Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that articulate, but it was definitely the thought process. And I used Cheryl and Thad as representatives of that, because I’d known them both for years, and they’d already enlivened a bunch of readings at The Writer’s Voice, and appeared in WV, the literary magazine that had a brief, beautiful life, and I’d go downtown or wherever they spoke to hear their likes.
Cheryl passed away early Saturday morning, in the arms of her partner Kelli after a furious bout with Hodgkins.
And back in the winter of 2004, on a night I later joked that was so cold that the dinosaurs we rode stuck to the streets, Cheryl B. became the first Drunken! Careening! Writer! The first poem she read was “Reasons to Stop,” about why she got sober. (She also set one of the first standards for the series: you do not have to drink to careen).
Cheryl was a welcome, frequent reader (and even guest-host) of DCW, and a generous friend to many of the other readers. She was at the event more often than not, because (more often than not), she knew one or more of the readers, and might even have introduced me to them.
Traveling back even further in time, it was probably the mid-90s when I first met Cheryl. Regie Cabico (another guy I started DCW for) curated some new poetry readings for us, and brought Cheryl in to read (which also may be when I first met Anne Elliott and Ron Drummond and Guillermo Castro and Gloria). She read a piece about being the “prize” in a lesbian dating game, which was the sort of side duty that often came with the territory as a wandering poet. When she performed, her words came out in staccato bursts, often accompanied by one arm waving. A seasoned performer by then, a winner on the slam scene, she knew how to play an audience, how to take a pause, how to hold for laughter. How to hit the line that made you gasp, then applaud. Pale-skinned, dark-haired, a slash of red lipstick, working basic black like nobody’s business, Cheryl embodied Poet to me.
We talked over the unanswerable questions: how do you balance the money gig and the work that’s closest to your heart? What ABOUT the MFA? What about teaching? She talked about her writing group, and the part of it that involved putting together proposals. We began, with another writer, to explore putting together a book about Meow Mix, the bar that was a cultural touchstone and watering hole for a generation(ish) of downtown queer folk, particularly lesbians, particularly rockers, but also everyone else who wanted to be part of it.
She had a dayjob until a couple years ago, then got downsized along with a significant chunk of the American workforce. She pieced out a living from freelancing and editing (she was a very good editor), and while the unemployment was difficult, it was hardly a period of lying fallow. She got a lot of writing done, and her name appeared on a lot of articles and blogs, and when she came to DCW, she read pieces of her memoir, which she called “When I Knew Everyone on Avenue A.” There was a piece about when she decided not to drink anymore. A piece about her father throwing a plate at her across the dinner table. She performed in a multi-media piece downtown with some other poets at the Flea Theater, in an evening curated by Regie at full glamour. It was marvelous.
We saw each other often, at readings, panels, birthdays, the occasional “at home” at her apartment in Brooklyn, where a salon of queer divinity often reigned. While the accent was on queer, it was talent that got you in the door with Cheryl, and labels were the last thing she judged you by. As someone who had identified as bi, she occasionally took some pushback from people who demanded she pick one side or the other. She told me once a guy asked her what PERCENTAGE she was (which seems to me just the kind of question a lot of guys would ask) and she said answered: “75/25 women/men” and then commented that she answered so quickly, she knew it was true.
I remember thinking that things were really coming together for Cheryl in the last year or so: the writing was strong and it was just a matter of time before she found a publisher for the memoir. Pretty soon, I thought, the world is going to catch up with her, and she’ll be acknowledged by circles far wider than her cadre and foxhole buddies. After years of hard work and putting it all in, Cheryl was bound to start getting it back in a great way.
She and Kelli found each other, and when you saw them together, you thought: “of course.” At the first Sideshow last April, I looked over and saw them kissing in the corner and thought I’d never seen her so happy. In late 2009, they’d started performing with Elizabeth Whitney, Lea Robinson, and Kate McCabe as the Famous Lesbian Comedy Road Show* (*famous lesbians not included). Teaching, traveling, writing, curating, enjoying life…that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
At moments like these, the most important thing is Not to Say Anything Stupid, and I fumbled for words that might be comforting and not cause her any more anxiety. One thought hit me and I said: Why is it that the best times and the worst times happen at the SAME time? And she said, they do, don’t they? And I inquired whether I might pray for her. (You do have to ask, in one memorable instance, a friend of ours got up and left the theater in a huff when my partner told him he’d be in her prayers). But Cheryl said she’d appreciate that. I told her about my sister’s bridesmaid, a stripper who’d survived her Hodgkins and is still with us (though I think she gave up stripping).
