If people watching was a sport, Dasha Kelly would be a gold medalist. As a part of Mount Mary’s Publishing Institute, held Sep. 30 to Oct. 1, Kelly spoke to the campus and the public about her people watching skills and of course, her writing.
Kelly is a Milwaukee native who identifies as a poet, writer and performing artist. She founded Stillwaters Collective in 2000, an organization that encourages people of all backgrounds to use writing as a form of expression and gives them resources and programs to do so. She was selected by the U.S. Embassy to perform and teach in Botswana, Africa as a U.S. Embassy Arts Envoy twice.
Read the interview below for more information about her writing and her journey.
Tell me about why you decided to write in the first place.
It’s not often that I’ll sit down and have an idea like I want to write this story about this person or about this thing. It’s really just that I have this teeny tiny peephole of an entry point for the story to squeeze itself in there.
For me, it’s trying to capture that ethereal thing between glass and that breath that you hold when you look at the phone. Describing that anticipation or dread, depending on the phone number. Trying to capture the frustration and the terror of the times we live in.
A poem is trying to capture why it matters. Why the memory is there. Why the impulse is there. Why the reaction is there. And all these human nuances, which we all have. That’s what would inspire a poem … The short answer is that I’m writing in my head all the time.
What did you read growing up? What do you read now?
I did, of course, read children’s books. “Where the Wild Things Are,” Judy Blume – I devoured those. But I wanna say, this is really crazy, but it’s actually a real thing in my life right now. When I was young, I didn’t think about a lot of the books that were available as children’s literature and young adult literature.
First, I don’t know if young adult literature was even a thing that existed. I do remember having that really sneaky corridor in going to the drugstore and being able to peak at the Harlequin books – that was so racy. From there I jumped into the chapter books and started reading stories that were bigger. If I had to say what my crossover was … it was when I was reading Stephen King’s “The Gateway.”
Even now I read a little bit of everything. Autobiographies. I think it’s shorter to list things I don’t read. I typically don’t read collections although it makes so much more sense now, especially with how busy I am. I couldn’t find a way to settle into a collection of stories that stop-starts-stop-starts.
What kind of effect did reading such adult content have on you as a kid? Do you feel it had any?
There was another narrative that I was lackless to because I was trying to get my math homework done. I didn’t have the same frame of reference.
I also have to credit my parents. We had a lot of open conversations and not anything I’d call particularly explicit, but when I didn’t understand something, I knew I had people that I could ask. And they also did a great job of making sure that I enjoyed being a child. I had music and books and shows that were age appropriate, and by that age, I was mature enough in terms of the questions I asked.
People really have to sift through content now. I think the difference that I had was that I knew that in what I was reading and what I was watching, there was a narrative, and there were other actual realities that I didn’t know about. Whereas now it’s presented as “this is the way things are.” This is romantic, this is a relationship, this is what it means to be a career person, and this is all elevated, sensationalized, fiction.
What do you think has been or is your greatest struggle, either in the industry or personally?
I think one, because it’s a present challenge, or really an ever-present challenge, is finding that time, that balance, for when you’re doing both: when you’re the writer and also the business of the writer. That business of the writer end of things gobbles up a lot of time. In that space, I think the greatest challenge is being really mindful and balancing the time and the energy that it takes to really commit to both. It’s like having to commit to two relationships.
The long course of my journey as a mother and a writer making a professional commitment was really trying to value and carve away that sin of feeling indulgent. I think this is true for the arts across the board, worrying whether this essay or this poem or this thing that I wrote doesn’t turn into a performance or a published something – something that is going to turn into a check or at least a step to another platform.
Being able to sit on the side of just being a writer and just creating the work is a dream. I’m only dreaming of the dream; I’m not living it right now.
Dasha Kelly visits campus Monday, Nov. 21 at 12 p.m. in the Caroline Hall Student Lounge to give a dynamic spoken-word performance. All students are welcome to attend. Check the video below for a taste of her art.