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Issue Date: 02/23/2006, Posted On: 2/23/2006

Lisa King, 1960 — 2006
Laura Kiritsy

Slam poet remembered for her caustic wit, on-stage brilliance

Oft-used adjectives to describe Lisa King, by those who knew her, onstage and off: Fierce. Honest. Sensitive. Charismatic. Butch.

“She was this older, tough-guy, punk, butch dyke that was like, so cool,” says Aliza Shapiro of Truth Serum Productions, who got to know King in the early 1990s. “And I either wanted to sleep with her or be like her.”

King mastered the art of the poetry slam in its earliest days, earning championship titles in competitions from here to San Francisco. Her performances crackled with anger, fiery wit and raw emotion, but most often it was her deep compassion for the underdog that gave power to her words. In one of her best-known works, “Bring Them Back!” she imagines Liberace rising from his AIDS grave, “So he can shove a crystal candelabrum up George Bush’s ass, till that bastard screams: ‘I’m racist and homophobic and that’s why I did nothing about AIDS.’ I WOULD do all this and more, just to slam the door on this insidious disease! So I can stop watching my friends die! So bigots disguised as religious leaders will stop claiming to know the truth about AIDS.”

King died of a heart attack at her home in Somerville on Feb. 13. She was 45. Funeral services were held on Feb. 21 at St. Mary’s Church in Randolph.

She was born in Boston and began writing poetry at age 11, inspired by her fourth grade teacher. At the urging of friends, she began reading her work publicly in 1988 and became a force in the burgeoning slam scene, both locally and nationally, in the early 1990s. She was part of the Boston Slam Team that captured first place at the 1993 National Poetry Slam in San Francisco and was an individual Boston Slam champ. King was the first winner, in 1996, of the Amazon Slam, an all-women’s competition that regularly drew standing room crowds to Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge. King was also interested in nurturing other performance poets, particularly in the queer community: In 1995, she founded the OutWrite Slam, a national competition for LGBT slam poets. Her work inspired countless others to grab the mic and let it rip: “Lisa King made me a poet,” wrote local performer Jaclyn Friedman to the weekly e-newsletter Boston’s Queer Agenda. “I still remember the instant I laid eyes on her, at a benefit for Boston NOW in 1995.  She was on fire with truth and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ A month later I entered my first slam and came in third. She won.”

King moved to New York in the late 1990s where she continued to make her mark with her words. In 1999 rock legend Joan Jett was thumbing through the Village Voice looking for something to do. She wound up at her first poetry slam, at Bluestocking’s Bookstore on the Lower East Side. King was onstage when Jett entered. There was a spark of recognition from King as their eyes met, but King continued to the end of her poem. She then told her audience she was going to do a poem she hadn’t planned to do that night.

“She proceeded to do this poem about seeing a band in a club and the poem was about the music and about the band,” Jett recalls. “And then I can’t recall the lines exactly, but it was something along the lines of, ‘and then it happened. I was hit with sweat, goddess sweat, Jett sweat,’ and it went on and on and on and finished.” King, it turns out, was a huge Joan Jett fan.

“She was so subtle about the way she did it,” Jett recalls of King’s ode. “There was no sort of, ‘fan panic’ in her face. It was really calm and cool.” Jett approached King after the reading to offer kudos for her work; King invited her out for coffee. “Normally I’m pretty armored. Normally I would have begged off and for some reason I didn’t. Lisa was fierce, and I felt very safe with her,” Jett recalls. The two became close friends, bonding over their love of rock n’ roll, punk rock, sports, politics and animals.

King moved back to the Boston area two years ago in order to re-establish a relationship with her family, from whom she was estranged for many years, according to musician Thalia Zedek, a close friend of King’s for 25 years. The bio on King’s 1996 chap book, Eyes Blinking Backward, notes that she was forced to leave home at 16 because of her sexuality.  Zedek says King had succeeded in mending some of her family relationships, particularly with one of her two brothers and her nephew.

But her unhappy early years clearly informed much of her work, as well as her interpersonal relationships. “I think she had a pretty tough childhood and I definitely think that influenced her a lot in terms of kind of being tough and fighting for herself and standing up for  her friends,” says Zedek. “She really fought hard to kind of be the person that she wanted to be through a lot of early disappointments. I think she grew up really having to fight to have her own identity.”
King dedicated Eyes Blinking Backward “to the memory of those children who have perished at the hands of those entrusted with their safety. And to those still suffering. Your cries fill every breath that utters the words in this book.”

If King was charismatic, she could also be caustic and difficult at times, said friends; her well-developed sense of humor often veered toward the sarcastic. “She was really funny,” says Zedek. “Sometimes in a really biting, sarcastic way, but not always like that. She really had this kind of tough attitude on the outside but she was a really, really sensitive person and really funny and really caring to her friends, very, very loyal to her friends.”

“She was hard and she was soft and she was loving and yet she was so intense,” says Jett, who notes that King was one of the few people who called her “Joanie.” “She was a paradox in action, you know? And I’m just glad that I got a chance to know her.”

King is survived by her mother Eileen King of Randolph; her father, William Sullivan of Scituate; a brother, Sean Sullivan of Randolph, brother Thomas Sullivan of Squantam, Caitlin Sullivan, a niece and Nathan Sullivan, her nephew.  Donations can be made in King’s name to the MSCPCA 350 Huntington Ave. Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.

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