2004_12_cherylb_large.jpgCheryl B. gets around. And I don't mean that in a naughty way, I mean it in a literary way. The outspoken poet, essayist and spoken word performer, armed with an MFA in nonfiction from The New School, has read at almost every literary venue in this city and many others, touring with the Glamlit 2000 tour along with Lauren Sanders and Elena Georgiou, and most recently performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her poems appear in numerous magazines and anthologies, such as The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave and Bloom, and her fiction was recently published in Best Lesbian Erotica 2005. This year, Cheryl took Brooklyn by storm with her monthly Atomic Reading Series at Park Slope's Lucky 13, while also hosting events such as a book party for Michelle Tea's Rent Girl. If you listen to Cheryl talk long enough, you'll realize that since she arrived in New York in 1990 to attend NYU, she's been through countless scenes (she's working on chronicling her countless adventures at the now-defunct lesbian bar Meow Mix), and can drop names of art stars and long-forgotten bars like the best New Yorkers. She looks far younger than her 32 years so it's sometimes startling for her to suddenly burst into recollection of an early 90's venue. Catch Cheryl at a spoken word venue when the mood is right and you can listen to her silence the crowd with her razor-sharp observations of New York city life, with all its attendant temptations, obligations and flirtations.

First off, a very basic question; why do you go by "Cheryl B." as opposed to using your last name?
When I finally got up the guts to go to my first open mike several years ago, the host was writing down names. I was really nervous and when he asked me for my name, I blurted out "Cheryl B." for some reason. And I’ve been Cheryl B. ever since. I used to treat my real name, Cheryl Burke like it was some sort of big secret. I’ve recently begun using it more and more and have published a few pieces under my given name. It’s hard now though since most people, friends, co-workers, fellow artists, poetry audiences know me as Cheryl B. It’s also my nick-name. Maybe someday I’ll pull an "Artist formally known as…"

You recently went to Edinburgh to perform at the Fringe Festival. How did that come about and what pieces did you perform there? What was the best part of the festival for you?
Edinburgh was a fantastic experience. I went because I was asked to be part of ShortFuse, a London-based poetry venue. I’ve been performing in London on and off for the past several years and ShortFuse is one of my favorite venues so when they asked me to be part of their Edinburgh show I was extremely flattered and jumped on the opportunity. I premiered a one-person spoken word show called "Part-time Rock Star," about how being a touring poet is sort of like being a rock star but with a full-time job and second-hand clothes. Overall, I really enjoyed being around so many other artistic people. There were some annoying drama-school types there, but most of the artists I met and got to know were very serious, very talented individuals.

You wrote on your blog about how there were lots of families and kids at some of your performances who cringed at your use of curse words. If you could make a rating system like the MPAA for your works, what would it entail?
I really like that families bring their children to poetry and performance events. I think it’s important for kids to be exposed to all aspects of culture. However, as an artist I find it disconcerting to read some of my work in front of younger children. It’s not so much the curse words that are the problem. Everyone, including children hears curse words all the time. But there was a piece in my show called "Fluid" that talked about various sexual themes and I thought that was really inappropriate. During one show a woman walked out with her two daughters, who were about 10 or 11 and I didn’t take offense to that at all. Interestingly, the husband stayed on for the rest of the show! After that I asked our producer to warn parents with kids about the adult content in the show. I don’t know if I can rate my own work!

You made a small chapbook with your poem "Reasons to Stop," about getting sober. For someone who doesn’t drink, what are the best bars where you can comfortably do that?
I’ve been sober almost four years now. At this point not-drinking is as much a part of my life as drinking used to be. I’m really attracted to dive bars, I like the International on First Avenue in the E. Village. I really like Metropolitan in Williamsburg and of course Lucky 13, where I host my reading series. Basically, I’m happy anywhere I can comfortably kick back with a cold Red Bull and some good friends.

Both your chapbooks and your flyers are very artistically done, the chapbook fits in the palm of one’s hand and is covered in velvet, and you do individual flyers for
Atomic each month. You were also part of Jezebelle2000: The "Glam Lit Tour," so clearly appearance is important to you. What do you see as the connection between the presentation and the art?

I have been privileged to know so many talented artists; designers, photographers, etc. who have helped me out with my various projects. I have zero ability in the visual arts department, so if I had to do all this stuff myself, it wouldn’t look so good. As far as presentation, as a spoken-word performer, I learned very early on in my career that how you present yourself and your work is as important as the work itself. Unfortunately, in certain circumstances it’s sometimes more important.

