Memory: In Two Parts
Guest post by Brandon Mead
Part One: Three Days Later
The following words were written on June 15th, 2016
When my sister turned twenty-one, I spent all night holding back her hair in one of the gender-neutral bathrooms at Pulse. When I heard how many people had crowded in that same tiled room attempting to hide…that same space...that same stall…
Up until a few nights ago I thought the worst thing that could happen at that night club was getting my heart broken. I've done everything between those three connected rooms that are now surrounded by police tape. The drag stage where we held hands and watched our friends perform, the dance floor where we kissed and laughed, the bar lounge where I knew it was time to go home the moment he ordered tequila shots for anyone standing nearby.
I’ve gone through a lot of emotions between those walls; fallen in love in the spaces not bathed with bright light. And very recently, watched the man I love fall out of love with me.
Truth is, before any of this happened, I was afraid to go back. I was scared to lean against the glass wall out front near the small parking lot or push the heavy metal beads at the entrance aside. I was terrified I would see him smiling on the other side or dancing with someone else under the colored lights. Terrified—that word suddenly means something so different.
When I saw the pictures in the newspaper yesterday, I noticed the transparent wall had been shattered to pieces by bullets. The fence around the porch bar was torn to pieces to carve an escape route for anyone who was lucky to be under the night sky when the shooting started.
The way I found out was a hard pounding on my door at 7a.m. The last thing I had told my best friend the night before was that I was going to Pulse. It would have been my first time there since the breakup and it wasn’t that I was ready to risk bumping into him again, but I needed to be under those colored lights. I needed to feel the bass. I needed to watch some queens and go-go boys under the paper lanterns and strobes. To feel everything pumping against the interior walls like the vibrations could cleanse me of my sadness. My plan was to drink just enough to be able to sober-up before I had to worry about my car getting towed from one of the side streets with free parking.
When the banging on my apartment door got increasingly louder and constant, I jumped up and opened it, still in my underwear. Tears streaming down her face, my friend stood on the threshold, framed by an early morning sun, and simply whimpered out, "I thought you were gone."
At that precise moment, I couldn't comprehend the magnitude of how my sensitive stomach after some heavy take-out food may have saved my life. How it had kept me from leaving the house the night before and changing my original plan to dance away my sadness.
In the hours that followed, I received more texts and calls than I ever have in a single day, all asking the same question, "Are you okay?"
I even got one from him. The guy I had been so afraid to run into. And breaking through the silence we had mutually kept for weeks to cement the decision of not remaining friends after going our separate ways, we exchanged something simple, "I'm glad you're safe."
It was the moment I learned not even a broken heart can change the primal instinct to just want someone else to be okay.
For three days nothing has seemed real.
When the 49 bells tolled at the vigil they hung in the air for hours. Each one sending a shock wave through the crowd as locals, news crews, and celebrities stood together blending tears with sweat in the Florida humidity.
People on the news say they are with us in Orlando and I still can't believe they're talking about the city I've lived in for almost ten years, the place I call home, the bar I grew up in. I find myself today picturing each corner of the club, wondering if there's still glitter on the floor. Wondering if we will ever truly begin to heal from a word I would have hoped to only hear in a gay club after a particularly brutal drag lip sync battle. Massacre.
But it's setting in, this happened...it really happened.
When early morning on the 12th turned into evening, we gravitated toward each other. Lost and afraid, as Darcel Stevens stood on the Disco Stage at The Parliament House. No day drag, no makeup, no heels. Just a large man with wet eyes trying to hold it together, telling us through strained breaths, "Babies, this is real, and I’m just not sure I have the words."
Coming from a queen who can turn a thirty-minute show into a two hour show just through her talent of interacting with the crowd, if a Darcel says there are no words, only silence and togetherness, then you know it's true.
We lost people in a place meant for fun, love, and acceptance. There are no platitudes comforting enough. No drink specials or remixed songs to ease this pain. We are a city mourning in unison. We are a community covering our windows and storefronts in rainbow flags that may never come down.
Taking in the view from three days since that night, we will continue to cry, as we reluctantly embrace our newfound distinction as the location as one of America's largest mass shootings. But I know one day Orlando, glamor queen she is, will pull her wig down from the shelf and get back on stage. And when she does, we will not be afraid, we will be there with dollar bills.
