Waxing Poetic Words flow in a torrent from Danny Hester, a housekeeping employee at Towson University with the gift of gab and the soul of an artist.

July 04, 1998|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

Danny Hester watches his granddaughter play with sand on the beach at Gunpowder State Park and sees a poem.

Daniel James Hester Jr., 48, is a formidable talker, a prodigious reader, a poet of the heart -- and a floorman who runs a buffer for the housekeeping department at Towson University, "stripping and waxing."

He is the literary equivalent of the outsider artists at the American Visionary Art Museum. He's a bit raw, mostly untaught, but not unsophisticated. He's sharp, observant, perhaps even wise.

Next Friday, he'll make his public debut, talking and reciting his poetry at the opening night of "Chain Reaction," the new performance-art series the Fells Point Creative Alliance is launching at The Lodge, 244 S. Highland Ave.

Hester talks about writing poetry the way Ernest Hemingway talked about writing short stories.

"I just started writing down words," Hester says. "Just walking around seeing people in action and then I'd put the people in their surroundings the way they are. Like lovers, walking and holding hands, I can almost imagine what they're thinking or saying.

"Plus I would add on what I would think or say according to being right there at that particular moment. You know: how the sky is, the location and everything. It's a physical thing. I would put in what I'd see. And I would put a bit of me in it."

Hester wrote the poem he calls "A Grain of Sand" on a very, very hot day in the summer of '95. He took his 3-year-old granddaughter, Sabrina, to Gunpowder State Park and he sat on a picnic table and watched her play.

"Let me set it up for you," he says.

"She was sitting on the edge of the beach. The sun was just beginning to set. The tide was getting ready to come in.

"She had the dry sand and she would pick it up and let it drop like in an hourglass, and it would just shine and glisten. The trees were swaying real, real softly and it was so quiet and serene and she was so at peace and she just kept picking it up and said, 'Granddaddy, look!' "

So he looked at his granddaughter.

"That pretty, smiling thing. And the sun was setting. And the little waves were coming in just so nice and calm. And I just wrote:

"I wish I were a grain of sand,

"Lying in a baby's hand,

"Falling like a diamond chain

"Into the ocean.

"A willow tree is strong enough to bend.

"Not like the oak which lives in fear of the wind.

"A grain of sand is all I ever wanted to be.

"Lay me down and let the water rush right over me.

"Right on over me."

"It was just flowing," he says. "I didn't have to stop and think or anything. She only called me once. 'Granddaddy, look.' She was just playing, humming and singing. And every now and then she would [sift the sand] and watch it fall. She was fascinated with it.

"So she wasn't really paying me any attention after she first called me and I like it like that. I just wanted to catch it naturally. Seemed like I got this adrenalin rush. Almost like you get a sudden burst of happiness from a surprise, or a sudden burst of fear. You know how it just grabs you and makes you just go phwooo. Like a chill factor.

"She and the surroundings were my inspiration. But I want to tell you: I did not know what I was doing. It just came."

Poems have been coming to Danny Hester since he was about 14 and first heard the Beatles.

"I picked up the pencil and began writing my own songs, but they turned out to be more poetic than songs."

He grew up in East Baltimore, on Spring Street and near Bond and Madison streets. He's got a complicated African-American, Italian and Jewish background. He never saw much of his father, maybe a half-dozen times before he died. But he still idolizes his mother, Lettie Hester: "She was a perfect mother figure."

He went to school at the old Fairmount Hill School and Dunbar High. But at 16, he joined the Job Corps and traveled though Indiana, Michigan and Connecticut.

"My first real job was at Sparrows Point," Hester says. He was an analyst in a metallurgical lab at Bethlehem Steel. "Why'd I leave? Young and dumb."

Over the years, he has worked as an electrician's helper, a pressman's helper and a cook, his favorite job and the one he considers his profession.

He got married when he was 19 and he has four children: Devin, Melissa, Makeba and Daniel James III. The marriage ended three years ago in an amicable, but painful divorce.

For the last two years, he's been at Towson University, doing the floors in the arts and humanities building. That's where he became friends with Jason Sloan, a graduate student in art who is performing Friday at "Chain Reaction." (He'll do an abstract-expressionist piece inspired by action painter Jackson Pollock.)

And that's how Hester got his poetry debut opportunity.

Sloan hooked Hester up with Cindy Rehm, an adjunct professor of art who is curator and impresario of "Chain Reaction." Rehm listened to Hester, read his poems and put him on the bill.

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