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The Poetry of Pain: Slam Poet Gayle Danley Teaches Kids How to Soothe Their Wounds

By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, November 23, 2008

She starts off with a poem titled "Round Like Bubbles": "Round like a big fat green birthday balloon kissing the sky," Gayle Danley begins, then turns her backside to the audience of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Deerfield Run Elementary School in Laurel and adds, "Why can't I have a round one like J. Lo?"

The 275 students giggle nervously, immediately certain that this rather loud 43-year-old woman, a nationally renowned slam poet in jeans and a green maternity blouse, isn't going to be teaching them any kind of poetry they've ever heard before. This stuff doesn't rhyme. And, what? Did she just mention Jennifer Lopez in a poem?

"How come I don't look like J. Lo?" the poet nearly shouts, plaintively stressing the word "I," with a Southern accent, as the children titter. "You ever look in the mirror and go, 'How come I don't have hair that sings down my spine? How come?' " A few lines later, she switches gears: "I don't need to be Halle Berry, I don't need to be Alicia Keys, I don't need to be bald-headed Britney" -- they really crack up at that one -- "I have it going on, because I have you."

Gayle Danley has been earning acclaim with the power of her words for almost 15 years. She performs poetry and teaches it to children all over Maryland, inspiring almost everyone who hears her with her frank personal revelations and her ability to coax cathartic self-expression out of some of the most unlikely students.

Yet even as elementary and middle schools clamor for these visits, Danley says she's ready for something different -- something bigger and more challenging. Danley doesn't share this restlessness with her audience at Deerfield Run, where the children howl with delight at her funniest riffs and sit quietly transfixed during her serious poems.

After this assembly, Danley will start a two-week residency here, her second at the Prince George's County school. She'll be teaching her Five Steps to Slam Poetry -- essentially the writing process in disguise -- and getting at least some of these kids to reveal more about their inner lives than they've likely ever done within school walls. Danley tells the students she's come with hopes that "my words would make your words start kicking around in your heart." So, before she exits the stage, she hits them with "Last Time I Saw You," a wrenching piece about her dear friend Lorenda Gordon, a preschool special-needs teacher who died last year in a car crash at age 49.

"The last time I saw you, you were smiling," she begins, as do the tears. Every time she performs this, in any venue, she sobs throughout, wiping her eyes with the back of her hands like a child.

"This is hard," Danley tells the audience, with a little laugh, and goes on about that evening ("one of those September nights where fall is dragging summer by the ankles," as she puts it), when Lorenda came to Danley's poetry reading and bought a book of poems. "I can't remember what I wrote in your book," she says, "but I hope that I wrote something big and wonderful, like, 'I could never stop loving you, Lorenda.' "

It's raw and real, and when she's done, she says to the somewhat stunned group: "It hurts, but what do I do with my pain? I write poems."

"Applaud the poet," she tells them. And they do.

Danley traces her love for words, especially spoken words, to her childhood in Georgia, where she soaked up encyclopedias and carried around a book of rhymes ("Jack Sprat could eat no fat ... " "Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear ... ") because she adored how silly they were.

"She was always reading and going to the library," reports her uncle, Derry Bradley, who raised her with his late wife, Laverne.

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