Thoughts on Orlando’s Literary Community

On Wednesday of this week, I’ll be speaking with Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, on the topic of literature and community. In anticipation of this conversation, I reached out to a bunch of folks to get their thoughts on and constructive criticisms of Orlando’s literary community. I’ll keep updating this post as more responses come in. If I didn’t reach out to you personally, feel free to leave a comment or send your thoughts to [email protected] for inclusion in this post. 

Co-presented by Functionally Literate and Winter with the Writers, the event is this Wednesday, February 22, 8pm, at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. It is free and open to public, and there will be an audience Q&A at the end. RSVP on Eventbrite and / or spread the word via Facebook.

I hope that the conversation helps all who attend think more about what we can do to share our love of books within and beyond the existing literary community.


Amber Norman // Creative Nonfiction Writer. Poet.

I used to be a spoken word artist who dwelled in stereotypical SLAM environments. Spaces filled with audiences eager to be aroused, that reminded me of church on Sunday mornings. In college, these spaces felt like home, a place where I knew I could be energized. My poetry, however, did not fit quite right in these spaces. I didn’t write about social issues, “The Man,” or romance, and I often had a hard time connecting with my audience. My art typically reflects inner conflicts and details suffering in a way that score cards cannot measure. Often, my writings render people silent, which doesn’t qualify well in the SLAM community. For a while, I thought I wasn’t a good writer because I didn’t fit in or audiences were not interested in what I had to say. This also had a profound effect on my identity as a Black woman because up until that point, most spoken word nights I frequented were full of black and brown faces. I was convinced that I wasn’t “Black enough” to be a credible poet. I didn’t have any reference point to validate my identity, nor my art.

Not only can lit spaces be segregated, they can also be homophobic. In fact, I stopped attending a popular Open Mic series because of anti-gay and anti-feminist rhetoric from the organizer of said series. As a queer women of color, I believe the perpetuation of discriminatory ideologies in artist spaces is a perversion of art itself. Functionally Literate was the first literary event that helped me reconcile my strife as a writer. It is an inclusive space, that exposes me to a variety of voices. The Hidden Continent, an art and literary space that celebrates queer and nonconforming artists, created by Claire Robin Thorne, is also a beacon. These are spaces where I felt my art had a home. And I, as the mouthpiece, also felt welcomed.

The best part of the Orlando literary community is there are so many spaces and options to choose from. I also find the SLAM Community in Orlando to be quite impressive, much different than I had experienced elsewhere in the past. I believe you can find spaces for your voice to be supported if you know where to look. I know I’m not the only one who wandered for several years feeling misunderstood. Thus, it is imperative that outreach become an integrated objective of literary exposure. We mustn’t bind our community with pretentious values and hipster expectations to the exclusion of good literature. We must keep the doors open because we never know what new voices may wander in. As a writer and contributor of space creation, shared humanity has always been my primary function and motivator. 

Jonathan Miller // Olin Library, Rollins College.

One of the great strengths of the Orlando literary community: we show up for each other. This month I am enjoying Winter With The Writers, I am a member of a book group, and I know loads of other people who are as well. There are the various well attended literacy series – Functionally Literate, There Will Be Words, Literocalypse. Even with Borders [bookstore] closing at Winter Park Village, Winter Park seems to be able to sustain at least one independent bookstore, and Bookmark It is also hanging on.

The Orange County Library System is excellent, with a well thought out digital strategy, book delivery to the home, and branches located exactly where they need to be: in shopping plazas. Even Winter Park has a chance to build a new library that will be a real draw.

The dominance of the House of the Mouse in the world’s impression of Orlando, and the post-war style of virtually all the city, sometimes leads people to imagine this is a cultural wasteland. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lauren Gibaldi // Writer. OCLS Librarian.

From the librarian perspective, I’d say we’re trying to have and promote author events as much as possible. We utilize local authors fairly regularly, and try to bring in outside authors as well. I think the library tries to reach readers of all ages (kids and up). I’m glad the library has taken up having younger events, too. Because, in my mind, we want to engage young readers so they become older readers and, perhaps, writers too. 

Tod Caviness // Poet. Freelance Journalist.

The growth of the local lit scene, I think, is largely a side-effect of the fact that Orlando in general is becoming a more inspiring, less transient city with its own identity. I look forward to the cross-pollination between artists that will hopefully allow that trend to continue. It would, of course, be nice to see more paid opportunities for writers, but that’s hardly an Orlando-centric problem.

Ariana Simpson // Reader. Poet. 