You bill Atomic, your reading series held at Park Slope’s Lucky 13, as "The Reading Series with Something for Everyone" – How do you ensure that it does have something for everyone? What are your goals as a host and organizer of the series?
As an organizer, I try to put together a diverse reading that features various literary performers. Ideally I try to have one poet, one solo performer, one fiction writer and one essayist/memoirist. I feel that brings in a more diverse audience and writers from different genres get to meet and hear each other read. So it may not exactly be "something for everyone" but I hope it comes pretty close. As a host, I just enjoy being a ham and being able to present all these fabulous people.

What can we look forward to at Atomic?
Usually the reading takes place on the first Sunday of every month, but in January it will happen the second week on Jan. 9th to let people recover from the New Year's festivities. Right now, I’m booked through April and I have some really fantastic readers upcoming. In February, I’m doing a special "Led Zeppelin and Tits" edition of Atomic with the ladies from Atlanta’s Cliterati and Tim Wells, editor of Rising (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/boogiechillun/), a series of literary ‘zines. He’ll be in from London. You can check out www.cherylb.com/atomic for more info.

You’ve lived all over New York and now have settled in Sunset Park. What do you like and dislike most about where you live now? If you could live in any New York neighborhood, where would it be and why?
I like that it’s away from the general busy-ness of the city. Things close early around here and it’s very quiet. My bedroom window overlooks trees. Sunset Park is, I believe the highest point in Brooklyn and there’s an amazing view of the rest of the city from the top of the park. The hills and views almost remind me of San Francisco. Then again, I also dislike the quietness. Sometimes I wish there was more stuff I’d want to do in my own neighborhood. Before Sunset Park, I lived in Williamsburg for several years where there was just TOO MUCH going on to the point where I was beginning to feel like I lived in the middle of a surreal theme park.

There’s this great line in your poem "Nameless" where you're listing all these names you've been called and your voice drops really low and you say "a performance artist." What are the biggest stereotypes or misconceptions about performance artists? You’ve been doing poetry slam and public performances for over a decade; what’s changed the most about the scene for you?
Well, the reason I have that line in the poem is because I really don’t identify as a performance artist and often in reviews and press, and by people who see me perform, I am called one. I have nothing against performance art, and really good performance art can be amazing, but I don’t think that’s the correct way to describe my work. I like to think of myself as more of a storyteller or a literary performer. I actually haven’t participated in a poetry slam in 6 or 7 years, but people still think of me as a slam poet. I guess when you make a name for yourself doing something, it’s hard to transcend that label. I did get to judge the big poetry slam at Edinburgh this past summer and I have to say, I don’t think I can do it anymore.

A lot of your stories and poems are autobiographical, and we all know how small of a city New York can be, especially when you don’t want it to be. Has anyone ever given you drama over something you’ve written about them?
Amazingly no! Although I have some stuff forthcoming that might change that.

Since you’ve been around for so long and have probably performed your work at most NYC literary (and other) venues, what advice do you have for someone just starting out as a poet or spoken word artist?
Open mikes, although they can have their drawbacks, are probably the best place to have your work heard and to learn the art of performance. I think there are several going on in NYC now. A good place to look for literary events is www.poetz.com.

Do you think it’s harder to be an artist in New York, where it sometimes seems like everyone is working on some new project, band, book, or exhibit, or do you think that creative energy reproduces itself?
Yes and yes! It is harder to be an artist in New York, where EVERYBODY is an artist and it’s so expensive to live, work a full-time job, deal with numerous distractions, try to keep a relationship going or at least get laid once in a while all while doing your work. There’s that whole "Little fish in a big pond" effect. At the same time, the creativity does reproduce itself manifold. And I actually can’t imagine being an artist anywhere else.

Who do you consider part of your artistic community?
Talented people of all artistic stripes who work diligently and are congenial to their fellow artists. Wow that sounds pretentious! But I think that pretty much covers it.

Besides Atomic, what else are you working on?
I’m always writing new poems and essays and performing around town and in other cities. I have a few other projects in the works and I started a blog when I went to Edinburgh which I’ve been enjoying keeping up. And we just re-vamped my website. I’m also still renovating my apartment in Sunset Park which is quite a project in and of itself.


The next Atomic Reading Series takes place Sunday, January 9th at 7 pm at Lucky 13 Saloon, with Nichelle Stephens, Carolyn Connelly, Joanna Fuhrman and Bob Kerr reading. Find out more about Cheryl at her website and blog.

-- Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel