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The Poetry of Pain
Slam poet Gayle Danley teaches children how words can 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.

The Bradleys didn't have children of their own. Then, Laverne's older sister, Lucille, brought baby Gayle over for a visit, he says, and "it was like I picked her up and didn't put her down. I said, 'Let me just have her for a little while,' and we did, and we had her ever since."

"It was not so much that [my mother] left me, but that my aunt and uncle found me," explains Danley, who still saw Lucille and her two older siblings, Melanie and Troy, a few times a week. But it was Laverne and Derry who were "Mama and Daddy." They treasured Danley, even when she got into trouble at school for being too chatty and disruptive.

"One of the teachers was my friend," Bradley says, "and she would call me about once a week and say, 'You need to come get Gayle because she is cutting up. She's just talking.' I said, 'The child's going to be a lawyer.' "

Danley's heart was only in English class. "When it was time for math and all those numbers, I was real confused," she says. "But when it was time to open up a brand-new book, when it was time to learn a word" -- her voice rises dramatically -- "when it was time to spell a word, when it was time to speak a word, it was intoxicating."

By the time she attended Howard University, where she studied broadcast journalism with an English minor, there was little doubt that there was talent in that mouth of hers.

Toya Watts, a close friend and Washington public relations consultant, remembers being in a sociology class the first week of freshman year, when the professor singled out Danley to read a chapter from the textbook. "She just got up in front and started reading," Watts says. "I was just in awe. I'd never seen anyone so animated and so beautiful and could just deliver a line that, you know, could make you feel it."

Danley competed in the Miss Howard University Pageant a few times, where she'd do monologues in the talent portion of the competition. She made a respectable showing in one pageant after performing a piece about a woman speaking to her mother at her grave. It was, of course, what she'd now call poetry, but "I didn't see it that way," Danley says. "I thought poetry was about rhyming."

At Deerfield Run, one boy asks, "What inspired you to be a poet?"

"I'm not good at anything else," Danley replies. "Except cooking."

She's finished up the assembly and has moved to an empty music room to meet her first class of the day, a group of 25 sixth-graders. She asks them to stand up, raise their hands and repeat: "I am a slam poet!" ("I am a slam poet!") "I can do this!" ("I can do this!") "I'm a word bird!" ("I'm a word bird!") "Watch me fly ... " To start the writing process, she tells the 11-year-olds, "I want you to close your eyes [and picture] when something changed in your life and how you felt that day." After a minute or two, she asks, "Anyone saw something when you closed your eyes and it kind of made you sad? Or real happy?"

A few students nod. Danley calls on those with raised hands with, "Yes, princess," "Go ahead, gorgeous," and "Talk to me, handsome."

A girl in a polka-dot shirt tells the class about the day her dad took her shopping and told her to buy whatever she wanted. Then he bought her lunch, she says, and announced that he was leaving town. "I never saw him again," the girl tells the class, through tears. "I really miss him." Gayle gives her a tissue, holds her hand.

Another student offers: "I lost my uncle. He's dead. He was a policeman. He got shot."

Educators who have worked with Danley say that what she offers is invaluable, not only because she's able to effectively teach the basics of writing, but because she manages to give kids who might have pain in their hearts a tool for release. But not everyone is comfortable with the emotions Danley taps.

Last spring, she did a stint at Jeffers Hill Elementary in Columbia that was partially funded through a Washington Post Co. Educational Foundation grant. Her two-week residency culminated in a small evening performance, attended by 15 or so students and their parents and teachers. One girl stood up to describe a visit to Disney World, but most presented stories of loss.

A student named Nicholas performed a piece he'd worked on with Danley about a beloved pet, he said, who "was as dead as a leaf in the fall on the ground." Another told the audience about "the nicest person I know," her deceased grandmother. Then a girl broke down while describing the time she was hit by a car as a young child, and nearly all of the audience members were wiping their eyes, too. "Oh, princess," Danley said, quietly, "take a deep breath."

Sometimes parents get upset seeing their children reduced to tears. With this residency, there was one complaint, from a mother whose child came home weeping after hearing some of these painful stories from her classmates. The mother wondered whether there should be a counselor on hand to provide emotional support.

Jeffers Hill's principal, Pamela Butler, calls Danley "phenomenal," but adds that if the school were able to hire her again, "maybe we'd send a letter of explanation ahead of time to parents."