As someone who has been apart of the Orlando literary community both as a writer, reader, and performer I can proudly say that I have seen improvements within the community in regards to diversity in writers and in style. There are more women, there are more people of color, and there are more queer writers than there were when I was in high school. There are more spaces for marginalized groups and there are more works being acknowledged by all different types of writers from each of these backgrounds, expressing different and nuanced styles.

However, I can’t say that I’ve seen enough. I can’t say that this diversity is also inclusive. When I go to open mics or more catered readings that aren’t led and created by marginalized writers themselves, the scene remains the same and is dominated by both men and whiteness. This isn’t to say that this is on purpose or some act of inherent violence against marginalized writers, but it is to say that in my experience as a black and female writer, the mainstream has remained the same. And, as for those writers that I do see outside of the majority, I feel many of them are also tokenized in a sense: the same voices are featured, are special guests, are invited to lead different events again and again. Even this is not diverse enough, because these individuals are predominantly men. Many appearing on behalf of friends from this little conglomerate atop of Orlando’s literary hierarchy. They’ve been around for a while, they’ve established themselves in some aspect and these are the only voices and names, I feel, we constantly hear about.

While there are great events that bring in outside writers and things for readers, when it comes down to the scale of the local community, new voices that I have come to know personally are merely whispers and then back to the background. I believe we are striving to be better and do better, but I feel as though that same “we” is the “we” that created those spaces for their respective and other marginalized groups. For writers and readers who didn’t want to dabble in the conventional styles. Who don’t want academia laced into their “weirdness,” their unique style, their blackness, their queerness, their absolute just plain not conventional. I believe these to be both our strength and our weakness; we’re depending too much on marginalized writers to make the spaces and do the work.

We need to be more inclusive in our diversity of writers, of our reading material (break out some hybrid poetry and fiction that isn’t a Hollywood rom-com with the same upper middle class couple in suburbia or the woods), and individuals who spearhead a lot of what is happening in the literary community. I know that this is an idea that requires work from all sides but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t know or think it was possible. These aren’t thoughts and feelings that just existed in a moment but an outpouring jar of post-event conversations over dinner with friends, sentiment sharing with pals as we discuss authors and problematics we found the day before at an event that made us feel ostracized in one way or another. I love what growth I have seen, but really, there is so much more work that can and needs to be done.

Teege Braune // Writer. Fiction editor at Fantastic Floridas. Full-time ESOL Instructor at the Adult Literacy League.
My personal experience with Orlando’s literary community has been an extremely positive one. I definitely owe my earliest successes as a writer, public readings, publications, and overall exposure, to the welcoming and friendly atmosphere I discovered when I began to show up at Orlando’s various literary functions. While I hope that others have been greeted with the same warmth that I enjoyed, I also realize that my experiences as a white, cis-het man are not always typical. Orlando’s literary community has not always been as diverse as possible. Without a doubt there are those in positions of power, whether it be as publishers, editors, or event hosts, who have gone out of their way to respond to criticisms that our community has, in the past, failed to center marginalized voices by actively working to facilitate inclusion. There is no question that we are better for striving in this endeavor, and yet I think we still have a long way to go. As we are a small community, it is easy to meet and get to know familiar faces. I have made some of my closest friends this way. It is also, I think, important to take a stand against those whose writing opposes inclusion and diversity. I don’t believe anyone wants a community that shuts out or silences social and political viewpoints and ideas with which they simply disagree, and yet there is a line between navigating differing opinions and making space for racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic ideology. Finding this line may not always be easy, but it is necessary to actively seek it. 
As a writer I’ve been fortunate enough to work and perform alongside other authors with whom I have the utmost respect in some very wonderful organizations including Burrow Press, The Drunken Odyssey, and the Writers Atelier among others. As an ESOL instructor at the Adult Literacy League I have been lucky enough to meet many incredible people from all over the world. Our organization not only serves immigrants, but also adults born in the United States who struggle with literacy because they have not had the opportunities to complete primary education. This intersection between my creative and professional life puts me in a unique position to blend these communities in a way that could be enriching to each. How then to go about such a task is a question with which I’ve been struggling lately. Writers, ESOL students, and adult literacy students are people who do not take language and literature for granted. As such, they are some of the most fascinating people you will meet. 
John King // Writer. Host of The Drunken Odyssey. Board Member of the Kerouac Project of Orlando. Director of Litlando.

