Kalyanii reviews My Awesome Place by Cheryl Burke


It is not in spite of the grit, irreverence and sordid encounters that Cheryl B.’s life serves as an inspiration; rather, it is because of the rawness and honesty with which she relays each and every detail. Without apologies, Cheryl B. within her posthumously published memoir, My Awesome Place, recounts the most tragic and triumphant moments of her life, cut short by complications from the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A legendary spoken-word poet, performance artist, writer and member of the queer community, Cheryl B.’s story continues to spur creative souls to live their truth and express it boldly.

Growing up in a working class family amid both emotional and physical abuse, Cheryl B.’s childhood was no age of innocence. The stories are heartbreaking, even as she tells them with her characteristic irony and cynicism. While Cheryl B.’s home life was a barrage of high-conflict drama and emotional neglect, school proved an exercise in invalidation as she was discouraged from the pursuit of higher education. Seeking direction with the college application process, she remembers, her guidance counselor even suggested that “someone like her” should set her sights on a career as a toll taker on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Undaunted, Cheryl B. moved to New York to attend NYU and later The New School, where she found herself surrounded by a plethora of kindred spirits and opportunities to create her art. She collaborated with one of her closest friends on her foray into performance art and began participating in the poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which ultimately led to a legendary career amid what was later recognized as the heyday of spoken-word performance.

Thrust in the hub of New York’s arts culture, Cheryl initially declined the offers of cocaine, opting for a few drinks and bong hits, until one of her girlfriends persuaded her to give it a try. Impressed with its ability to “cut the drunk,” she let go of her resistance. Before long, all-nighters, lost memories and foggy interludes had become the norm as she grieved her father’s death and the loss of what never was while he was alive. Relationships ended, one of her dearest friends became very ill and her loneliness grew.

After he died, I slipped into an angry depression, what I later identified as a breakdown that lasted years. I drank to excess, turning mean and paranoid. I was incredibly needy but turned everyone away. I trusted no one, not even Chris, with whom I was in love. I was prone to crying fits. I once tried to punch out a store window in the East Village. The window won. I couldn’t concentrate on my writing; instead I spent my creative energy putting together slutty outfits from $10 store offerings. I broke up with my best friend and was sure my other friends were all talking about how crazy I was behind my back. Basically, the world was conspiring against me. I was drowning in self-pity, cocaine and tequila. My self-diagnosed existential crisis was nothing more than a drug-fueled alcoholic rampage.

The momentum continued to build until she awakened one Sunday morning to the realization that “not only had I been blacking out, acquiring facial rashes, neglecting my cat and sleeping with men I barely knew and rarely remembered, there was also a bad conceptual art factory beneath my bed” comprised of a Snapple bottle half-filled with tequila, a constellation of cat hair, Ziploc bags, pretzel parts and discarded condoms among other treasures. Flushing the drugs down the toilet and pouring the alcohol down the kitchen drain, Cheryl B. decided that the time was ripe for change and committed to sobriety for 30 days, which became 10 years shortly after her diagnosis.

Cheryl B. left a working draft of this memoir upon her death in June of 2011. As a tribute to her life and her work, her partner, Kelli Dunham, and members of her writing group made use of notes and emails to pull together the completed work. The writing is often far from clean, verb tense inconsistencies abound and typos crop up more than a time or two; but, these apparent flaws only serve as a reminder that in the end Cheryl B. was robbed of the opportunity to edit the manuscript herself.

More information about Cheryl B.’s literary accomplishments can be found in a piece entitled “Remembering Cheryl B.” at www.lambdaliterary.org. Video footage of her readings can be accessed at www.youtube.com.