And they'd have to come up with the money. Arts programs such as this are expensive. In Danley's case, schools pay as much as $5,500, often with significant support from the Maryland State Arts Council. The Maryland chapter of Young Audiences/Arts for Learning, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, acts as Danley's cheerleader and booking agent, arranging most of her school visits. Danley makes from $2,500 to $5,500 a job, depending on the length and depth of the residency. Last year, she did 20 residencies in Maryland, as well as assemblies, performances and workshops in places as far away as New York.

Pat Cruz, education director at Young Audiences, knows that Danley makes some adults squirm. "Even the teachers sometimes don't feel comfortable with that kind of emotion in the classroom," Cruz says, "but Gayle's whole point is: 'It's okay to be sad, it's okay to feel these emotions. We just have to be healthy in the way we express them.' {lcub}hellip{rcub} If that's not what [schools] want, I just tell them they need to look for a different poet. It would force Gayle to not be true to her art form to do any less than that, to do something that's just about butterflies and happy sunshine."

Danley sighs when asked about the parents and teachers unnerved by some of the poetry she helps children create. "It's new, and it's raw, and it's real," she says. "It's a kid standing up and saying, 'My grandma died,' and sometimes we don't want to hear a kid doing that."

Lately, the resistance she sometimes encounters and the energy that teaching demands have worn on Danley more than usual. She's booked at area schools through January, when her third child is due to be born, but she wonders if her fatigue is more than just physical. Maybe, she says, it's time for her to look "beyond the cafegymatorium."

Eleanor Kelley, a special-education teacher who arranged for Danley's September residency at Deerfield Run, smiles at the thought of Danley giving up her teaching assignments at schools. "She's not going to be able to," Kelley predicts. "Everyone wants her."

Gayle Danley's career as a slam poet was born in the summer of 1994 in Atlanta, where she'd returned to live after getting a master's degree in television, radio and film from Syracuse University. At the time, she was working in radio ad sales and other media-related jobs and still trying to get over the loss of her mama, Laverne Bradley, who'd died of lung cancer in 1989. (A poem Danley wrote about the loss, titled "2 Pearls," is the one she most cherishes. One line reads, "Between classes I learn/they must take your left lung/and you use up one of your last breaths/to tell me to finish school/and don't even think about giving up.")

Then she attended an outdoor festival in Atlanta and saw a poetry slam staged by members of New York's Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Though poetry slams had been around since the mid-1980s, Danley had never heard of the raucous spoken-word competitions. She was, she says, "totally blown and totally captivated."

Later in the week, the festival was featuring an open-mike poetry slam. On the day of the contest, Danley and a friend cobbled together a rollicking ode to feminism she still sometimes does for adult-only audiences, "If I Were a Man." And then, she remembers, "I got onstage with my little poem in my hand, and I read my poem, and I was on fire, and the audience went crazy. I was on fire. And I won."

Looking out at the crowd from that outdoor stage, she says, felt "electric," and "just crazy good." A few weeks later, she drove to Asheville, N.C., to compete in the Individual National Poetry Slam Championship. Danley brought "If I Were a Man" and two other poems she'd written earlier. Both touched on racism: One was titled "Sold!" about slavery, and the other was titled "Funeral Like Nixon's."

"Brown and shiny casket/expensive/Poised in the front yard of my girlhood days/Gleaming brilliantly in the honeysuckle April sun/When I die/I want a casket like Richard Nixon's . . ." The poem ends with: "I just want to die like a White man/sinless/blameless/timeless/and softly."

One of her competitors, Joel Dias-Porter, a slam poet in Atlantic City, remembers watching her onstage. "Gayle came out first with her poem, 'Funeral Like Nixon's,' and killed it, absolutely killed it, and it was clear to the rest of us backstage that we were playing for second place. None of us even came close."

Dias-Porter, now a good friend of Danley's, sees her as a natural, with a rare kind of emotional transparency. "Gayle has the ability to be herself when she's onstage," he says. "She's almost exactly the same person as when she's offstage. There's not a lot of people like that."

When Danley recalls that August day in Asheville, she says, "I felt like I had finally made it to some city I had been traveling toward all my life." She left with $500 in prize money and a new sense of purpose.

Danley has been living in a somewhat disheveled three-bedroom house in Northeast Baltimore with her 42-year-old husband, Twain Dooley, who is also a slam poet. He's a member of the Baltimore Slam Team, performs Sunday nights at Den Lounge in Baltimore and waits tables at P.F. Chang's. She has a 13-year-old daughter, Noni, and a 3-year-old son, Noah, who on a recent Saturday morning careens around the house in pull-up diapers and a T-shirt.