When I moved to Orlando in 2012, I was impressed with its literary culture, and this is after I had lived in New York City for three years while earning an MFA at NYU. There are multiple literary hubs in Orlando besides our several universities and colleges, which allows a lot of mingling. There is Burrow Press, which has published many local writers in several anthologies. There is Burrow Press’s reading series, Functionally Literate, which pairs nationally-known writers with a local writer for a wonderfully curated quarterly series. There is the monthly prose reading series, There Will be Words, which is curated like a literary magazine, which recruits new writing talent and allows writers to practice their craft in a public setting. There is Parcels, the graduate reading series for the University of Central Florida. There is Rollins’ College’s Winter with the Writers reading festival. There is now Valencia College’s Winter Park Writer’s Festival. There is a thriving slam community. There are so many readings and events, and this seems to be why so many Orlando writers are writing things of consequence that matter far beyond the City Beautiful.

Sarah Taitt // Reader. Book Club Member.

I’m glad we have a fairly active literary community. I also have a lot of friends that read, and I noticed that book lists and book of the month clubs are very popular. Having books pre-selected makes life a little less hectic and therefore makes reading more enjoyable. My only suggestion is to create a book list of Orlando- or Florida-centered books, or books by local authors, for book clubs and other lit fiends to be able to consult and pick from.

Anonymous writer.

Overall I think the Litlando scene is growing and wonderful. There’s a lot to offer, all of it exciting. We have regular readings, we have regular author events, and we have a lot of people contributing. And that’s amazing! 

That said, as someone who writes for children, I feel like the community is a bit split. Perhaps this is a teenage mindset, but there’s the “literary” community, which is well represented, and then there’s the kid lit community. Lit authors go to their events and that’s it. Children’s and YA authors go to their events and that’s it. They cheer on their own peers and don’t veer much. And, yes, of course there is some overlap, but I think we can work on bridging the gap. 

Erin Sullivan // Writer. Reader. Public Relations Administrator for the Orange County Library System.

I think our biggest strength is that Orlando is a city of artistic chameleons – I read somewhere once that one of the things about Orlando that makes it unique is that you have so many artists, writers and creators who work for theme parks and the entertainment industry by day, then after dark they unleash their inner artistic demons. Demons may be too strong a word, but the idea is right – when you create art for somebody else 9-5, I think it makes the urge to create something of your own, for yourself and the audience of your choosing, even more intense. As a result, I think a lot of people in our arts and writing community are comfortable crossing genre boundaries – you may work as a set designer as a profession, but you might be a musician too. You might work for Cirque du Soleil as your day job, but on your own time, you run an out-of-this-world private music venue that celebrates avant garde jazz and brings international talent to Orlando. You work as a graphic designer for a boring development firm during the day, but you write Fringe plays at night. I think that means that no matter what you do for a living – whether you write or you work in visual arts or you’re a musician – you can shapeshift in Orlando, collaborate with others, play with your art and be taken seriously. Or at least reasonably seriously – some people don’t want that. And that’s okay too.

One of the things that we lack, I think, is the infrastructure to do better and do more. A way to encourage people to make a living at writing and not just look at it as a fringe profession or a field that’s impossible to break into. I also think we don’t do a great job of encouraging curiosity about books and writing in a serious way. There are so many opportunities to do copywriting or marketing or so-called “content creation.” There are far fewer opportunities to explore creative writing, creative nonfiction and poetry here. I know there are independent efforts, like Bookmark It and Burrow Press for instance, that have been working to reveal and foster the talent that we have here, and I do not mean to discredit those efforts. But I feel like we are still in a ramping-up phase – maturing.

As a former editor of a local publication, I found it frustrating that there weren’t more outlets for young writers to get their feet wet, for instance. Basically, Orlando Weekly was the one place you could go in town to write about music or art or books or whatever. And OW doesn’t publish much creative writing, which is much harder to break into, I think. We have a lot of programs for kids, but I feel like we’re lacking enough sort of basic, entry-level opportunities for writers – fiction and nonfiction – where people who think they might like to try to write can give it a shot even if they don’t have any kind of experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a little too much barrier to entry for raw talent to figure out how to become a writer, and how to be a better writer once you’re doing it … then, when you are doing it, how do you make a living at it?

Finally, I think we need to do better at being a community that’s open to criticism – overall, I’ve found that it’s taboo to not be in love with all of the things here that make our city so great. But in my opinion, whether you’re talking about art or writing or restaurants or musicians, constructive criticism is the tool you need to become even greater than you are. I think we should all be thinking – and reading – critically and not just dumping praise on things that we do like but also thinking about why we like it. Whether we really like all of it. What we think could make an experience even better. I think you can be critical without dumping on something, and I think that can be extremely valuable. When I write something, for instance, I usually send it to somebody else to read and edit and mull over. I absolutely HATE getting it back with “this is great” and no suggestions for improvement or questions or concerns. How can I get better if there’s nobody taking an objective look at my work and telling me how I can improve it? I don’t mean that people should be all Mean Girls about it – but there should be room for a critical culture. And we do need to get better at that here in Orlando.

