On the Rebirth of Orlando
A Vibrant Literary Scene, in the Shadow of the Mouse
“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”
–Virginia Woolf, Orlando (out of context)
There’s a quarrel on the monorail. Two writers exchange expletives in the dim compartment as we glide from one hotel bar to the next on a literary pub-crawl through the Walt Disney World Resort. “Eyes Wide Shut is the greatest movie ever made,” one writer says, to which the other replies, “You are so full of shit.” In the background you can hear murmurs of parental exhaustion, the bleats of fussy children, and the occasional interruption from the automated voice telling passengers to please stand clear of the doors.
This is all being recorded for “The Drunken Odyssey” with John King, a literary podcast based in Orlando, Florida. King’s in-depth interviews have featured a broad range of talent, including David Sedaris, Irvine Welsh, and Nikki Giovanni, but every now and then an episode demands irreverence, a sparingly edited three-hour jaunt in the belly of the beast with a handful of local writers. King, who holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU, happens to be a self-described Disneyphile, and, Kubric aside, the evening mostly unfurls into aesthetic discussions of hotel architecture, the nature of artifice, and The Three Caballeros. When the night is over and we drive the twenty-some miles back into the actual city limits of Orlando, we don’t give Disney a second thought.
And why would we? Orlando is currently experiencing a mini-renaissance. The food and arts scenes have garnered praise from The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most recently, SF Gate declared that Orlando is not “a cultural wasteland”—a backhanded compliment but I guess we’ll take it. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice most of these Orlando write-ups begin in a similarly patronizing format: When you think of Orlando, you don’t think of… [insert anything cultural]. Even in its absence, the weight of Disney’s influence is felt in these cliché press angles, which, of course, only ring true to those who don’t live here. Still, it’s a tempting prompt.
Let’s try it: When you think of Orlando, you don’t think of getting your clothes splattered with blood during a performance of Titus Andronicus at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, or listening to an Irish poet read in the house where Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums. You probably don’t think of Orlando in any kind of geographically accurate way. So why not start at the Kerouac House (which houses writers from all over the world as part of its residency program). In Jack’s day, Orlando was more a respite from the cacophony of New York, but now, just a block from the house, a bustling main street feeds into the downtown of a city in the process of carving out its cultural identity, which includes a vibrant and tight-knit literary community. So toss back a beer with that Irish poet and maybe pop a bennie to prepare yourself for the glut of literary happenings in the cultural bubble of Orlando proper.
* * * *
In downtown’s heart, near Lake Eola Park, where condo-dwelling joggers hop over the homeless, and children taunt a startling variety of swans; just around the corner from the hulking concrete of our brutalist central library (which, should you be an agoraphobe, or just lazy, will actually deliver books to your doorstep); you’ll find, in the café of an art gallery, a reading called There Will Be Words. But wait, as is tradition, down a Guinness or five at The Celt before walking next door to The Gallery at Avalon Island, where four locals (and sometimes a Kerouac resident) will share their prose in front of a giant picture window that, with a certain amount of imagination (or the aforementioned drinks), plays out its own story of the city—the downtown free bus whooshing by, the stumbling douchebag bar crowd, and perhaps a new-to-town wanderer stopping in to realize that when you think of Orlando, you don’t often…—and if that bennie’s kicking in, why not ghost through the window, hop on the bus, and time-travel to the buzzing neon of the mural-filled Mills50 neighborhood, where you can get drunk on pho from any number of Vietnamese joints (the area used to be called Little Vietnam) and hit up Literocalypse, which overlooks the whole eponymous intersection from a creaky apartment above a pizza place.
When the reading is over and you’ve had some cake or a tarot reading (there is sometimes cake and tarot readings), head down the indie cultural corridor laid out before you on Mills Avenue: a bar that is also a church, an arcade that is also a bar, coffee, crustpunks, ramen, food trucks. Just past the all-night drag queen diner, where I once took an award-winning Portuguese novelist after his reading, there is Will’s Pub, home to the long-standing and quite boozy Speakeasy open mic, where, in December, readers must participate in a White Elephant Book Exchange, at which you’re just as likely to unwrap a DeLillo novel as you are a copy of Bill O’Reilly’s latest atrocity (hopefully shoplifted).