Part Two: Five Years Later
The following words were written on January 15th, 2021
I can remember being patted down and scanned with a metal detecting wand outside of Southern Nights while traffic whizzed by on Bumby Ave. When I went to The Parliament House again, security was tight but the tips for performers flowed. Queens stood on either side of the stage picking cabbage from the grateful hands of a community who needed to learn how to smile again.
What sticks in my memory most is the strange uncertainty of every deep inhale among a southern metropolitan area suddenly decorated with rainbow flags. As the City of Orlando painted the arches of the Lake Eola amphitheatre in every shade of pastel, I still couldn’t pass the corner of Kaley Street and Orange Avenue without losing all the breath in my lungs. People were in the clubs again, we were trying to recover, but a proper exhale still felt far away.
Lying on the tall grass during Pride in October that first year, I heard the 49 names read before fireworks burst into iridescent rainbows across the night sky. The colorful explosions resonated not unlike the bells that had vibrated only months before. Faces of every shade and age played on a slideshow between the newly painted arches of the amphitheatre and each one looked familiar. I had probably seen them around town or in the clubs before, but I remember wishing I’d become acquainted with the victims under better circumstances.
On a warm June night, at the one year anniversary, angels with structured wings blocked us from hate as we all took in the art and painted stones at what had been transformed into a physical memorial. The pavement below my feet still shook like running from the parked car to the front door to make it there before the 11pm free cover ended, but the new energy of another sense of urgency pulled at my insides. People had run for a different reason in that parking lot and we were here to remember them.
Feeling the thunder beneath me, I wondered if I would see the guy who had broken my heart the June before. If we’d hug and finally verbalize the words we’d texted each other when we’d heard about what happened. But in the silence of the collected crowd, I couldn’t feel anything aside from tears on my cheeks and melted wax from remembrance candles dripping down my fingers. I peeled at the wax. I pushed a sleeve across my wet eyes. Maybe he’d moved away, but standing in the humid evening still waiting to breathe, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
That wasn’t why I relocated to the desert. It wasn’t because I needed to escape the city I’d woven tightly with strips of my broken heart. When I found myself in Las Vegas it was the summer of 2018. Nearly two years to the day since the word “Pulse” had been changed from the name of a nightclub to a recognized synonym for tragedy.
Coworkers at the show on The Strip I started working for often grabbed my hands when I told them I had moved from Orlando. They looked in my eyes and we nodded to each other without the right words to say. This was a year after Sin City’s own gun-related hardship.
These coworkers told me their stories. How they had spent hours trapped inside a circus tent with hundreds of performers and guests while gunshots echoed from Mandalay Bay down the line of hotels and casinos. They huddled in their uniforms with people in suits and gowns, until the sun rose and the sounds finally stopped.
As different as the circumstances were, there was something we shared about living through a similar aftermath. That feeling of never truly knowing when things would be okay.
Miles from that venue, the LGBTQ+ Center in Vegas was so far off-strip I had to dodge cactus and tumbleweeds in the parking lot every week. Across from a gender-neutral bathroom inside where I met with queer writers, was a stretched banner that said, “Our Hearts are in Orlando.”
Volunteers at the front desk told me the banner had been hanging since June of 2016 and there were no plans to take it down. I told them when we heard about the shooting on October 1st, 2017, when they had worried for the safety of their own friends and family, Orlando had lent our hearts to them too.
Orlando Strong. Vegas Strong.
The vinyl bumper stickers on cars with glitter, poker chips, and playing cards around their license plates instead of oranges, fish, or Mickey Mouse reminded me every day then, this could happen anywhere. Even in cities designed for fun.
Working walking distance from the site of another major tragedy wasn’t the reason I left the desert. After having lived in Orlando for a decade, I can’t explain what turned me into a nomad. But a few months ago, from over three-thousand miles away in Seattle, I watched Darcel Stevens say goodbye in a live video from the mainstage of another Orlando queer bar about to lay in ruins.
The details are different. It was capitalism, not hate, that set the demolition in motion. But from the evergreen trees and snowcapped mountains of the Pacific Northwest, my heart aches heavy for the queer people of Central Florida who keep losing their homes.
It was The Parliament House, the remodeled Rodeway Lodge that had welcomed everyone since the 1980s, who caught the tears of a community when Pulse went from night spot to monument. When she turned her last look to become a wall of memorials. A corner in the center of Orlando for queer people from across the world to pay their respects.
