Poetry for Southern California
Tributes to Merilene Murphy
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Los Angeles Times Obituary,
by Jocelyn Y. Stewart
G. Murray Thomas
Kevin Patrick Sullivan
Charles L. Chatmon
K. D. Green
Itibari M. Zulu
To every creative endeavor there is a practical side: the unglamorous work that aids and abets the art. At the World Stage in Leimert Park, a performance gallery where artists gather to share and hone their craft, Merilene M. Murphy was a poet and a master of the practical.
As a volunteer she helped book the featured poets who read their work each Wednesday night, upgraded the website, sent out a weekly update to keep artists informed and helped create a buzz about the good things happening at "The Stage."
Murphy's work on behalf of the institution was as much an expression of her love for poetry as the poems she read in front of audiences.
"It made so much of a difference having her here," said Jawanza Dumisani, director of literary programming for the World Stage. "She's been priceless to us."
Murphy, a literary activist and publisher known throughout Los Angeles for her support of poetry, died of cancer Feb. 2 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was 51.
A newly released collection, "Voices From Leimert Park: a poetry anthology," includes her work. She is also the author of "Under Peace Rising: Poems in English, Spanish and French," a collection of poems dedicated to peace.
"Her poetry was like listening to Thelonious Monk," said poet and friend Peter Harris. "If you expected a line to go where you thought it might, she always fooled you. It was always a better place where she took it."
Murphy was born March 20, 1955, in New Rochelle, N.Y., and raised there and in Harlem. Her mother, an educator, and her father, a World War II veteran, instilled pride in their daughter and expected achievement. When she was a young girl, Murphy was part of a lawsuit filed by her mother against the school board in New Rochelle, contesting the practice of school segregation, said her sister Diane Murphy of Los Angeles, who survives her, along with brothers Derek Miller and Kenneth Miller of New York.
The family won the lawsuit, and in the first grade Murphy and others were bused to a previously all-white school. It was in those very early years that she began writing poetry.
Murphy earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and international affairs at Iowa State University. In the 1980s she moved to Los Angeles and found a cultural home in Leimert Park and its burgeoning arts community. The Wednesday evening gathering at the World Stage, known as the Anansi Writers Workshop, consists of a featured poet, an open mike and a workshop. It requires a constant stream of talent, which Murphy helped supply.
"The caliber of the people she brought in was five-star: Wanda Coleman, Suzanne Lummis … Jervey Tervalon, S.A. Griffin, Talaam Acey — poet after poet, really, really great readings," said Dumisani.
An early participant in the Internet revolution, Murphy dubbed herself a "poet-tech" and in 1994 created Telepoetics, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and distributing poetry using telephone and Internet technologies. Using teleconferencing, Murphy gathered poets in Los Angeles and linked them to poets gathered in cities such as New York or Chicago for readings and dialogue about the arts.
"It was a revelation," said Harris. "I was still fighting the Internet back in those days … and she was already claiming it and using it."
For many years Murphy worked as a legal secretary, but her concern about young people and the health of the community often led her to work with nonprofit organizations, where she used poetry to heal. A year after a celebrated gang truce by the Crips and the Bloods, she organized a poetry festival, "Peace L.A.: The Poetics of Gang Truce."
"Poetry is my way of getting something going, bridging a gap," Murphy said in a 1993 interview with The Times. "The gang truce document is far-reaching. It's a working piece of art we can act on, help make real."
She led workshops for high school students, addicts in recovery, public school administrators. The starting point was the validation of each person's voice. Feisty, bold, full of opinions that she readily shared, Murphy never seemed to doubt the validity of her own voice.
"Merilene was loud," said her friend and fellow poet, Imani Tolliver. "Even though she was really loud, she was very gentle…. She really encouraged all of us to speak and to be."
Through Telepoetics, Murphy published other writers, including performance artist Keith Antar Mason.
