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Baltimore slam poet challenges teens to release inner talents and frustrations

Danley sees empowerment through expressions on bullying, gangs, family tragedy

By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

7:36 PM EST, December 25, 2013

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Gayle Danley called the Wilde Lake Middle School eighth-graders "poets," a label that sounded hip and eclectic and, by the tone of her fiery prose, non-negotiable.

After introducing them to the world of "poetry slam" — competitions involving artists who recite their original works — the former national and international slam champion sought a way last week to bring out the teens' inner muses.

"Pick up the pencils and write the words: 'You can't do that to me!'" commanded Danley, a Baltimore resident and artist-in-residence who visits middle schools through Baltimore and Washington, teaching students to use poetry to express themselves about the more pressing issues in their lives.

"I want you to think of a time, poets," she said, "when something happened to you, and you felt like, 'Ah, no!' Somebody crossed that line a little bit.

"You said, 'You can't do that to me! You don't get to say that to me!'"

Wilde Lake eighth-grader Dan Leshchyshyn fired back, using his poem to respond to someone who insulted him using language he deemed "only appropriate for gangs."

Classmate Adjoa Armoo took umbrage with someone who dared to say she wasn't beautiful, and who ridiculed her heritage.

Kyle Stanfield railed against the victim of a bus confrontation who blamed him for not having intervened, refusing to be "psychologically violated."

Students took turns reading aloud poems that were personal, candid and — judging from their faces as fellow classmates applauded — cathartic.

That's just what Danley wants from these sessions: Get students who are often overwhelmed with classroom demands and adolescent Pressures to let go of at least one painful moment, even if their words never reach the ears of the offending party.

"It made me feel strong," Armoo said. "I used to be bullied a lot, and it was like talking to all the people who ever bullied me."

"It felt kind of nice opening up," Stanfield agreed, "since I don't normally talk about the past."

The current school year marks Danley's sixth visiting Wilde Lake Middle. She performs artist-in-residence programs with funding from grantors including the Maryland State Arts Council and the Howard County Arts Council. And she has made inroads in middle school language programs, helping students craft poetry that addresses such topics as bullying, divorce, family tragedy, gangs and peer pressure.

In addition to schools in Howard County, Danley has also done poetry slam classes at schools in Baltimore City, including Roland Park Public Elementary/Middle School, and in Montgomery County.

"She brings something out with most kids," Wilde Lake English instructional team leader Brett Lebowitz said. "Because she's so honest and raw, they feel comfortable sharing their stories.

"It's a fresh view of the purpose for writing. It's not an essay, it's not a period at the end of a sentence. It's, 'Express yourself. Gayle captures them and helps them feel that they're experiences are normal and OK."

Said Danley, 48: "I never set out to be a children's poet, and I'm still not sure that I am. The poetry is just the vehicle that gets us to the grocery store, gets us bonded, gets us feeling and unashamed to write and talk about some of these things that happen to us just because we're alive."

Danley, who grew up in Atlanta, knows about championing self-expression at an early age, having won her first public-speaking competition in the seventh grade. She earned a broadcast journalism degree from Howard University and a television, radio and film degree from Syracuse University, and has held such jobs as writer and editor for NRA InSights, a youth National Rifle Association magazine.

It wasn't until 1994, however, that Danley became involved with poetry slam. Living in Atlanta at the time, she saw a performance by a New York-based slam group. She attended a few shows, and during one, took the stage during an open-mic set.

Buoyed by the favorable crowd response, Danley entered the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, N.C., about a month later and captured first place in the individual category. Two years later, she was International Slam Poet champion.

Now Danley holds poetry slam workshops and has been featured in a segment about slam poetry on CBS' "60 Minutes."

In addition to helping students learn how to express themselves on paper and aloud, Danley introduces them to such aspects of poetry slam as "flinging," or editing a sentence down to a line of strong words, then uttering the words aloud, with pauses in between for emphasis.

"Poets talk about line; we say, 'I love your first line,'" Danley said. "We don't talk about sentences."

Students who take her classes cap them off with poetry slam performances, and Danley hopes they continue. Though poetry slam for many is synonymous with open-mic sessions at dimly lit, bohemian cafes, Danley encourages students to take advantage of opportunities in the craft afforded to youngsters, including contests that she said offer tens of thousands of dollars in prizes. Such contests include Brave New Voices, an annual arts festival that was created by organizers of the California-based Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam.

Danley also encourages students to sign up for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition orchestrated by state arts agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts. This year's finals, held in Washington, awarded $50,000 in prizes, including a $20,000 first prize.

"I want to help them with the things they're doing in school. I want it to fit in the curriculum. I want to help them with their writing skills and their speaking skills and figurative language," Danley said.

"But beyond that, I want to leave them with, 'Like, wow, I don't know what just happened to me. But I know I will never forget it.'"

joseph.burris@baltsun.com