I constantly run into new people at these events—writers, poets, editors at Sundress Publications, Prick of the Spindle and Atticus Review. Where have you been all this time? I wonder, before the informal networking of talking about books begins, and these new people become familiar faces. This is how community is built: When like-minded readers and writers leave the house and congregate, connections are made, collaborations spawn new publications, events beget events. And I haven’t even come close to naming all the events in this town. The fact that I’ve not mentioned any university-affiliated readings is a testament to how much the lit community thrives outside academia.
Orlando is neither NYC, nor MFA, but it is certainly strengthened by the University of Central Florida, where the Florida Review has been kicking since 1972, and by Rollins College, where, each week in February, Winter with the Writers brings authors like Karen Russell and Jim Shepard and Amy Bloom to the campus for public master classes and readings. How far should I go? There’s The Hurston (as in Zora Neale) Museum of Fine Arts in neighboring Eatonville. There’s Stetson, in Deland, which is about to launch an innovative low-res MFA. And The Atlantic Center for the Arts, in New Smyrna Beach, yet another world-class residency importing the likes of Rick Moody and Patricia Smith.
But it wasn’t always this way. A lit community is not a plug-and-play system, and Orlando’s certainly didn’t happen over night. I moved here for college and lived on the eastern outskirts. After graduating, many of my friends moved to New York, San Francisco… all the usual post-collegiate starter cities. I sensed a larger pattern of transience among Orlandoans, but decided to stay, found a place in a downtown neighborhood and, like most twenty-somethings, started brooding. I didn’t know many people, so I wrote a lot. I worked at a restaurant and used my tips to buy books at the two-story Barnes & Noble across the plaza. I wandered around that bookstore almost daily, wondering why the place, despite all the people tucked into chairs and poring over books, felt so lonely. I’d heard about a few poetry open mics, but poetry wasn’t really my thing. And the Kerouac House was around, but I didn’t put forth the effort to discover it. In those days, I kept a kind of cynical distance from everything, before finally figuring out that, in addition to culture, I was looking for community, and that meant I would have to, like, go meet people.
When I started working for Urban Think, Orlando’s only indie bookstore at the time, the arts community was scattered. Authentic culture existed in pockets, but lacked the momentum to reach a critical mass. Things looked pretty grim, for lit at least, when Urban Think closed its doors in 2010. But thanks to the nonprofit Urban Think Foundation that had been created in its name, the bookstore transformed into a cultural event space that, among many other things, hosted four monthly reading series, several book release parties, MFA thesis readings, and Orlando’s first Literary Death Match. Though the books were gone, lit began to thrive because the space provided a much-needed center for lit-lovers to gather and grow.
Meanwhile, the city itself was undergoing a similar centralization. Kim Britt, former Urban Think Foundation volunteer, attributes Orlando’s cultural jolt to the larger economic recession. “It seems counterintuitive,” Britt says, “but new construction stopped, and developers focused on infill projects and renovation in the city. Rents were cheaper. Main Street districts popped up in the downtown neighborhoods. And people who’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find work gravitated toward the center, where there was opportunity for creative entrepreneurship.”
Indeed, despite the recession, new businesses sprang up: coffee shops, restaurants, food trucks, farmers markets. Their existence seemed to provide that missing momentum, to give Orlandoans the confidence to embrace their once-stagnant city, and to pave the way for more peoples’ interests to expand into the arts. Each new (or newly discovered) endeavor—be it a coworking space, or a free jazz concert—added to the city’s identity. Even the mania over our soccer team played a role in the overall Orlando zeitgeist. All of which is to say that the growth of Orlando’s lit community was inextricably tied to the growth of the city as a whole.
Britt was one of those creative entrepreneurs. She’d spent enough time around the lit community to wonder why, with all the new growth, there was still no independent bookstore. When the right space fell in her lap, Britt launched Bookmark It, a small-but-mighty, 200-square-foot indie located in the larger East End Market. East End is a hub for the local food culture and, situated among coffee, sushi, juice, craft beer, and produce, Bookmark It’s selection highlights that ethos, as well as provides what Britt calls “locally grown words.” To browse the expansive Local Authors section is to discover that the term is not pejorative, and to be reminded that the lit world in Orlando doesn’t simply revolve around who is passing through.
“Orlando now is in that very sweet spot where it’s full of people dedicated to books, but still intimate and communal enough that there is a real sense of community and togetherness to the enterprise.”