Jill Guccini reviews My Awesome Place by Cheryl Burke


Reading My Awesome Place felt like a bittersweet experience from the start, a fact that has nothing to do with the writing itself, and everything to do with the story behind it. It’s a series of autobiographical tales written by New York City performance artist/poet/playwright/overall writer and liver of life Cheryl B, mostly covering times of sex and love (with both women and men, often destructive either way), drugs, alcohol, and survival in the city in the ‘90s. Yet the collection wasn’t put together until after her untimely death in 2011 at the age of 38 from complications related to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the pieces selected and reprinted with obvious love and care by her friends. While I was always glad that the book existed and that I was able to read it, there was still that knowledge that she would never see its existence that served me with slight discomfort somehow at the beginning, to pure rage by the end.

It took me a brief moment to really get into the book, perhaps because the first essay, Winter Wonderland, deals with her childhood growing up first in Staten Island and then New Jersey, overweight and unhappy under an abusive father and a chain-smoking, not-helping-the-situation mother, and things felt so bleak for Cheryl at that point that I felt anxious for the later stories that I knew must be coming, the tales of lust and adventure in the city. But I also always wonder when I have a hard time getting into a book if it’s not my own mind’s preoccupations at the time as opposed to the words themselves that are the problem, and this glimpse into her youth, while difficult, proves to be a necessary building block for all that comes after. Indeed, while the stories of the lovers and the various addictions later on in her life are fascinating, it’s her connections to her family, no matter how strained, that hit the reader in the gut the hardest, and that obviously meant the most to Cheryl. By the second essay on, I was hooked, and while I had been looking forward to absorbing life in New York City in the ‘90s (two of my favorite things), it was her returns to New Jersey that I ultimately found most compelling. The heart of the narrative is her father’s quick death from cancer; she explains her grief in unsentimental yet powerful terms, and it’s a grief that seems to quietly dictate everything else in her life.

On a surface level, there are a few flaws in the editing of the book which may bother grammar hawks. For instance, there seemed an excess of commas where there should’ve been periods, which jarred me at first. But when I began to read it as being purposely indicative of her performance art style, I was no longer bothered. And in any case, at that point I was wrapped up enough in Cheryl’s life that the oddities in the print were barely noticeable. Michelle Tea says in her blurb for the book that reading it “is like meeting your new best friend,” a notion I would agree with–you do feel like Cheryl is your friend by the end, or at least someone you want to root for, someone you wish you could see perform tonight. She’s not perfect and she doesn’t hide it, but she’s trying really hard, as a writer, as a human. And who doesn’t relate to that?

All of which is why my discomfort at the beginning morphed into my rage at the end. At the end of the last essay, I felt like shouting, “But–but that’s not fair.” The collection of essays is loosely termed her “autobiography” on the cover, and while the essays do run chronologically, I felt there was too much missing for it to truly be the tale of her life. The book mainly covers her 20s, yet she lived for almost another decade after that, and I wanted more. I wanted to read about her falling in love with someone that really mattered; I wanted to know what happened to her mom. I wanted to know more about her cat. I wanted to hear more than just this one book. Her partner, Kelli Dunham, details her tragic physical demise in the afterword, and there is something that seems distinctly Not Right about it all–that such a vibrant artist would spend many of her last days in hospital beds, struggling to breathe, all before the age of 40. That’s not how it was supposed to go down. She deserved to not only see this book come to fruition, she deserved the time to write ten more. (But seriously, you should read this one.)

Perhaps my anger is an immature response to this book; I know there must be larger lessons to take from it, about taking advantage of the time we have, of living and writing all of it, as much as we can, while we can. And Cheryl did do just that–she was constantly writing and putting her words into the world, if just not in pure book form until now. (And books aren’t the only things that count, a fact that all of us book people need to remind ourselves of, sometimes.) The book, perhaps, is a testament to not just preserving and paying tribute to an amazing writer and member of the queer community–and also to the worth of having good friends who continue to believe in your talents, even through and after cancer–but as a reminder to all of us, to live and write it all, and if we do want to put it into book form, to work our darndest to make it happen. Or maybe you don’t want to write a book, but you want to do something else. So go out there and do it. Even if you’re surrounded by people who tell you your only option in life is to be a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike. Cheryl didn’t listen to them, and we shouldn’t, either.