What I know for sure is, regardless of how often I get back to see the Lake Eola swans or grab a latte at one of the best independent coffee shops in the world, part of me will always live in the center of the Mills 50 district. The man I call my boyfriend now, understands.
Like me, he can describe every section of Downtown Orlando, Ivanhoe, and College Park. We can trade stories about nights spent at Pulse, even if we never met on the dance floor.
Not unlike the 49 people whose names I wish I had learned sooner... the ones who I probably clapped at a drag show next to, or waited in a bathroom line with… the people I so easily could have been among five years ago; we were part of the same community...even if we'd never shaken hands.
Sometimes I think about the black light paint on the mirrors at Pulse. I picture the paper lanterns that hung from the ceiling and how they swayed above smiling faces flecked with speckled disco ball light. My heart thumps in time with music I can still hear when I remember every corner of a space that changed my entire life.
I’m not totally sure when I started breathing again, but I do know, no matter where I am in this world, I will not forget that place or those people.
Three days, five years, forever.
Guest post by Robin Mimna
Most writers who have put their work out there have at least one regret that stands out among the buckets of rejection that rain down on them. That one agent or publisher you felt an instant connection with. The one you knew in your soul would not only get your ideas, but champion your work like no other could.
For me, that’s Graywolf Press. In retrospect, I aimed pretty high and it wasn’t publication, but a paid remote internship I was after. Advertised on Instagram, I was one of Graywolf’s 44,000+ followers who got the update the day this “small press” posted the position. I became infatuated with the idea of beginning my publishing career with such a lofty internship and poured over the requirements. Graywolf primarily works with established authors or academics like Claudia Rankine, author of Just Us: An American Conversation. And unlike the scores of younger, college age applicants all over the country, I was over forty with a fulltime job, limited flexibility and not much experience to bring to the table. Nevertheless, I threw myself into writing a killer cover letter outlining why all the knocks against me were irrelevant, and why I was (obviously) the best person for the job.
Founded in 1974 by Scott Walker, Graywolf Press started out as limited hand sewn chapbooks. In 1984 it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and later moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Today Graywolf publishes about 30-40 books a year, mostly poetry, memoirs, essays, novels, short stories and translations. Occasionally, they will have an open period or contest, but otherwise does not accept unsolicited submissions. They vet most of their authors through magazines, writing conferences and agented submissions. In short, it’s an exclusive press.
In preparation for my grand application. I haunted Graywolf’s website and social media. While doing research, I purchased several of their books, including The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. It’s an intimate view from the point of view of someone who struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness.
I spent weeks working on my application, which included a cover letter and a thousand-word analysis of a book of my choosing. I settled on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Not just because it’s one of my favorites, or because I’ve read it a million times, but it’s also right in line with what Graywolf publishes. Bauby’s short memoir is a day dream-nightmare into his transition from able-bodied, womanizing editor of Elle magazine in Paris, to bed-bound quadriplegic. After a massive stroke took out Bauby’s brain stem, he was diagnosed with “locked-in-syndrome.” This left him unable to move beyond a slight swivel of his head and a single blinking eye, yet his mind fully intact. Using a translation alphabet designed specifically for him, he was able to blink out his memoir using his left eyelid. He did this without losing a hint of his sharp sarcasm or high humor. Sadly, Bauby died two days after the book’s publication.
With the confidence of someone suffering from her own massive stroke, I whisked my application over to Graywolf, wishing only that I could stand over the shoulder of the lucky editor who got to read MY perfect and inspired analysis.
I wish I could write you a happier ending to this story, but this isn’t fiction. During the reading period I checked my e-mail in fifteen-minute intervals and picked up my phone every time it rang. (So many expired car warranties…) But no offer came, and no e-mail was sent. Obviously, I didn’t get the internship. I didn’t even get a rejection. I found out I didn’t get the job when they announced on their website a few weeks later they’d filled the position. I’m totally fine by the way. I hardly ever talk about it publicly anymore. (I’m not crying, you’re crying)
Graywolf posted two new paid internships this year. Although conducted remotely, all applicants must reside in California, Hawaii, Minnesota, or New York for the duration of the internship. Maybe they figured out offering a national paid internship in the middle of a global pandemic would yield more applications than they cared to review.
It’s clear breaking into publishing in the modern age is a complicated process, but not impossible. Take your shots when you have the chance and move on from the rejections. My writing might not be sophisticated enough to grab Graywolf’s attention, but you never know. Paying dues sometimes means finding opportunity in the failures. I ended up using my grand analysis for a literature class later that year and got a B+ on it. Perhaps it wasn’t the inspired piece of iconic work I imagined it was, but it got me through a tough spot while I was struggling with my Spanish II final so, I’ll call it a win. Adios!
