when we meet each others' eyes:
presented at the Merilene Murphy memorial at Beyond Baroque
Venice, California, Sunday 18 March 2007
by Kurt Heintz
On 2 February 2007, Merilene M. Murphy passed away at Cedars Sinai Hospital, Hollywood, California. She was 51. Murphy was a well-known and -loved poet in greater Los Angeles, with many collaborators around the world. She was a leader in videoconferencing performance poetry, and a revered peace activist, helping broker a gang truce in Los Angeles when the violence became particularly hard to bear.
Merilene founded the Telepoetics network in 1993, the first stand-alone network for sharing live performance poetry by videophones. Network participants embraced -- and sometimes hacked -- those devices and the other emerging technologies of the day. Telepoetics was constituted by fellow poets and allied media artists, like Merilene, outside mainstream institutions. The e-poets network descends from Telepoetics; e-poets founder Kurt Heintz, along with Heather Haley, were Merilene's first "on-the-wire" collaborators in Telepoetics.
Where are we when we meet each others’ eyes? Are we in our own bodies and minds, merely casting our gaze across clear air to meet an other? Or are we inhabiting that other person for just that moment, dwelling in communion?
We all know that we feel a little more vulnerable when people look at us. Who among us hasn’t said, “Stop looking at me!” when we were children, teased by our siblings or neighborhood kids. We know the power of the gaze even in our most infant moments. When a baby looks up, it seeks its mother’s eyes.
What infants, mothers, and all the rest of us know, we take for granted. But what happens, when we put a voice to some abstract words we may have read, when we hear a poet’s voice? What happens when we see the face, meet the eyes who speak with that voice? Where are we when we take in that gaze of a stranger uttering that poem, when that poem speaks for an Other who is so different from us, but nevertheless inhabits us in a moment? What kind of communion is this, and what does it mean?
Merilene Murphy is the woman who introduced me to a world where these questions came alive and gave me purpose that I never saw coming. She knew that sharing such a gaze in the moment of a poem wasn’t just for mediacrats, published authors, research fellows, librarians, or Big Science. It could serve all who embraced it. It was a fire she brought home to share, and kindled in minds around the world. I never knew what hit me ‘til it was over: The Community of the Moment. The demise of McLuhanism and the myth of the Global Village. The dawn of aural literacy. A cascade of ideas inhabits me today that only the 1990s, some cracking good poets, and a little technology could elucidate.
Another thing we take for granted is the labor of such a person, how Merilene served us, how she mentored us, how she cultivated us as such a community of conscience in spite of our geography. We know she was not the first to deploy videophones for poets, but she was the first to put them where we, the writers, lived: in the homes, in the dialogues and cultures that we inhabit.
Kimmerlin Benjamin, an LA writer, read a poem for us in Chicago on the v-phone, in one of our early link-ups with Merilene in 1994. The poem made an indelible impression on me. It was called “Where was all the poets at?” Benjamin talks plainly but emphatically about her urban streets, coping with the gangs, the violence, the drugs, and the hard life. But in all that, as Ms. Benjamin says, she, “didn’t see no poets.” Benjamin’s testament is amplified as a poem, and Merilene was indeed there to take our audience to that poem, to let us embrace it and respect it, and allow it to catalyse us.
I have to tell you as a man who has spent his life with computers since 1973, who has helped or witnessed other writers elucidate their own literature in new media from UCLA to the New School, to independent theaters in Chicago, Merilene was a true pioneer. For Merilene, however, all the labor and expense of putting this together had only one purpose: peace by any medium necessary. That said, I stand back to regard her life now, and see a resemblance to an earlier pioneer.
Merilene is an Ida B. Wells of our present, a woman who took a form of communication, what was once the privilege of the powerful, and deployed it for peace and justice. She links us all, to make change not just palpable, but real. When like minds know the power of this communion, good happens. That is a power that burns in all of us, thanks to Merilene. Let us honor her and keep her flame close, as we build upon her life’s work.