As she lay in the hospital, poets visited and some read poetry to her. By then the illness had robbed her of the ability to speak. Her poems and those she inspired were left to speak for her.
let me begin as if i were — poet —
maker — creator
let me end as if — we are all poets
& then all's not lost between
At 2 p.m. on March 18, 2007, poets will pay tribute to Murphy at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. On March 21 at 7:30 p.m. a tribute will be held at the World Stage, 4344 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles.
Copyright Los Angeles Times
Merilene was a technological wizard. Self taught and light years beyond most people I knew in the field, she and I were sending files over phone lines in the mid-eighties when snail-mail ruled the day.
Merilene Murphy, who passed away February 3, 2007, was a hardcore multitasker for L.A. poetry. Besides being an excellent poet, she was, at various times, a host, producer, teammate and organizer. Above all she was a networker, bringing poets together from all over the world.
Merilene founded Telepoetics, an organization devoted to connecting poets through modern technology. In its early days, around 1990, that technology consisted of video phones, primitive compared to today’s videoconferencing, but at the time a great step forward. With two poets with video phones, one could put on readings in two separate cities simultaneously. Merilene put on many such Telepoetics readings, connecting poets from all over.
One of those readings particularly stands out in my mind, because of the influence it had on myself. In August 1994, she hosted a video-phone hook-up with the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, NC. It was a lovely summer day, and the reading, which was more of a party than a reading, was held in the shade of the trees in her backyard. We drank beers and chatted with the poets in North Carolina.
I had heard about the slams by then, but this was my first direct experience of them. They had a video-phone set up outside the auditorium where the finals were taking place. Poet after poet recounted what was happening there (as well as performing their own poetry). The excitement was palpable. I vowed I would be at the Nationals the next year. It was the beginning of a long connection between myself and the slams.
I have many other fond memories of Merilene—readings, parties, road trips to the Taos Poetry Circus and the National Slam in Portland Oregon. I am especially thankful for her help with Next... Magazine in the 90’s. She guest edited the Sept. 1996 issue, about poetry on the Internet. Her connections enabled us to cover the phenomenon at a time when most poets didn’t even have e-mail.
But I will always remember Merilene Murphy for her undying devotion to bringing poets together, for how she saw the potential of poetry to connect people.
weavers of community
family and tribe
hands that dressed
in peace regalia
and bridal trains
midwives of expression
with espresso urgency
and the sweetness
of stolen fruit
which have tamed
and trained ectoplasm
pulling browns and greens
lovers and strugglers
and trees and hills
from corpuscles and melanin
bone and teeth
crushing them to
rhythm and hues
canvas and oil
cowry and coconut shells
hanging her mural on stage
for our divination
as she now walks away
hands that have
and raised hell
played double dutch
and became restless
with black girls' dreams
hands that have cradled children
and brought gladness
hands that threw back
cigarettes and tequilas
that ushered laughter
like cloudbursts of
soaked cotton and vetivert
heady as good friendship
and early valentines
of Harlem and defiance
hands that wrote
regardless of paper or pen
of autumn maples
like ground cloves and warm honey
of woman and companion
soldier and damsel
Atlas and Prometheus
nimble and perpetual
kinetic and generous
tired and unfinished
said goodbye to me last night.
we spoke of parenthood
of life and responsibility
and the maturing of elders.
her hands were smooth
I traced Merilene's hands
where I remembered
the roadmaps and rivers
the drinks and dinners
the raucous belly laughs
between knuckles and nails
veins and skin
when I said good night
she held me firm
in these hands
striking the flints of our years
feeding me legacy
from the needles
of her embers.
and hers will ever glow
as long as we have
I worked briefly with Merilene Murphy at the Festival of Books (2004) when we had a booth for the National Writers Union, which we both belonged to. Merilene took flyers for our booth and went all over the UCLA campus that day passing them out to let everyone know about the Writer's Union booth. Nobody asked her to do this-she just did it to spread the word. That's how she was.
I didn't get enough chances to see her at events. I know she organized a lot of events in S. Central LA. I heard her read a few times and I remember that she was exciting and very much into slams. She was "down" for unusual poetry events such as the "Naked Word" reading in 1994.