Orlando is more and more becoming an exporter of literary talent. If John Green is “the one who got away,” we’ve made up for it with YA authors like Edward Bloor, Jenny Torres Sanchez, and Lauren Gibaldi. And while the city is happy to claim award-winning transplants like long-time resident Philip F. Deaver, and recent arrivals like David James Poissant and Usman T. Malik, both Lindsay Hunter and Laura van den Berg actually grew up here. Hunter started out at UCF, van den Berg at Rollins, though this was before the spike in literary activity. “You live in a place for 20 years,” Hunter says, “especially a hot, sprawling, weird city like Orlando, and you assume you know everything there is to know about it.” Hunter moved to Chicago to pursue her MFA and spread her literary wings, but is still proud of her city. When a former classmate reached out to her about writing a story for a collaborative anthology called 15 Views of Orlando, she felt homesick, and a little jealous, to discover that “Orlando, my true love, had an awesome, supportive, exciting literary community happening.” Hunter wasn’t the only one to participate in the project. Deaver, Poissant, Sanchez, Gibaldi and van den Berg all took part in what became a three-book series of sprawling literary portraits of Orlando.
After all that name-dropping it’s important to state that these writers aren’t locked away in some ivory tower of talent. They’re commonly seen at readings watching newbies cut their teeth, or leading workshops and writing groups, or donating time, knowledge and books to youth literacy nonprofits. Most writers, I think, would attest to finding more camaraderie than competition here. This is the kind of city where the host of one reading series will write a glowing feature about another series in the local weekly. And this magnanimity extends to visitors as well. When New York-based novelist Boris Fishman came for a reading, he described his Orlando welcome as “uncommonly warm.” He went on to say, “Orlando now is in that very sweet spot where it’s full of people dedicated to books, but still intimate and communal enough that there is a real sense of community and togetherness to the enterprise. That is so rare.”
Fishman makes a sharp insight here. The city really is in a kind of cultural sweet spot. There’s not a lit event every night, but there’s certainly enough happening to keep a writer social. And thus far, the community has created a variety of events while resisting the tendency to fragment into cliques. It has embraced inclusiveness by expanding into other arts communities, resulting in poetry readings accompanied by live music and dance, art openings at which fiction writers read new work inspired by the paintings and installations on display, and other innovative collaborations.
The bottom line is: if an event is good, Orlando is a small enough pond to make a big splash in. People will support you. The combined effort of writers willing to show up for events, and organizers willing to not only set the bar high, but actually promote events, has led to several big splashes for literature in Orlando. Touring authors like Fishman, as well as quality homegrown events, often receive serious press coverage, which has helped the lit community break out of that insular bubble in which writers are the only ones paying attention to each other. It’s not uncommon to flip through our weekly paper and find a Dani Shapiro reading featured in the same events spread as a Lil Wayne concert. And though our daily doesn’t have an official “Books” section, its nightlife correspondent constantly pitches literary stories (most recently landing a slam poetry feature on the front page).
What this all means, I hope, is that Orlando is becoming more and more of a book town, a city of readers—call it what you will. The way I see it, the more people who care about books, the more stable the literary community, and the more room for growth and diversity. Despite my blatant boosterism, I realize there’s plenty of room for improvement, and it’s going to take more work to achieve this. I think it can be done.
Orlando is special, but not unique. Plenty of people (I hear they’re called Millennials) are eschewing major cultural hubs in favor of scaled-down urban centers. The primary difference between Orlando and other cities of its size and potential is that Orlando constantly deals with outside perceptions and stereotypes that conflate Orlando, FL and Theme Park, FL, as if the two were not separated by a massive stretch of interstate. For a long time that mouse-shaped chip on our shoulder was very real. But as our young city matures, we shed that externally imposed image for a different identity, one we can define ourselves, one in which Orlando is its own distinct destination. Drive down Interstate 4, past the waterslides and t-shirt shops, and you’ll hear the screams of tourists being whipped around by rollercoasters. Keep heading east into downtown and you’ll hear, just as clearly, a declaration of pride thundering from the soccer stadium as fans chant THIS IS ORLANDO!
It’s nice that some of Orlando’s cultural offerings have been nationally recognized, but no Times profile is going to truly validate our city. After decades of misrepresentation, we no longer obsess over what outsiders think, and this attitude has resulted in a local culture that is far more valuable than national media adoration. From the DIYest of zinefests held in the diviest of bars, to the glossiest of productions at the new performing arts center, Orlando is being made by Orlandoans, for Orlandoans.
You might have noticed I never used the word “scene” to describe what’s happening in Orlando. That’s because scenes are cool, sure, but communities are built to last.