Editing and revision can be incredibly hard work, but useful tools can help make the process easier. Over the past few months, I've been keeping a list of my favorite items I use to pour over manuscripts. Everything listed below is something I have in my house and am giving first-hand recommendations for. Hopefully you will find something that helps you be a little more productive so you can reach your editing and revision goals.
1. These red pens are great for marking up printed pages. The thicker tip is perfect for making those added commas stand out. Plus, I get a whole box so I can always grab a new pen when I leave the other one in some mystery place in the house.
Get a pack of 12 on Amazon, $14.99.
2. This might be one of my favorite purchases of all time for my home office: a coffee warmer. How did I ever live my life without one?! My kids always want 10,000 things in the mornings and I used to microwave my coffee at least three times every morning. Not anymore! I make my cup and set it on this warmer and it's just the right temperature whenever I can manage to take my next sip.
Mr. Coffee coffee warmer, $11.99 on Amazon.
3. Sitting in a chair all day can be hard for your back and bum, but I love this super-comfy chair cushion you can pop on any desk chair. Memory foam and cooling gel? Yes, please!
Get it on Amazon for $33.95. Your bum will thank you.
4. Staring at a screen for a long period of time can be really hard on your eyes. That's why I like to put on these stylish blue light blocking glasses. They have ten different styles to choose from and keep the headaches at bay.
They are only $19.95 on Amazon, which is cheaper than a visit to the eye doctor!
5. Here is an item I use every. single. day: a portable laptop desk. You can use this bad boy while working on the couch, in bed, or as a standing desk. It's so versatile, I use it more than my regular desk!
It's worth the investment; $49.99 on Amazon.
6. Sometimes it takes me a while to get focused, or to stay focused on editing. That's why I like to light up my lavender Yankee Candle. It makes me calm and relaxed so that I can let go of distracting thoughts and focus on my work.
I love this candle brand because they last a long time and the scent carries well. $22.99 on Amazon.
7. You know, I used to tease people who had wireless mice. Why do you need an extra mouse when you have one right there on your laptop? Then I was gifted one. So. Much. Easier. I get it now, and not only that, I'm a huge fan. I love how this cute wireless mouse has so many color choices.
And for only $11.99 on Amazon, it's a steal. (Can you tell I love purple??)
8. There's nothing better for bringing attention to a part of your manuscript than a great highlighter. What I love about these highlighters is the quality of the ink and how you can see how much you have before it goes out.
Plus they have great precision tips. Get them on Amazon for $9.97.
9. I don't mess around when it comes to being comfortable. Cozy slippers are definitely a must-have for me to get any work done at home. These ones are my tried-and-true brand that I can also run outside in to roll the garbage can down when I hear the truck coming. They also have cute colors.
I already had a purple pair, so the current ones are pink. $24.99 on Amazon. Guys, I asked my husband for his slipper recommendation. He likes this shoe-looking style slipper.
10. Let's face it. Editing and revision can be boring. So boring that you might start to nod off. I have a trick to wake myself up and get refocused: chewing on crushed ice. I am kind of picky about the size of the crunched up ice chips. This ice crusher makes the PERFECT SIZE ice chips to munch on and wake yourself up.
For $36.47 on Amazon, it's worth every penny for each hour it buys me.
11. I will confess, my husband teases me about this one, but I do not care. This sleek plastic ruler makes me slow down and focus on a manuscript line-by-line.
The transparency allows me to see the next line if I need to, while keeping my eyes on the current one. It's only $2.69 on Amazon and a cheap, easy tool to stay on task.
12. Ginseng is a wonderful supplement for brain health. I asked my doctor what brand of vitamins she recommends, and her answer was Now brand. This ginseng supplement can help boost your brain power.
Get a bottle of 250 capsules on Amazon for $18.33.
13. If you get nothing else on this list, GET THIS. The Chicago Manual of Style is the number one tool I use while editing, personally and professionally.
There is nothing like being able to go straight to the rule book to answer your grammar and convention questions. This book is HUGE, 1146 pages, which is why it costs $29.62 on Amazon. BUT, you will use it over and over and over again, and have the satisfaction of knowing you've gotten it right.