A very good poet, a character, an activist. I am sorry to hear of her passing. Her contributions to the LA poetry scene will be missed.
a precious soul
come to rest.
Nature welcomes us
writers of poems
& when it's
to an idyllic place,
where written words
V E X E D & B E R E A V E D / March, 2007
I'm trying hard to write an elegiac poem for my dear friend, visionary poet Merilene M. Murphy. I've survived much loss during my life but her early death is difficult to assimilate. I can't focus. I'm tired, having expended a lot of energy railing at the universe. I'm angry! Why do legions of creeps and dunderheads linger until 80 while a bright light like Merilene is snuffed out? Mourning is often complicated by melancholia, so as I struggle to compose I am remembering...
Merilene delighted in life, especially poetry, in sharing it with others. It was her nature to share whatever she had. An invitation was often the beginning of our conversations, to her table once. She wanted to cook dinner for us. I knew she was the quintessential bachelorette. On the other hand, she was a nurturer. She was pure, even while swinging between tenderness and bitchiness. Well, she was a paradox, in many ways. "I'll make spaghetti!" "That's not necessary", I said, "we can go out, you know", but she insisted, setting up a card table, fashioning napkins out of paper towels and one point running to her neighbor's place to borrow forks. I think it's because we had our young son Lucas in tow. In her mind that was how you entertained a child, a family. You fed them. Food equals love after all. We chilled and chatted amidst the cozy, ordered chaos of her apartment. It was a wonderful evening, now, a treasured memory.
I first met Merilene several lifetimes ago, during my *surfing season*, as I refer to it, the years I spent living and working in Los Angeles, performing in its post-punk underground and spoken-word scenes. The 80s! Some of the happiest years of my life and essentially my youth, misspent or otherwise. I recall publishing her poetry in LA Weekly. At the time, one of the opportunities head honcho Jay Levin afforded me was editing my own poetry corner. Each week I published a poem accompanied by bold graphics, much in the style of my art and poetry 'zine, Rattler. Even then, I was trying to marry word with image. Still struggling to succeed with that enterprise I'm afraid but looking back I can see that I have indeed come a long way, baby.
Merilene was very excited, to the point of buzzing! We talked often about various Triple-M happenings, one being Telepoetics, the poetry reading-via-videophone series she was facilitating at the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica. To say I was intrigued would be an understatement. The process was all very nebulous at first but it made me happy for some reason to know that another audience thousands of miles away was enjoying the poetry with us.
Merilene and I became closer friends after I moved back to Vancouver and we began a long stint of collaboration on our virtual venture. Recently I came across this Web page from our electronic 'zine, The Edgewise Cafe, established in 1994, one of Canada's first. It is from 1999 and is mostly about Vancouver's Edgewise ElectroLit Centre but I hope it will give people some background on the work she did with many other Telepoetics sites and partners as well as ours.
Used televisions/video monitors dot the kitchen table and patio furniture and the aroma of barbecued Portuguese chicken tickles my nose between giggles at poet Jamie Reid's sublime ode to Baseball & Bowering. Must be the paprika. I'm always hungry since I've been nursing my son, big, beautiful Lucas Haley Raycevick. The Edgewise ElectroLit Centre (EEC) has transformed our tiny home into a performance space again and a bizarre cultural juxtaposition occurs. Angry young black men in Camden, New Jersey, rap to us as Miranda Pearson and I exchange infant sons between feedings and readings. She has a BBC accent and we're white girls to the extreme. Last month the EEC went to Bowen Island and set up in a lodge on the ocean complete with fireplace and an incredible view of Howe Sound. Robert Bringhurst recited his poetry in a deep, mellifluous voice. Most of the gumboots and Gore-Tex-clad islanders resented the drunk, black-leather-skinned cyberpunks railing at them from a bar in the Mission district of San Francisco. I loved every minute of it, and the mobility of the videophone.
