts will remind us all that language is strong enough to relay our linear thoughts and spectacular enough to broadcast our abstract emotions, memories, and ideas.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Wisconsin?
DKH: So many poems I could point to, of course! I’ll choose “She Didn’t Even Wave” by Ai. I’m always riveted at the rawness of her work, the taboos she can turn into song. I like to remind people that every part of themselves is worthy of rich language, not just their triumphs, “good sides,” and sky scenery. In Wisconsin, I hope to encourage every brand of person and poem, especially from people who aren’t encouraged to seek the beauty in their own story.