Renowned Slam Poet Takes Her Message To Youth Slam poet Gayle Danley has won international acclaim as a slam poet, and her newest endeavor is could be her most challenging one yet. Danley is taking the themes within her poems and passing them on to children.
NPR logo

Renowned Slam Poet Takes Her Message To Youth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Renowned Slam Poet Takes Her Message To Youth

Renowned Slam Poet Takes Her Message To Youth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Korva Coleman in for Michel Martin. Coming up, as the economy slumps, many Americans are looking for ways to spend less and in many households, the food budget is the first to get cut. We'll hear from a roundtable of experts about how to stay healthy on the cheap.

But first, it's time for our weekly peek into the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. Joining me here in the studio is the award-winning slam poet Gayle Danley, who's profiled in the magazine this week. Welcome, Gayle.

Ms. GAYLE DANLEY (Slam Poet): Thank you, Korva.

COLEMAN: Well, for many people who just may not be familiar with slam poetry, can we start with an example of your work?

Ms. DANLEY: Oh, good idea.


Ms. DANLEY: OK. I have a poem, and it says:

We were worried about him. He hadn't said a word, and the words that came from him weren't really words at all. Ooh! for juice; eef(ph), for that thing your lips place on somebody else's. We were worried. I mean, how could God be so unkind? Two poets make one baby who calls his big sister his fe-her(ph). And when it comes to my 3-and-a-half-year-old son's language deficiency, all my girlfriends become Dr. Phil. Put him in day care, Gayle. He needs to interact with other 3-year-olds. You know, being home all day with your husband while you're off doing poetry, Gayle, just isn't enough for him. I mean, how many episodes of "The Fresh Prince" can he watch? You got to find him the best preschool in Baltimore, Gayle. Don't worry about the money. This is important. He's a black boy, and you know how the system treats black boys - special ed, remedial classes, bad lunches, lock your doors.

We were worried. One of my girlfriend's girlfriends has a 2-year-old daughter who speaks Spanish, Russian and French in her sleep. Her girlfriend's son can count to 100, and he's running for Congress and he's too - we're worried. We are bad parents, poets with a wordless son. all that he should be saying trapped in his throat. What kind of cruel joke is God playing? We were concerned - until the other night.

We were watching TV, the glow of one meaningless show after another reflecting on bed sheets like streetlights with hiccups. Noah, my boy, tiny and yellow, teetered to the edge of the bed and said plainly as cornbread, Obama. And he pointed at a man's face, kissed(ph) slightly his brow as my son's own eyes, beauty high on his brow. Obama, Barack-o!

And I knew. And we knew there was no need to worry. Einstein didn't speak until he was 5, and my son, my cinnamon-brown boy with the tiny, french-fry fingers, had only waited until he had something worthwhile to say.

COLEMAN: I am enchanted by you. You take your craft into a lot of schools, and you perform around the country. Why do you talk with children about slam poetry?

Ms. DANLEY: Because they need to know it's OK to express themselves. They need to know that words are real good things, and you can cry in them and you can laugh in them. They need to know it's OK to be real.

COLEMAN: Is it hard for them to express themselves emotionally?

Ms. DANLEY: It depends on where I am. If I'm doing a prison, if I'm doing a residential treatment facility of teenagers who are trying to get off drugs, that's a little harder. But if I'm doing a middle school with eighth graders, they're a little more comfortable with this thing. And once I get up and I show them how it looks and how it's OK, then it's just a matter of just giving them access to the craft.

COLEMAN: So you have children who are not accustomed to being in touch with their feelings?

Ms. DANLEY: Not with words. Sometimes I have our children, and they're accustomed to acting it out. And so I say, OK, you want to act it out? All right, write it down first, and then act out those words. It makes me feel so good when I go to bed at night because I know I've done a good thing for the children during the day.

COLEMAN: Gayle, you wrote a poem about a friend that you lost in a car accident. Would you recite that poem for us?