My first Telepoetics experience was in 1991 at the Electronic Cafe International in Santa Monica. I had heard of proprietors Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. Their Hole in Space exhibition at the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival was a virtual coup d'état. It seemed no one had ever been so wildly innovative with video and telecommunications. Their work was fascinating but the upper echelon of LA's underground art scene intimidated me. Somehow word of Merilene Murphy's Friday night linkups filtered to the street. I'd been dogging the incredible boom of performance art in LA, courting Doug Knott's poetry videos and cable show. This wedding of verse and video was right up my alley, the interactivity aspect a bonus.
I finally dared enter a dimly lit Electronic Cafe for an exchange of spoken word with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Though located a desolate industrial park, the space itself was warm and inviting, a cozy L-shaped room with the stage at one end and the cafe at the other. Instead of lamps or candles, each table cheered patrons with the glow of a tiny video monitor. Merilene M. Murphy clucked around like a mother hen, shepherding the Carma Bums, directing the cameraman and diddling what appeared to be a little TV. Muffled shouts emanated from beneath a stack of newspapers from a writhing, versifying S.A. Griffin. Merilene pushed SEND. The television was actually a Panasonic videophone with the camera built in. Produced for a short time, many artist-run centers had acquired them to exploit as only artists can. The divine Ms. 3-M and I had crossed paths several times. I wrote art, music reviews and features for LA Weekly. The city's burgeoning spoken-word scene had been my beat since 1983, and Merilene's vital participation could not be overlooked. She was a veritable whirling dervish, world peace her mission. Later she would help initiate gang truces as part of a free Telepoetics workshop. Merilene as a poet and performer fostered the local coffee house scene as well.
As we huddled over our monitors, black-and-white video still pictures traveled to the other site at about three to five frames a minute. Several plebeians whined, "this is lame, man." I was excited. So this is guerilla broadcasting. No it's not MTV but I appreciated the lack of commercials. Merilene later explained that the move was toward computers and desktop videoconferencing but for now the videophone was relatively inexpensive, flexible and portable. Not everyone has a computer after all. Still jazzed about Telepoetics upon my return to Vancouver in 1993, I was itching to get back in the saddle after living on an island for a year. Waxing poetic at parties, I got in people's faces about this wonderful exchange of words and culture. Why not do it here? Why aren't these Internet cafes doing Telepoetics already? I remembered the Western Front, an artist-run centre in Vancouver that had been producing electronic art events since the late 70's. I did some research and realized they were long-time collaborators with ECI. In addition, there was the Banff Centre with a complete Inter-Arts department that had been into multimedia since that time. In fact there existed a whole network of people exchanging art and images, music and even poetry.
Then I found out I was pregnant. Recuperating from an ugly divorce, I had been looking forward to the future as a single woman, at least for a little while. You make plans and God laughs. At 38 years of age, it was definitely now or never. The father, musician Michael Raycevick agreed and we did the best we could to feather a nest. After the first trimester of nausea, fatigue, recriminations and doubts ended, new hormones kicked in and I felt like a powerhouse. My friends and I pushed ahead with plans to form a non-profit organization that used technology and the Internet to showcase Canadian poets and writers. We're populists and decided we would feature spoken word along with poetry from established literary canons. Things began to take shape, including me.
I contacted Merilene to see if we could link up from Vancouver using videophones. She was characteristically thrilled. "You go, girl!" We were fortunate to have some of Vancouver's most talented artists and writers participating. We formed a board of directors, set up the organization, the Edgewise Cafe & Electronic Literary Society, and applied for funding. Vancouver Cultural Alliance Director Derek Dowden oversaw plans for the Web site and electronic magazine. Visual artist and Emily Carr instructor Neil Campbell helped formulate the constitution and bylaws. Michael and audio engineer Andy Matovich were in charge of Tech with the assistance of cameramen Jon Anderson and Ken Sullivan. Vancouver Sun Graphics Designer Victor Bonderoff conceived the logo, brochure and posters. I met author Michael Turner who introduced me some of Vancouver's best writers and poets, for which I am eternally grateful.