I got on the phone and the internet, as we do, and found out that it was a highly survivable cancer, that she was in the range where it usually hit, that the treatment protocols for it were very specific and there is a lot of knowledge on the disease. Statistically speaking…statistically speaking…she should have survived. Statistics are shit.
The winter was a cold, hard one. Cheryl and Kelli went to chemo. Cheryl started a new blog, of course, which is what a writer does. It’s part of the arsenal to beat life back when it gets too overwhelming, and I thought: good. When she gets through this, it will make a powerful memoir.
We saw Cheryl and Kelli at Christmas, and gave them a ride home from chemo, and went to an “at home” in February, where Cheryl made heart-shaped pasta and we drank diet root beer. Cheryl & Kelli performed their “first date” as the Xtranormal Bears, and I told Cheryl about my Xtranormal bears performing Beckett and Pinter. She continued to perform when she could, and started participating in NaPoWriMo:
I stayed in touch via phone and email. I worried. I did not visit…in part because the times I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve hated having visitors because I was so tired and sick, and also because my own allergies have had me coughing and sneezing since March, and I didn’t want to do that anywhere near an immune-compromised person. And because, I suppose, in the back of my mind I thought, if I don’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, then it won’t be. She’s getting through this and will write a book about it, and we’ll be friends until we’re crotchety old fabulous curmudgeons.
And it was perilous…until it wasn’t, and somehow, Cheryl pulled through, and was admitted to a rehab facility so her lungs could learn how to breathe again, and she got up the strength to walk up the stairs to her apartment.
My April and May were busy with writer stuff. Work stuff. Stuff that in the long run isn’t really that important, is it? Doric passed away. Doug passed away (I actually had it on my list to write about him today, on Father’s Day). And I said, I’m going to see Cheryl this weekend. But then, last Thursday, she was back in the ICU. But it seemed to me if she’d done it once, she could do it again. I really wasn’t going to have to get a call or an email or read a Facebook post announcing that one more friend had departed.
In my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I have all the equipment to be a satisfactory human being. I’m a pretty good writer, and that’s where it goes. The call comes, the news is bad, and I keep humming along, being responsible about stuff, and turning things in, until I start puking blood or suddenly spike a high fever.
Yesterday, I put on a dress and went over to Deb’s to sit with Kelli and do what I could, which is not much. We brought food and drink, and a gift I’ve been trying to get to Kelli for weeks. (It’s a honey badger t-shirt). We talked a little, laughed a little, sat in silence a lot. In times like these, my voice changes to a very serious tone and I try to sound like I have something useful to say. The phone rang, people came and went. Finally, we had to go. My partner was house managing a show in a festival, and I had tickets to my own show in the East Village Chronicles, which I hadn’t seen yet.
Oh hell yes, a margarita went down good, and I went over to E. 4th St. by Avenue A to see my play about a dying poet (which I'd dedicated to Doric). I covered my face at the end, because I couldn’t bear to watch.
I’ll be back in the East Village this Thursday, for Drunken! Careening! Writers! Cheryl was supposed to read last month, with Kelli, but wasn’t able to. The last time she read was in September, 2010, when she was joined by Kaylie Jones and Shawn Stewart Ruff. As often happens, all of them read pieces on a theme (we never decide it, it just happens). That night, most of the work was about staying/not staying sober.
This month’s reading is as queer as you please, and it pleases me greatly. Before we begin, I’ll lift a glass to Cheryl, and invite everyone else to, as well. And together, we will careen in her honor.
I can’t think of anything else to say right now. But I do have a link to an excellent quality video of Cheryl reading some of my favorites of her poems. Listen to “Why I Stopped.”