Ms. DANLEY: The last time I saw you, you were smiling. You were my audience. I had just come offstage. I had just done my one-woman show. And there you were, flowers on dress, one of those September nights where fall is dragging summer by the angles. You were in sandals, all shiny and smiling. Madja(ph), your grandma, was with you, happy too.

I yanked stage sweat from my forehead, changed into street clothes and sat in the lobby exhausted, signing books, making my lips smile and then you. You stood at the table all proud of me, handed me 20 bucks for two books, had me sign one for you and one for Madja.

I hope I said something big in your book like, I can never stop loving you, Lorinda(ph). Like, you made me feel special tonight. Let me return the favor for what we have is forever. Thanks for loving me. Love, your friend Gayle.

You took your books, and I stood in front of you and we opened brown arms and hugged. I recall peeking at your face, waving a little bit as you and Madja walked out the door. As you walked out the door. As you walked out. As you.

The last time I saw you, I was your audience. Slow and silent, they lowered you. I peeked at your face as you left. I could never stop loving you. You made me feel special. What we have is forever. Thanks for loving me. Thanks for coming to my show. Thanks, Lorinda. Goodnight. Love, Gayle.

COLEMAN: Slam poet champion Gayle Danley. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. You were very close to her. You're weeping now.

Ms. DANLEY: Yeah.

COLEMAN: How many times have you recited that poem?

Ms. DANLEY: Oh, maybe 20.

COLEMAN: Do you recite that for the children?

Ms. DANLEY: Yes.

COLEMAN: What happens?

Ms. DANLEY: We cry together.

COLEMAN: Are you able to help them touch on something emotional in their lives?

Ms. DANLEY: That's why I do it. That's why I can't stop.

COLEMAN: You teach slam poetry, and I understand when you do that, you focus on five ways to write poetry. What are those five ways for you?

Ms. DANLEY: I call them Gayle's Five Step to Slam, and step one is to begin with something that you've experienced in your life that really touched your life, something that was horrible or something that was wonderful, and you take that event and you write it down. Just write it raw. And then after you write it down, step two is to read it out loud, hear how it sounds in the air. Is it working for you? Are you connecting?

Step three is to trim it down. That's to take away the excess, everything that's not heart. And what you have left, if you're lucky, is the poem. Step four is to repeat step two. You read it out loud again to make sure you didn't cut too much out. And then step five is to add the flavor, and that's where you let yourself go.

I see so many poets, and they're the same. Every time you see them, they perform the poem the same way they recite. But step five says, no, no, no, no, that's not necessary. Let loose. Go ahead and mess up on the microphone. Go ahead and show off. Go ahead and strut. So step five is add flavor. And what happens at the end of the process is you usually walk away with something real, real good, something real passionate.

COLEMAN: You're speaking of all this emotion, all this passion, and yet in the magazine piece, you say you're looking for other opportunities beyond the world of teaching poetry. Even though you're still going to be a poet, what endeavors are you looking at? What might you turn to now?

Ms. DANLEY: I want to be the one that you call when something breaks out, wherever it is in the country, and you need somebody to go so that people can release their emotion. So, these tragedies at the school - you hear about the school shooting, I always get real upset because I think, oh, if only I had been able to make it there before the kid went off, maybe I could have said to him, wait a minute, baby, wait a minute, wait a minute. Shh. You can write it down. Are you frustrated? Are you angry? Are you afraid? Write it down. So, I kind of want to be the - what is that - the ambassador? I want to be the one - I want to be the go-to when there is something that might have been avoided had the people been able to express their emotion.

COLEMAN: Well, I'd like to ask you to do a third poem for us. What's the poem you want to do for us?

Ms. DANLEY: Oh, I've got poems all over, crawling all over. You want to laugh? What do you want to do?

COLEMAN: Well, I've laughed and I've cried.


COLEMAN: Make me think.