"Tiny man!" Danley calls out to him. Noni, an eighth-grader, is sitting on the floor braiding a friendship bracelet for her mom. A piano in the next room is covered with papers and books; a folded stroller lies beneath the bench.

Danley, wearing a pink T-shirt and maternity khakis, goes up to her bedroom, plops on the unmade bed and pulls out a pale-green diary she's been keeping to give to Noni someday. The entry for Oct. 26, 2007: "Ms. Lorenda has died and you and I are hurting."

She and Noni have pulled through some tough times together. The first few years after winning the big slam contest were turbulent for Danley. She met Noni's father, a rapper, at a convenience store, the start of a rocky relationship that she isn't eager to discuss.

Her poem "Noni's Eyes," which is not one she typically reads in schools, describes the time Noni's father threw a glass of water at her head while she nursed their 2-week-old baby: "He had a good excuse. He said he had had a bad life, a bad joint, a bad Mama. I said 'That's too bad Baby,' grabbed my pocketbook, the diaper bag, the baby girl, headed for the front door and never looked back."

Actually, though, she did look back. She was with him, she says, on and off for about four volatile years. In those days, she was essentially a single mom, living in the Washington area, where she'd moved to try to start a poetry career and be closer to Noni's dad, who lived in Maryland. She took a transcription job at the TV show "America's Most Wanted" for a year or so, and, for a while, tried to pay the bills by baking cakes. She'd walk the streets with her homemade frosted lemon pound cake, trying to sell slices for a dollar.

"It was just awful," she says. "It made me realize I didn't want to go around begging anybody to buy something from me."

Her slam career continued in fits and starts. She'd taken a shot at the 1995 slam in Ann Arbor, Mich., but, she says, "I was preggers with Noni and got knocked out of competition the first night." But the following year, she won a competition in Heidelberg, Germany. And poetry was opening other doors for Danley.

In 1994, right after the win in Asheville, Danley had done a reading at a coffee shop. After the performance, Danley recalls, a young woman called her up to say, "You need to be in schools." The woman had connections with schools in Upstate New York, so that's where Danley started doing poetry residencies. Slowly, "one gig led to the next." Eventually, she became such a big draw that Young Audiences, which works with 5,000 artists in 24 states, named Danley its 2006 National Artist of the Year.

Danley met her husband in the mid-'90s, when both were performing at a cafe called It's Your Mug near Georgetown. They were friends for years before romance took root. In 1999, when Danley's relationship with Noni's father was finally over, she ran into Dooley at a restaurant. "There was a lightness to him that felt good to me after a heaviness with [Noni's] dad," she says.

They've performed together. The last time Danley slammed was in 2006 at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, when she was on the D.C./Baltimore slam team with Dooley and three others. Battling some 70 other teams, they made it to the finals and placed fourth.

Because Dooley has such a different performance style -- low-key and comedic -- Danley says there's no professional rivalry between the two. He's far less expansive than his wife onstage, and more whimsical. There's a brief clip on YouTube of one bit titled "Kitchen Poem," where he begins, in a mock-angry tone, "Spoons are always stirring up something. They are always in knife and fork's business, talkin' 'bout how knife just ain't cuttin' it no more ... " The couple apparently saves their competitiveness for the game board. When they married in 2001 in a small ceremony on Georgia's Jekyll Island, vows included a promise to always play Scrabble together. Danley says she has loved the game since high school, though about five years ago an old friend taught her how to play like a pro, showing her the Scrabble tricks he'd learned while doing time in jail. Now she says she's into it "real deep."

"You come to my house," she warns, "you're probably going to have play me some Scrabble."

At the Mocha Hut coffeehouse on U Street, Danley shouts out to the audience, "I'm not gonna be here for long, y'all, 'cause I need to go home and have sex with my husband!"

The crowd, mostly 20s-somethings and college students crushed together in the small space, cheers with delight.

Danley is a different person at venues like this, among adults; not necessarily more effective but definitely louder and a lot raunchier. She's wearing a plunging bright-green blouse over a white shirt, and hot-pink sandals. Along with some newer pieces, she performs her classic "If I Were a Man," whose first line declares, "I'd be a ... mixture of Shaft, Clifton Davis, Bob Marley, Jesus Christ, Bill Gates (for the funds)," and offers a few other choice observations, including, "If I were a man, I'd have one woman -- Okay, no more than two!"

The young people watching add whoops of laughter throughout. In this room, on this summer night, she is a slam-poetry rock star.

