The first time Gayle Danley visited a juvenile detention center, the guards wouldn’t let her get close to the young men she was there to share her poetry with. Not physically, at least. So instead she made an emotional connection.
Danley is a national and international slam poetry champion, the Maryland Library Association’s 2018 Poet of the Year, and a Kennedy Center master teaching artist. She closed the Auditorium Speaker Series on Monday, June 25 at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibits in New Orleans with a warm and sometimes humorous performance addressing powerful issues such as the loss of parents, domestic abuse, juvenile detention, the growth of children, teaching, love, and appreciation.
Danley’s emotionally honest performance built from connection. She encouraged participation in her poetry, coaxing the audience to sing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” leading a laughter-filled call-and-response on the power of “no,” and—with a show of hands—encouraging audience members to share deeply personal facts, such as who had lost their mother (leaving few dry eyes in her wake).
She read poems from her new chapbook, Poets Lives Matter: Poems from the Road, and performed older works from memory. “I know I’m talking to librarians and you all like to read to folks,” she said after closing her notebook on a new poem, “but when you memorize it, it becomes like a second skin.” She encouraged librarians who read to children to memorize stories so they can get the physical book out of the way and the kids themselves can move closer.
When it comes to teaching, Danley likes to keep it real. “Don’t get all ‘I am the poet, and thou art not,’” she said. After leading a large group introduction, not unlike her session in New Orleans, she works with small groups to help people get comfortable with writing their feelings. “I’m sad that ALA isn’t having us retire to a room together after this to write,” she admitted.
Her teaching focuses on getting anyone and everyone to write a poem for themselves, not anyone else: “You need a signature poem that when you do it you’re like ‘damn straight!’” She encouraged the library workers in the audience to try writing that poem for themselves, then go back to their branches, gather everyone around, and share it. “You’ll bond. It’s wonderful.”
Asked how she’s able to be open and honest performing her poetry in front of audiences, she said she couldn’t imagine things another way. When she started performing as a slam poet, even in national competition, it didn’t occur to her to be afraid. “I can’t see not giving me to you,” she said—an observation that took on further meaning when, during the question-and-answer session, she offered, unprompted, to lead workshops at several audience members’ libraries.
When asked to name her favorite poet, she at first demurred. “I started writing because I didn’t see me,” she said. “I’m still searching for my favorite poet.” She did recommend the works of Sonya Renee Taylor, Regie Cabico, and Patricia Smith.
Danley did not hold back in her praise for the role of libraries as places of connection, particularly for children. “Sometimes they come to you because they don’t have anybody else to come to,” she said. “We’ve got the words. Use them wisely.”