Spoken Word Feature; Dasha Kelly

Words are strong.
Words are powerful.
Words have a way of transforming the casual mind, into a great capacity of thought and knowledge. Whether it’s spoken, written, or heard, words can initiate dialogue and debate, understanding and production, leadership and confidence. Legendary Spoken Word artist Dasha Kelly knows this all too well, as she uses her gift of writing, self-expression, motivation, and encouragement to get people to come out of their shell, and to discover their talent. The open mic performer from Milwaukee spreads her words and her message to those who need that push, with an outreach program that she founded and directs…called the Still Water Collective. From youth programs to performance arts showcases, Dasha stays busy with experimental workshops and motivational presentations. It is something that she loves and cherishes:

For the past several years, I’ve delivered writing workshops and performances to area prisons.  Of all the outreach I’ve done, it’s my favorite to do because the audiences “need” it for different and less obvious reasons.  My most rewarding moment was when one of my inmates said that he “didn’t know words could be this strong.”

Already familiar with writing at a young age, strong words are what Dasha learned as she became familiar with Spoken Word:

I’ve been writing fiction since I was kid, but only a handful of poems. A friend took me to an open mic about a dozen  years ago and I experienced spoken word for the first time.  Prior to that, I’d only been exposed to “traditional” poetry readings … and hadn’t been wild about them.  Same complaints as every over seventh grader-turned-grown up: it was dull, distant and irrelevant.  Sitting in the open mic, I experienced poetry that had a pulse.  Listening to folks sharing their words, their stories, their visions in their own cadence, style and energy, I was hooked instantly.  I enjoyed the challenge of spinning tales with fewer words and the electricity of bringing those words to life on stage.

And Dasha has brought plenty of life to her open mic performances ever since. Many have seen her powerful stage presence on  HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, as well as the National Performance Network Conference, and her opening acts with artists such as Angie Stone. Now, Dasha’s taking it to another level:

I’m preparing to take my solo theater show on the road.  Called Anthems for Grown Folks, it’s a hybrid experience of theater monologue, stand up comedy, poetry, motivational presentation, writing workshop and group therapy with a hundred-plus people.  

Surely, her ability to grind and shine every night came from somewhere…or somebody:

This will sound really corny, but I’m influenced by everything: novelists, poets, columnists, reality tv, my children, motorists, music, shooting stars, everything with a possible story or truth to share.  Of the many writers and performers who memorably made me catch my breath and want to write or perform better: Ruth Forman, Pearl Cleage, Jill Nelson, Poe Ballantine, Christa Bell, Roger Bonair-Agard, Taalam Acey, Jeanann Verlee, Yusef Komunyaka, Anna Quindlen …

With all the great influences in Dasha’s life, along with open mic ventures, being an author of a powerful and shocking novel called “All Fall Down” and a book of poems, prose, and pondering, called “Hershey Eats Peanuts”…a musician, with her album “Taking Lovers”…Dasha has become an influence to many of those that follows her lead. She has some words of advice:

Finding your own voice is an ongoing process.  First it’s deciding how you want to sound, and then exploring what you want to say.  At that point, be willing to write about –and speak about—anything.  Whether you write the piece that will cure all of the world’s ills or share a quirky observation you’ve made in traffic, stay inspired to always write.  Then, accept that every single thing you write will not be meant to be shared.  More like half.  The more you write, then, the higher your out-of-the-journal rate will be.  In all, stay focused on the art to keep from being tragically distracted by the attention.  

Dasha Kelly has SPOKEN.

Let us not leave without a literary classic by Dasha:


   I don’t know why I said it. I honestly don’t. The words were just sitting there, resting against
the back of my throat. It’s true that my mind plucked the words fresh, and placed them along
my tongue like ripened peppers. Still, I don’t know why I spoke them.

   Worse than giving them volume, I think what really got me nailed was the fact that the words
hardly scratched at the insides of my lip when they tumbled out. They didn’t tear or scrape, I
think, because I didn’t mean for them to. Even after the words spilled from my mouth, spinning
like jacks, and sprawled out flat and naked for everyone to gawk at, I didn’t mean them the way
they fell. Obscene, spread-eagle, crude. I really didn’t mean them at all.

   Killing my mother.

   This is what I said when Mr. Sayler asked what I was thinking about so intently.

   “Killing my mother,” I had said.

   It was my flat, empty tone, apparently, that allowed those three words to swallow everything
in the small room. There were eight of us in class that day. If you can call this holding pen a
class. We usually spend the hours rummaging through our imaginations to ignore the lesson, if
we’re not emptying our ink pens into angry notebook art or harassing the teacher. Or, we’re
assaulting the asshole who squirted ketchup on your sweatshirt last semester. Anything except
pay attention.

   Which is why we’re together in this class. We’re not the only kids who daydream as a way to
survive school, but we each discovered at some point that our mindscapes have more clutter
than other students’, and possibly more barbed memories from which we try to duck and cover
from.  We can’t pay attention, actually.

   So we pretend to listen and the rotating staff of instructors pretend to teach us things. For
me, the arrangement works perfectly because I’d much rather be inside my Technicolor
thoughts than out here. I don’t have the brutal warriors up there, I have enough of them to deal
with in real life, where it’s all monochrome and people
can’t seem stop screaming and crying and inventing new labels and prescribing new pills and
telling more lies about places their fingers had no business.

   Some people call it “lost in thought,” but I’m never lost in there. I don’t always know where I’
m going, chasing the tail of one thought and then another, but I’m never lost. Whether my mind
carries me to the 50-acre ranch my grandfather owned or into the
soup kitchen my mother takes me to volunteer on every birthday, I am at ease and at home
with all of my thoughts. Even the ones that send me scaling scale the ridges of corroded
memories, I know I’m safe inside here.

   “You’re planning to kill your mother, Dillard?!” my father shrieked, his foamy spittle
spraying my face. My father has always been an animated and uptight little man. My theory had
been that he hadn’t yet realized he was gay, once I learned
what “gay” was, of course. My mother did not favor this outlook, but I don’t trust her judgment

   Right now, though, my mother was crying again.

   For what felt like the thirty-thousandth time, I tried to explain how the sentence happened
and that I was not plotting my mother’s death. See, I love to read. And on the ride to school I
had just finished a murder mystery book with and ending I totally didn’t
see coming. The killer wasn’t the arch-rival dog breeder, like I thought, but a rabid fan who had
stalked the pro-star until he snapped and killed him. I was replaying the flow of the story in my
mind –something I like to do after a really good book- and wondered how it happened for
regular people to lose it like that. Which made me think of news stories I’d seen about everyday
cubicle employees and government service clerks just cracking into pieces one day and
showing up to work with loaded rifles. What kind of stress is that?

   What has to happen to push someone that far? Especially “normal” people who kill their
entire class or their ex-girlfriends, their kids, or their parents. Does every person have a killing
point, I was thinking. I mean, what could possibly ever be so horrific and wrong that anybody
would be willing to murder someone in their family? I wondered what might ever push me to
the point of killing everyone in my class? Kill my therapist? Kill the counter clerk at the drug
store? Kill my mother?

   And that’s when it happened. That’s when the words fell from my mouth. That’s when I
realized we’re all a little crazy, even when we don’t mean to be.

   My mother was still crying.


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