I am just like you. I mean, when it's nighttime and a pack of boys walks up on me, I'm just like you. I cross the street, I clutch my pocketbook to my side, and I start praying, please, do not let these thugs follow me to my car. But this time, it's daylight. And I'm still afraid.

I'm at the Richmond, Virginia, Juvenile Detention Center. They've sent me here so I can show these 14 little cocoa-colored boys how to express themselves. I have a reputation. They say that if Gayle Danley can't bring the feeling out of a group of young folk, you might as well lock 'em up and swallow the key. But the security guard has searched me, from fro to toe, has taken my car keys and has told me, Ms. Gayle, just sit over there and relax, hmm, while I go get the fellows for you. And he's got a big old gun kissing his pinstriped hip. I tell him, baby, take your time. I'll be here when you get back.

First thing I notice when the boys arrive are the orange uniforms, the broken eyes, the disorganized hair. And I noticed, y'all, how the fellows keep their hands behind them at the base of their spines, even though they don't have any handcuffs. Security guard says, sit down, shut up, dare one of y'all to move. This poetry lady has come in here, and she's going to do a poem for y'all.

I should've typed him up a little introduction. But anyway, I stood up in front of the fellows, and my knees were knocking like a pot of black-eyed peas. But I started my poetry because it's my job. Slowly, I saw these 14 little heads leaning into my words. So, I got close to them. Security guard knocked me back. Ms. Gayle, don't do that, sugar. You don't know what these fellows got, and you don't know what they'll do to you on a dark night. OK.

Then I did my funny poem about this librarian dude I used to date with the bunions around his ashy toes, and the fellows started laughing. And then, Korva, I did my Mama poem, and I saw a tear creep down a little boy's cheek. I got close to him. I wanted him to see what a black woman smells like when she ain't afraid anymore. But most of all, I wanted him to write anything. I said, OK, paper-pencil time. Let me see how you ended up in here.

Security guard says, no, Gayle. You're not in D.C. You're at the detention center, and we don't give them pencils because pencils are considered deadlier than guns. So I was done. Grabbed my little jacket, headed for the locked door. Above my head was a mirror, and in its reflection I could see a young man walking up behind me. I turned around, and he told me, yo, Ms. Gayle, I know you've got to go, but, uh, let me talk to you a little bit in private.

Now, I looked over at the security guard's gun. And the gun said it's all right; I got your back. You know that poem you did about your mama dying? That two (unintelligible) joint? Sure felt that. My mama dying, too. Why don't you write your mama a poem? I bet she would love that.

How is he going to write a poem, huh? Huh? He doesn't have a pencil. He sure don't have a laptop, and it didn't matter. Before I could even answer him, the guard had already snatched him back in line behind another orange uniform. But that's when I decided, I can't leave this job, y'all. I'm just like you. I mean, all I have is a good excuse to run to the school and talk to the babies and say, it's going to be all right. Write it down.

But when it's night time, y'all, I run from the thugs myself. I'm just like you. But some mornings, I wake up praying, God, please, let this be the day I'm going to say something and it's going to save a little boy's life, hoping that this one time, that young man down in Virginia is going to complete his sentence.

COLEMAN: Slam poet champion and educator Gayle Danley. She's featured this week in the Washington Post Magazine in a profile written by Christina Ianzito. Gayle, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. DANLEY: My pleasure. Thanks, Korva.

(Soundbite of music)

COLEMAN: Coming up, many Americans are finding it hard this year to afford their regular Thanksgiving feast, or even their everyday meals.

Mr. GEORGE STELLA (Author; TV Cook; Host, "Low Carb and Lovin' It"): There's no denying that food prices are going up and up, and in the short term, it's devastating to many a grocery budget. But in the long term, the impact on our health is much more important; it's much more serious.

COLEMAN: Our food experts give their advice on healthy eating on a budget. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Korva Coleman.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.