And that leads me to the future – I find it very heartening to know there are a lot of things in the works that I think will go a long way toward fostering a writing and reading culture here – the Orange County Library System offers regular programming for aspiring and accomplished writers, led by a local author, as well as a new ebook publishing platform (ePULP) that allows writers a platform to get published using an independent-review system. We have you guys doing Functionally Literate. We have the Orlando Storytellers Club. We have Artborne magazine, which I’m really digging right now. And most importantly, I think we have a community of writers and readers who are starting to take themselves seriously – and take our community seriously – which means that they aren’t going to settle for less than an educated, diverse, sophisticated (but not miserably so) literary culture in Orlando.

Danita Berg // Full Sail University English Department Director. Founder and co-editor of Animal Literary Magazine.

Honestly, Orlando has had the most welcoming literary community of the several small cities in which I have lived. I felt included very quickly when I moved here to direct the English Department at Full Sail University about five years ago. I’ve been invited to read, publish with the local press, and to speak at literary events. 

Perhaps we face the “challenge” of not being as big of a literary community as New York; at the same time, I never want for something to do in Orlando. I usually have my pick of at least a couple of events every week. I don’t feel, from 95 percent of the people with whom I interact, the need to compete with them. 

J. Bradley // Writer. Organizer of There Will Be Words. 

I’ve seen such growth in Litlando over the last 16 years, first as an organizer of Orlando’s first poetry slam, Broken Speech, and then There Will Be Words. We’ve cultivated this great literary culture that you wouldn’t have expected ever to happen in Orlando, and that’s a testament to the many talented writers in this community who make the scene thriving.

At the same time though, we operate in silos. I’ve mentioned this before from the poetry perspective, where you have poets who tend to cling to a particular show, and there’s a lack of cross-pollination between venues. Madison Strake Bernath took it further in her op ed in the Orlando Sentinel that the all of the arts scene are guilty of not cross-pollinating. I’ve been part of the Orlando’s arts and culture scene for almost 20 years and that’s still the case, though literature was on the low end of the arts hierarchy for awhile, and Orlando has become better about that.

The challenge now is infusing new blood, not just from an audience perspective, but writers. The poetry slam scene in Orlando does a really good job at this. Since The S.A.F.E. Words Poetry Slam started up in 2014, I’ve heard a lot of voices that I haven’t heard before. Poetry slams tend to foster more diversity, as well. Recently, I ran the first There Will Be Verse (the poetry slam side of There Will Be Words) for 2017 and I was blown away by how many new faces I saw, coming to see a poetry slam on a Saturday night. 

From the prose side, I feel like we struggle from a diversity perspective, and that’s something literary organizers need to be cognizant about here in Orlando. It’s important to discover new voices in the way those new voices are discovered at poetry slams and I’m not sure how to do that for prose.

Karen Price // Writer. Reader. Writing instructor at Full Sail University. Kerouac Project board member.

When I got divorced in 2004 I was working as a full-time writer and basically living in isolation. I had a small circle of friends I met through my ex, but I had little in common with most of them. I considered moving away from the area, but felt unmoored and unsure about my next step, so I started looking for a new “tribe.” I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and then one day while working out at the Y I ran into someone whose car had broken down and needed a ride home. She looked kind and friendly, and I had been thinking about how I should do a random, kind act, so I gave her a ride. As we talked, I told her that I wrote nonfiction books, mostly for middle-school and high-school students. She said she did the same thing. We took each other’s contact information and became great friends.

Through that friend, Janna Benge, and her husband, Geoff, I met other writers. The Benges started the Silver Fern Writing Group, which has been going strong for years. They also introduced me to the Kerouac House, a local writer’s residency. I began volunteering at the house and attending events there, and I met more writers that way. Eventually I started reading at local events. The first place I read in public was at There Will Be Words, which at the time was at Urban Rethink in downtown Orlando. I started attending and reading at other reading series and was thrilled at how much talent there is in the Orlando area and at how many opportunities there are for writers to perform. Our literary community is supportive and continues to grow. I have an amazing circle of friends, and I’m excited about the new young talent that continues to emerge. My wish is that we continue to support one another and welcome those who express themselves in diverse genres with open arms. Let’s spread the love so that those who feel unmoored, as I did, will find a home.