“I am tired of little tight-faced poets sitting down to shape perfect unimportant pieces…” Gwendolyn Brooks, “Winnie”
Gayle Danley wants a Cadillac. “When I finish performing, I’m sweaty and I’m tired. My spirit is way up high, but I’m tired. I don’t wanna putt-putt-putt down the street,” she says. “I wanna float off, you see? Now, what’s your dream car?”
I pause for a second, attempting to forget my bank balance. “I want an Accord,” I mutter.
“Eeww,” she replies, squinting her face as if she has bitten into an unripe apple. “You know why I don’t want an Accord? Because everybody’s got one.”
Indeed, an Accord would be too reserved for Danley. Even a Cadillac somehow seems too confining. No, Danley needs some futuristic contraption, a cross between a Jaguar and a Stealth bomber, perhaps. As a performance poet, Danley is a hybrid herself. Her art crosses versifying with acting and offers an alternative to the academic sleepathons that often pass for poetry readings.
Performance poets will scream, sing, joke, or cry onstageanything to keep the audience entertained. At its best, performance poetry injects juice into words that already sing on the page. At its worst, it pumps melodrama into words that couldn’t carry the simplest of tunes. Any open mike is guaranteed to offer up a gallery of wretched performance poetry. But this means little, since the coffee houses and bars where performance poetry is served also offer up nice helpings of wretched ordinary poetry.
But Danley is one of the art’s shining lights. You wouldn’t know it from her apartment, a small, quaint, modest place. It is neat and meticulously kept, but there are no high ceilings, no love seat, no leather couch. A skeletal halogen lamp stakes down one corner of the living room, while a freshly made bed occupies the other. Danley is lounging on a pillow, clutching her 2-year-old, Noni. Later, she’ll admit that she wants to get more furniture. But it isn’t a priority. Maintaining a rep as one of the baddest performance poets in the country is.
If you trust the slams and the crowds Danley performs for, her renown is justified. Danley is the 1994 national slam champ and the 1996 international slam champ. When she takes center stage, all viewers become schoolchildren enraptured by her captivating tales. When she finishes, many onlookers stare, their mouths gaping like drawbridges. Othersand this not hyperboleare in tears. It is nothing for an audience, after seeing Danley, to begin passing around a hat, each patron dropping dead presidents inside.
DJ Renegade has been to the slam four years straight and consequently has seen some of the best performance poets in the country. He says that Danley is one of the best of the best. “She has an ability to communicate with people in a way that makes them believe her totally,” he says.
Danley doesn’t restrict herself to championship gigs, though. “You know what, there is no place that I won’t perform,” she says. “I’d probably be in some strip joint somewherewith my clothes onperforming. I just feel like you can take poetry just about anywhere. I like the fact that I’m not the slam poet with all these rules, like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ I’m, like, ‘Well, let’s see.’ And it makes me a better performer. Yesterday I was outside….I really don’t like outdoor performances, but it trains the voice.”
Certainly this isn’t the view shared by the academy. The poet, it is felt, creates the art, and it is up to the audience to come to the art. No matter that the poem may be wholly inaccessible, closed so tight that not even a locksmith could crack itthe responsibility lies in the audience’s hands. At the extreme end, there are poets who wear their inaccessibility like blue ribbons. In his essay Art as Technique, formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky writes, “The technique of art is to make things unfamiliar…to increase the difficulty and length of perception. Art is
a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is
But Danley gives Shklovsky the finger and brings the word right to the audience. “There’s a bar in Maine, and I went in January of ’95, when I was national champion,” she recalls. “When you’re champion, they tour you around to these different cities and stuff. So I went to this bar in Maine, where they were doing a slam. And it was real redneck, real scary, real loud. There was a pool table right by the microphone, and this dyslexic cabdriver was one of the judges. That was wild. I’m the only black woman in there. But what I try to do when I perform is to transform the space that I’m in. So no matter how bizarre it is, when Gayle comes in, it becomes my living room.”
The challenge for many black poets today is not to make things unfamiliar but to offer familiar things in new and creative ways and yet still maintain a level of accessibility. It’s a mighty task. Add on top of it trying to become a good performer, and you have to believe that something’s gotta give.
But Danley is clear on where she stands. “I’m not a great writer,” she says, catching me off guard.
“You really can say that?” I ask.
“Yeah. See, people come up to me all the time and they say, ‘Are you a poet or are you an actress?’ And I’m just being me, with no formal training. I don’t really wanna get it right. I just believe people need to hear stuff that makes them feel, stuff that makes them cry, stuff that makes them feel like it’s OK to be them, because look at this woman up here, imperfect.” She pauses, searching for words. “I think that’s what I’m trying to say: imperfect.”
“Human?” I ask.