Before Cheryl Burke became one of New York’s most celebrated queer poet-performers, her New Jersey high-school guidance counselor told her she’d better shoot for a career as a toll-road guard. The daughter of a fourth- generation longshoreman and a neurotic Italian-American housewife, Burke was an overweight teen whom no one expected to reach far beyond her blue-collar upbringing. Indeed, her aspirations weren’t appreciated-her father called her “fat as a house” and broke an “unbreakable” Corelle plate over her head when she got accepted to NYU.
Numb to her volatile household, young Cheryl laughed it off with a couple tabs of acid, packed her bags, and dove headfirst into the East Village art scene of the 1990s, where she reinvented herself as “Cheryl B.” She lost weight, became instant BFFs with queen-in-the-making Keith, and began writing and reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Things weren’t blissful, though-she drank herself into blackout states, and though she’d rather be with women, would often hook up with men because they were easier to meet (she called herself a “drunksexual”). Even as Burke developed her artistic voice and community, her life remained divided.
She was too blue-collar for the highbrow scene and too artsy-smart for her family; not queer enough for the East Village lesbians but not straight enough for her New Jersey kin.
The jacket copy for My Awesome Place promises “a rare authentic glimpse into the electrifying arts scene of New York City’s East Village during the vibrant 1990s.” For those familiar with Cheryl B’s work, it is an intimate look at the woman behind it. And in a way, her story does exemplify the experience of queer artist kids moving to New York from small towns across the country to find their voices and tribes. But readers craving a real overview of the scene and its players, or a more in-depth look at Burke’s actual work, may be left wanting.
The book’s real tension exists in beautiful, quiet moments–as when Burke first watches Keith don a curly auburn wig and cheap high heels to become his drag-queen alter ego. Keith became a symbol of Burke’s struggle to bridge the classes and cultures of her two worlds. Taking care of Keith when he gets cancer allows Burke to grieve her father’s death from the same disease. By finding her tribe, Cheryl B finds both integration and, eventually, sobriety.
Which makes her own untimely death that much sadder. In 2011, at just 38 years old, Burke died of complications from routine treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.It was her New York poet tribe that worked to compile My Awesome Place from the manuscript she left behind–and it’s a fitting tribute to a woman who finally found her “awesome place” among them.