Slam poets write to perform Annapolis First Night aims to draw participants

December 31, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Gayle Danley gets to you.

It's partly her braces-laced, chipmunk smile. Perhaps it's the way she scoots close and gets intimate, the down-home familiarity of her voice, the earthy tone of her words.

Let me make sure I'm talking to real people:

If the last compliment you gave was because the person

was really looking good

and you weren't just trying to get a higher grade

Look at me and say

"I'm real Gayle"

Danley is a slam poet -- the kind of writer whose works are designed to elicit response from an audience that is the judge of the work. Tonight she joins more than 45 other acts in Annapolis at the city's First Night celebration.

Her performance is one of several at First Night designed to draw in participants. There is also a color-by-numbers canvas of Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" and a concept event called Wish Chairs -- participants sit in chairs decorated to represent possible New Year's resolutions dealing with such issues as travel, health, and money.

Planners are betting many visitors won't walk by McDowell Hall at St. John's College, where Danley and her co-host, DJ Renegade, will open the stage for other writers to perform their works.

"Word got around during the evening that it was a really happening site," said program manager Elizabeth P. Melvin, speaking of last year's slam poetry event, where Marc Smith served as host.

"It just caught fire."

Slam poetry isn't words on a page. This is performance poetry, meant to be heard, embraced, felt, perhaps rejected.

Each slam is as different as the audience involved. One man's prose is another man's slam.

"It has the connotation of good and bad," said Smith. "We allow the audience to react truthfully to the performance that's on stage. Anybody who's ever been slammed knows that can be a good thing or a bad thing."

If the last hug you gave

was a down-to-the-bone

cuz I love ya kinda hug

Look at me again and say

"I'm real Gayle"

Slam poetry is an American art form that grew out of a 1984 performance poetry movement in Chicago. It is both performance and competition.

Poets stand alone on a stage, no props, no costumes, no music. Just the poets, their words and the audience.

"It's a chance to share, a chance to be intimate with your emotions," Danley said. "Slam poetry looks like you. It looks like me. It looks like that woman sitting in the chair over there, because it's yours."

A few audience members make up the judging panel and hand out scores -- from one to 10 -- for each performer. The rest of the audience cheers, jeers and throws up their hands with the scores they think should be given. It's a very different scene from the beatnik culture of the 1950s and 1960s.

"You can go to a slam, and all in one hour see somebody acting crazy and then something real touching, real quiet, real moving, and then you'll hear a sex poem and then a Christian poem," said Danley, 33, who has won national and international competitions.

Poets write about anything they think will connect with an audience -- relationships, hair, abuse, dating. Audiences often dissolve in laughter and drown in tears during the same slam. The point is to force feelings forward and make someone relate.

If the last time you said

"I love you"

you really did feel love

Look at me and proclaim

"I Am Real Gayle"

Danley, who grew up in Atlanta but now lives in Silver Spring, got her start in slam poetry in 1994 at a Nuyorican Poets Cafe Live slam event in Atlanta. She'd been writing all her life, but had never seen poetry like that.

"They performed and my mouth flew open," she said. "I never knew anything so liberating, so powerful. So I ran home and wrote a poem so fast, called 'If I were a man.' "

She performed it later that day.

"The crowd went crazy," she said. "People were throwing 10s in the air, women were crying. It was like I was found. A couple months later I went on to win the national championship."

In 1997 she became a full-time poet, teaming up with Young Audiences of New Jersey, a nonprofit group that brings artists into classrooms. Danley travels the country performing her one-woman show "Soul Portraits" and leading workshops to teach youngsters the basics of slam poetry.

"I tell them this is something that can save your life," Danley said. "All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil."

Even children who have trouble reading and writing can excel because speaking skills are what count.

"If you can find something that can increase their self-esteem, then kids who have difficulty reading and writing, they want to perform," Danley said. "They want attention so bad. That's a wonderful thing to me. I see my little face in theirs sometimes."

Guess what?

I am real, too

bonafide genuine Grade A to the core

always tested but never found defective

Black Woman

Y'all can keep this unreal reality

I've got to keep on being pure Me

Even if I have to die

trying.

-- excerpt from "I'm Real" by Gayle Danley

A First Night button buys admission to all New Year's Eve performances. Buttons are $14 and available at area Giant food stores, Annapolis Zany Brainy, Annapolis Marriott, Bay Trading Co. in Annapolis Mall, Starbucks Coffee at the Harbour Center, First Night Annapolis offices on Cathedral Street in Annapolis, and at the event.

Pub Date: 12/31/98

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