Two college-age wo-men sit on high stools together, and one writes "Gayle Danley" on the back page of her newspaper. The two are rapt when Danley weeps through the Lorenda poem, then ends with another about visiting a juvenile detention center in Richmond, where, she says, she was able to make a hardened young inmate cry with her poetry.

"That was the evening I decided I'm just gonna keep on being a crazy fearless poet," she tells the audience, emphatically. At the end of the 20-minute performance, the room roars with a standing ovation, and a group of young women gathers around for autographs. "She was amazing," the young woman with the newspaper whispers, wide-eyed, to her friend.

Danley doesn't do too many of these coffeehouse performances anymore. Though the hat gets passed, the gigs typically pay next to nothing. She also doesn't compete much in slams anymore, because preparing "can take a lot of time and focus, and these days I'm finding myself more interested in focusing on the next big, new challenge, whatever that may be."

She's taking real estate investment classes, just to try her hand at something completely different. In addition to her family's home, she owns two rental properties in Baltimore. In class, she's learning about foreclosures, tax liens, how to do home inspections -- all of which, she cheerfully says, "is so unartsy! It's so business and numbers and real life!" She says her new interest in real estate is not about making money, but about the fact that "I don't have to perform," so "it's a way to relax."

She's got a 3-year-old she's trying to potty train, a packed teaching schedule and a constant low-level nausea from the pregnancy. She's just found out she's having a boy. She's also been going through "a spurt," she says, "where I'm just writing and writing and writing." She's got several notebooks strewn about in her car, and tends to compose poems on anything available when inspiration strikes -- except on a computer, with which she's not a whiz (she considers forwarding e-mail messages to be "fancy stuff").

She's been searching for a new platform for her talents, something that would allow her to affect more people, more deeply. Last year, she had a one-woman show, "Naked," at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, but that didn't generate as much attention or sense of satisfaction as she'd hoped.

Lately, she's been visiting alternative venues, harder places, such as prisons and homeless shelters, to perform her poetry. She changed her schedule at Deerfield Run to fit in a trip to a shelter for troubled teens in Buffalo. That meant an almost seven-hour drive each way (she's claustrophobic, so she avoids airplanes) for what turned out to be an evening performance in front of only three girls. (It wasn't entirely altruistic, however, since she made $850 for the effort through Young Audiences of Western New York.)

She hopes to spend a few weeks this spring with homeless women in Baltimore at the Women's Housing Coalition, helping them explore their feelings through poetry. She's thought about visiting intensive-care units in hospitals or working with hospice patients. When asked why she's drawn to performing and teaching in these settings, she responds by e-mail, in her typical poem-like writing and speaking style: "That's where the challenge and the fear are. There's no pretense in those places, just heart and laughter and pain. Everything is so immediate and yes, I feel very 'necessary' when I'm there."

Stacie Sanders, executive director at Young Audiences of Maryland, says that while the organization is trying to help Danley stretch and reach more people, "I hope she'll keep a place in her heart for kids because it's really clear that they need that outlet. These kids need her."

On Danley's fourth and last day with the sixth-grade class at Deerfield Run, she looks a little more tired than usual. Her belly's getting big, and she's wearing tight maternity jeans and a gray sweat shirt. After leading the children through some stretching exercises, she seeks volunteers to read their poems, first advising them to use eye contact with the audience, and to infuse the performance with personality, passion and authenticity -- or as she puts it, "Show your flava!"

She'd asked them to write a story about something that changed them, using "Ms. Gayle's Five Steps to Slam: 1. Write it all down, 2. Read out loud, 3. Cut the fat, 4. Read out loud, 5. Add the flava!!" One girl reads two lines about her father's girlfriend's baby. There's more on the page, but she doesn't want to read the rest.

It seems like the class hasn't quite gotten it yet, and, at times like this, it's easy to understand Danley's frustration with teaching. There's the boy named David, for instance, who eagerly gets up in front of the class in baggy black jeans to read his poem, which begins with "Roses are red, violets are blue," and ends with "boogers are green, this poem is through."

"Eww!" his classmates scream and laugh.

But many of the children sit silently throughout the lesson, including a small boy in glasses. He's holding a poem titled "The Big Loss" that starts with "December 29, the worst day of my life." After class he shows it to Danley, his eyes red. It's about his uncle's death, he says. When asked what he learned from the poetry workshop, he replies, almost inaudibly, "I learned how to express my feelings and sometimes you feel like crying. When I read my piece, it loosens up my heart."

It is moments like these, Danley says, that loosen her own heart and remind her "to keep the faces of the children in front me."

Christina Ianzito is a contributing writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at cianzito@gmail.com.

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