Our NYC writer's community lost a beautiful soul and giant talent on June 18. Cheryl Burke, AKA Cheryl B, died after a difficult battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Many of you knew her well and don't need to be told what a heartbreak this is for all of us. Each of us has our particular reasons for missing Cheryl. I'm going to tell you mine.
I met Cheryl onstage at a poetry slam at the Nuyorican in the early 1990's. I had been on that little postage stamp of a stage plenty, and was old hat at slamming. I was a little cocky. Along came the new girl, this pale, beautiful, feisty, well-dressed, dark-haired lesbian chick, one of the other three slammers, and the minute she began speaking into the microphone, I knew I had no chance of winning the slam. She was angry, but in a way that was disarming and humorous and united the room in laughter. The poems were crafted, but natural, and their message was clear: this was her three minutes on the mic and she was going to fucking USE IT. She would not apologize for being who she was. She was loud, she was direct, and she was funny as hell. And she had unbelievably great shoes.
Later, after we got to know each other, I told her how intimidated I was by her that night. She surprised me completely (again!) by telling me how much I had inspired her, before she ever got on the mic. She had been going to hear me perform with my gals the Pussy Poets, and ours were among the voices that had encouraged her to speak up with her own. The inspiree had become the inspiration. This would turn out to be a theme in our friendship.
Since then, Cheryl and I have crossed paths in many creative endeavors. We were in a band together, Hot Sauce Gizzard, in which we performed our words with a funk ensemble. She did a poem with a hard rock song backing her up, about her beloved New Jersey and a very unusual drive down Route 35, involving a BK drivethrough and thoughts of Sylvia Plath. The band, and her poetry, was featured in a documentary film, Beef, by Jon Baskin.
Cheryl became a poetry curator and invited me to read at her Atomic and Poetry vs. Comedy series. I became a chapbook publisher and issued her tiny volume, Chicks, on Big Fat Press. She invited me to be her opening act on at least one occasion. She was becoming a headliner and I was happy to tag along and watch her audience grow.
And, aside from the collaborative ventures, we attended each other's readings. A lot of them. It always felt really, really good to look out from the stage and see a familiar face. It always felt really, really good to sit in the audience and hear what new material she was coming up with. I went to Cheryl's readings to let her know I wanted her to keep doing it. I went to her readings to hear what the hell she would come up with next, in her hybrid of poetry, comedy, and memoir.
Later still, we were in a small writer's group together for several years, and shared raw work. This was my opportunity to get to know the offstage Cheryl better, and to learn what an insightful reader she was, as well as writer. She had the unique ability to get at the meat of an issue with an unfinished piece, in very few words. By now she had an MFA, but didn't talk in workshop-speak, just told us in plain language how she reacted to our work. I realize why her students kept coming back to her at Gotham. I began wondering if Cheryl was an introvert or an extrovert, and I discovered she was a little of both. There was something so special about this quiet, non-performative side of Cheryl, and this is the part I am going to miss most. We had rich conversations about crafting words, living gently in the world, finding love, and coping with difficulty. We shared a fondness for animals, cats in particular. We talked about our families. We talked about where to buy the perfect outfit for $30. Including shoes. We commiserated over computer problems, as writers do. She enlightened me on issues in the LGBT community, and entertained us with stories of lesbian courtship rituals.
During Cheryl's illness, I had an opportunity to get to know her partner Kelli. Their love and loyalty to each other was an absolute blessing, and the constant, intelligent humor they shared felt good to witness. I was so grateful to see Cheryl with a person so trustworthy, a person who clearly loves her and will miss her in ways the rest of us can't begin to comprehend. My relationship with Cheryl was one of writerly camaraderie and mutual creative support. I can only imagine the deep loss those in her immediate circle are feeling now, Kelli and the rest of Cheryl's family, both the family she was born into and the family she found in the lesbian community. My one solace as I think about her last days was knowing she felt loved, and that Kelli helped her greatly to feel this way, and that she died in safety of Kelli's arms.
Cheryl's example of sobriety and self-care inspires me to pay attention to my health and the health of those around me. Her fierce desire to live, against what proved to be horrendous odds, inspires me to respect life. Her bravery in her work and life, her defiance of labels, artistic and otherwise, and her commitment to empowering others in her community of writers and comics inspires me to keep working and reaching out to other creative people. And her dark, dark sense of humor will probably surprise me still in the years to come, when I come across her words somewhere, and find myself laughing again.
Cheryl was one of those people who was getting more and more and more interesting with age. This is what is absolutely breaking my heart. We won't get to see what the hell she comes up with next. The last time I saw her was about a week before she died, with the other members of the writing group. Kelli laid out a potluck buffet for us on the hospital tray and made a plate for Cheryl, then let us have some alone time with her. Though Cheryl was struggling for air and quite medicated, she managed to put several Cheryl quips into the conversation. Beside her bed was a card she had received from a grade school student. On it, in scratchy marker, the child had written: I hope you get bitter. The kid obviously meant better, but Cheryl had pulled this card out of the batch of thirty to put at her bedside. "That's my favorite," she said.
She never stopped being her. She had a real gift, an ability to make the dark things light.
Please rest in peace, dear one. Your unique voice, your laugh, your kindness, your generosity, your good example, and your ability to make any situation--and I mean any situation--funny: these will all be missed terribly, but not forgotten.