We began producing our first linkup with Merilene and Los Angeles. scheduled for October 4, 1994, and contacted Hank Bull and Rob Kozinuk at the Western Front. They were very gracious and generous with their assistance, equipment and space. We had a stellar lineup: Sheri-D Wilson, Jamie Reid, Neil Eustache and Alexandra Oliver made it a memorable event. Though there wasn't much time for promotion, it seemed more journalists turned up at the event than poets. CBC, CTV, the Vancouver Sun and The Province, the city's two daily newspapers, all covered the event, which fueled our mission and lent it credibility. Lucas was born less than three weeks later, on October 23.
We were ambitious and assumed we'd find a physical site. Four years later, the Edgewise ElectroLit Centre has gained a reputation for giving good Telepoetics and still doing shows on the fly with a small home office as headquarters. I know we could accomplish so much more with an actual, rather than virtual, cafe and meeting place, replete with cameras, computers and all the necessary equipment. Today the EEC utilizes computer and videoconferencing software as much as possible but we find the most viable medium is still the videophone. CU-SeeMe looks like crap and the audio is always a major problem. Who's got the bandwidth? Certainly not many individuals. If the Edgewise had a bank of computers, reams of software and infinite on-line time, we could eventually produce flawless on-line connections and exchanges. We're limited to point-to-point linkups and sites with exactly the same equipment and software. There is very little standardization in the electronics industry. Somehow the Edgewise and the Telepoetics network have managed to overcome most of these limitations. Our vision often exceeds our technical means but we still deliver the goods. We pull off incredible feats with a minimum of resources. Few people know that.
The most exciting aspect of this whole adventure has been the opportunity to meet people. Many players in Canada's literary scene are remarkable individuals as well. I've also discovered a whole community online, and virtual friends like Kurt Heintz, Bob Holman and Janan Platt.
Why did I start this endeavor while I was pregnant? Why take on so much work just as I was about to give birth to my first child? Am I nuts? I realize that I was terrified at the prospect of such an all-consuming role and needed to prove I was more than a mom. Being a good mother is more than enough of a challenge though.
I'm fortunate to have firebrand Merilene for an advocate and as Kurt says, Telepoetics is a vehicle toward self-actualization. The only history we can change is that which hasn't happened and I am struggling toward my future as a mother, poet, Web publisher, media hacker and writer. The Edgewise ElectroLit Centre and its directors are not technocrats but it is vital for artists, poets and writers to be fluent in technology. Our emphasis has always been on the word, self-expression and autonomy. We in Telepoetics are making ourselves manifest. It's a righteous feeling and one that we will never surrender.
—from The Edgewise Cafe, Vancouver, 1999
I first met Merilene M. Murphy in 1992 when she came up to read at the 9th Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. She came up with Laurel Ann Bogen. They both read on Saturday evening. They came up early, as I was having a party for the readers that afternoon and our friendship blossomed. We first became friends over the phone. She called to see if Laurel Ann Bogen and herself could come up to read . By the time I hung up, I was so intrigued by this loud, laughing, straightforward human being, I could not wait to meet her. What a spirit—so bright and honest, so deeply involved in her community and her belief in words as the catalyst to change. That afternoon when they arrived I fell in love. Merilene and her poetry were beautiful.
I have a picture from that party of Merilene playing a recorder as if she were the pied piper of Peace, Love and Poetry.
At the Excellent Reading series. which I ran at The Excellent Center for Art and Culture in Grover Beach, February, 1994, for Black History Month, she featured with a TELEPOETICS —Videophone Teleconference featuring "POECENTRIC AFREECANS" between the Center in Grover Beach and her Telepoetics Studio in Hollywood. The poets in Hollywood were guest host E. L. Rivera, Willie Sims, Isoke, Kali Nurigan, Pam Ward, Sarah Baranian and Adwin Brown, and up in Grover Beach, they were myself as host, Merilene M. Murphy, Jemela Mwelu, Jamal El-Salaam, Gregory Gregory, Toni Wynn and Sojouner Kincade-Rolle. Yes we made history that day. What an exchange—Grover goes to Hollywood and vice-versa. Over the years she read up here numerous times for the Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival and for the monthly Corners of the Mouth reading, to the delight of our audience. She was well respected and deeply appreciated on the Central Coast. She became part of our history.
