Putting the 'juice' into poetry

Visiting slam poet inspires classes to distill emotions down to the essentials

October 15, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,Special to The Sun

Gayle Danley roams the fourth-grade classroom at Arnold Elementary School, calling the boys handsome and the girls gorgeous. She tells them to cross out the first two lines of the poems they have written, and cut right to what she calls the "juice."

An award-winning slam poet from Baltimore, Danley was at the school for a six-day "get slammin'" residency, which began Oct. 9 with a presentation of her own work, followed by a week of lessons with fourth-graders. Tomorrow, students are invited to share their poems with visiting friends and family.

The term "slam poetry," which was coined in the mid-1980s, describes a combination of performance and poetry that can be deeply emotional for both the poet and the audience.

Danley, who gives workshops around the country through Young Audiences of Maryland and similar organizations, started with an assembly for fourth-graders and fifth-graders. She read three of her own poems, moving many of the audience members to tears, said Amy Knappen, the PTA cultural arts chairwoman.

Last week, she worked with fourth-graders for about 45 minutes each day, helping them wring as much emotion as possible from their work, and sharing her enthusiasm for the written word. In teacher Kathleen Smith's class, Nick Kennedy stood and read a poem about the death of his dog, Zeke.

"That's real passionate, handsome," Danley said when he finished. "Y'all please applaud him."

Then she zeroed in on the poem's emotion: "Part of the pain when you lose someone that you love a lot is you don't really know what took them away. I think you need to say that."

She also focused on the end of the poem, when Zeke is gone and everything is quiet. She asked the class for similes, "keeping in mind that he is describing something that is painful for him," she said. Someone suggested "quiet as an empty stadium after the losing team leaves." Danley wrote it on her dry-erase board.

Someone else suggested "quiet as a mouse in a mousetrap." Danley wrote it down and looked at it. "Is that quiet?" she asked. "Y'all gotta remind me. I haven't had a mouse caught in a mousetrap since college. Freshman year."

Danley urged Nick to come back the next day with "more details about Zeke." She said it's natural to leave out memories of the dog because they're sad. But "that's the passion," she said.

Another student, Parke Flournoy, started his poem, "Me and my family were going on a very fun vacation together and we were going to the county fair." Danley asked the students to cut those 20 words to 10. "Who can get it down to two?" she asked, then wrote "County Fair!" on the board.

"Add some more details and bring that to me tomorrow," she said.

As the class ended, Danley told the students: "I want your lines to be juicy, y'all. I want every line to be juicy, and everything else to be crossed out."

Smith, the teacher, said the students picked up on her enthusiasm for poetry and writing.

Tony Baumgarten said he didn't mind the criticism from Danley.

"She's not like a normal teacher," he said. "She explains stuff and she's not mean or anything and she's funny."

Danley, rushing to her next class, said she likes working with younger kids because their emotions are closer to the surface and with the older ones because they are better able to put their thoughts on paper.

"I love the assemblies, I love the workshops," she said. "Every now and then I see the light go on."

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