Well, there you have it. Those are my must-have favorite tools for editing and revision. Now get that manuscript and get to work!
*Note: I signed up for an Amazon affiliate account after I made my list, so if you make a purchase, I may get a small commission...so I can buy more slippers!
Guest post by Randy A. Gerritse
This simple statement, which eventually became the title of my first ever poetry book after spending over a year writing daily poetry prompts on Twitter for the #vsspoem hashtag, may not be what it seems. This is not a conclusion, an endpoint. If anything, it signaled the start of my personal journey, a first stepping stone if you will to learning the craft of prose.
My first thoughts on the essence of poetry were on what it is not—that is, what it’s not to me, born from my early frustration with the most widespread form of poetic expression—forced structures of rhymes, connecting every other line in subjects mostly related to love. I felt that there had to be more to this poetry thing. In certain ways, I still do.
You see, I’ve always been a watcher on the sidelines, trying to make sense of the world and its many moving parts, fascinated by the little things that people seem to think that matter, and the big things they dismiss without a second thought. I have always studied patterns of expression and behavior. They intrigue me. As a species, we seem to love these recognizable templates of identity, of communication, of, well, everything. Just pick a form and fill in the blanks—voila, that’s you. Or at least, so the world always seemed to me, call me a cynic.
Today, roughly three years into my poetry journey of discovery of both my inner and outer realities, through even deeper than my usual levels of observation and introspection, what I’ve learned is that this thing we call poetry is highly personal. It is the expression of a moment, a feeling, an observation, in naught but words. It is the art to convey what these most human of time capsules meant to the narrator at their moment of conception, to an unknown future reader—more often than not, a future self.
Where I am now in my journey, is far from where I started. If I look back at my earliest work—still devoid of any punctuation—I see someone who I barely recognize, and not just in the choice of subject matter. My style of writing is still highly lyrical, but over the years my patterns have shifted, reflecting my changing insights and the changes in my everyday reality.
My early work, by a self who despised simple rhymes, despite their already distinct rhythms, these poems are riddled with cliches and naive preconceptions—shifted truths no longer my own. Often these writings feel disconnected to me now and could perhaps have used a little more rhyme to bind them into something more coherent to anyone but my past self. It’s funny how we grow, isn’t it?
Let me state this as clear as I can. Do not let anyone—not even me— ever tell you, what poetry is, or should be, for none but you can see inside your soul, your thoughts. If you feel your expression works best using a meter or a rhyming scheme? Go for it. If you think best in Haiku or Tanka? Five-seven-five the hell out of those thoughts and feelings. There is no right way, nor a wrong way. What there is though? Lots of poetic arrogance.
Where it comes to poetry, write for you, and only you. Go ahead and share those words, light up the world with your uniqueness, but do it for you—not glory in the eyes of others. Even the masters never found that in their lifetime. Cynics though, trolls and critics, those are ever-present, maybe more these days than in any other age before, ever but a click away.
For me, that first statement that became my first book still rings true, be it partly. The part about finding the rhythm, the living heartbeat of existence. I’ve since written many metered works, yet my poems and stories rarely follow conventional paths, for my truth follows a different rhythm than most. It always has. But that is my truth, and there are many.
Find yours, it might set you free—I know it did so for me.
Guest Post by Eva Tortora
Writing. It's the most beautiful word in the English dictionary. Expressing oneself through writing is the most romantic, tangible, symbolic substance. It's artistic and infinite.
When you write about someone you love, they live forever.
I used to go to coffeeshops before COVID for four or five hours at a time, writing, being inspired, and drinking coffee endlessly. Just people watching would inspire idea after idea, with me contributing to everything from magazines to newspapers to bigger companies.
Expression is for anyone and everyone. Anyone can do it in any form and be inspired and change the world, quickly or slowly or anything in between. The written word is powerful and subtle, soft and light, light and dark. It forms beginnings and endings.
Today I will write this, and think of the people I care about, who change form over the years, light my way, and reside in my heart, with words spoken and unspoken. Love is language in any form. Love is light. I capture love in the written word, in silent poetry screaming rhythm and substance.
Today I will write.
I will write until I'm tired, until you change form, until love calls me away in the distance to finish my chores I never started, to dance with me rhythmically into the night. I will stay awake writing, and fitting together words like a puzzle, making you live forever, infinitely in my heart.
Writing is important and silent and loud and rhythmic. Let's write. Shall we dance? forever in my lungs....