Last summer at the African Marketplace here in Los Angeles, I invited Merilene Murphy, a spoken-word artist and publisher of Telepoetics, her company to join the authors who were part of the Literary Village. I had the pleasure of spending three weeks with her and even shared space with her in the Village. She was a great poetess, man, one of the best, you hear me? ONE OF THE BEST! She had a style to which her poetry flowed and set to music, was outstanding. I miss her already, I really do.
I remember the first time we met back in 2004. We met of all places at the Los Angeles Black Book Expo which ironically, I'm heading up now. Merilene was in charge of the spoken-word/poetry open mic and she was gracious enough to allow poets like myself the opportunity to say what was on our hearts. Merilene was like that, always willing to give someone a chance to read their words. She was great.
Over the years, I've emailed her back and forth alerting her about certain events that would come up, including last year's Summer Salad sponsored by Special Thoughts Reading Group here in Los Angeles. You could tell Merilene was from New York and would let you know if you crossed her or not. She was someone you didn't want to mess around with but she was also the nicest of people, and real.
Merilene was proud to publish other authors through her company Telepoetics as she sought to do her part in making the spoken word community in Los Angeles even better. I remember how excited she was when I sent her an email and told her I would be taking over the L.A. Black Book Expo. She wanted it to thrive as much as I did and I wanted her to be a part of it this year......and she will be. I promise you that, she will be.
Merilene was not only my friend, but she was a friend to many other people. All I can say is that we will miss Merilene, but I thank the Lord for blessing us in having a friend like her.
Charles L. Chatmon
L.A. Black Book Expo 2007
I just heard about the passing of Merilene and I am truly saddened to hear about our loss. I first met her a few years ago at the Black Book Expo here in Los Angeles. We became reacquainted this summer during the African Marketplace. When she saw me, she ran over and gave me the biggest hug and kiss on the cheek. I noticed that Merilene hugged just about everybody that day. She was so full of life and constantly talking about future poetry projects that we and other authors would collaborate on.
As Merilene and I waited to perform later that day, I mentioned how thirsty I was and that I forgot to bring a bottle of water. Merilene jumped up and said, "I'll go and get water for the both of us." She came back with two cold bottles. My heart melted from her thoughtfulness. I gave her a big hug of thanks.
Merilene read about five poems that day and I enjoyed everyone of them. I was able to learn a lot about her just from hearing her read. I was scheduled to go on stage next. As I walked on stage, Merilene introduced me and then she gave me another big hug and whispered in my ear, "Good Luck K. D.!" I whispered back, "You were phenomenal Merilene!" Her smile was electric. She seemed to float off stage. When I finished performing, Merilene jumped up and hugged me again with congratulations.
I think most of all, I remember Merilene's sincere kindness. I only met Merilene twice, but I will never forget her.
Rest in peace Merilene. You will be missed.
K. D. Green
Merilene M. Murphy, our dear sister has joined the
ancestors. I had the opportunity to meet Merilene as we organized the
Los Angeles Black Book Expo in 2004 and 2005, hence she became very
active and was on our executive committee, adding her many talents.
I am sure she is speaking volumes of poetry now, as she did in and around California. We will miss her presence, but we will always fill her energy.
Itibari M. Zulu
I met Merilene when we both lived in L.A., I believe in the early nineties, around 1990. Merilene was doing her groundbreaking work with Telepoetics in Santa Monica back then, and we were both involved with the World Stage in Liemert Park. I moved from L.A. in 1994 but we would keep up with each other via sporadic emails, calls, and of course, through poetry. I'd run into her when in L.A., SF & I believe she came to Naropa one summer. For awhile it seems she was everywhere.
Merilene last contacted me when my son died. I was touched by the love and memory she had of him. I'm sure they're hanging out now somewhere in the big out there world.
Merilene was alive, alive, alive. I'll always love her for being, embodying, poetry, making it a living thing. And that laughter of hers.
She is one of the great ones.
Brooklyn, NY May 10, 2007