A Poem for Orlando: Students Create Benefit Chapbook
In the early hours of June 12, 49 people attending Latin Night at the gay nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, Florida, were killed and 53 injured by a lone shooter. The murders hit close to home for third-year MFA poet Roy Guzmán: Born in Honduras, he grew up and came out in Miami. "My friends lost friends there," he notes. Guzmán began writing. Four days later, his poem "Restored Mural for Orlando" was posted on Public Pool, a website that seeks to "nurture the citizen within the poet and the poet within the citizen." The poem was shared widely and later reposted by NPR's Latino USA. Guzmán was soon contacted by poet Marco Antonio Huerta, who wanted to do a Spanish translation. Another MFA candidate, poet D. Allen, created artwork, and together they produced a chapbook of the poem to raise money for the massacre's victims and their families. (See the chapbook webpage for ordering and fundraising details.) At $3 for a PDF copy and $8 for a hard copy, the chapbook is accessibly priced, but Allen and Guzmán are also donating copies to libraries and trans/queer resource centers across the country. (Email them at restoredmuralfororlando [at] gmail [dot] com with your organization's information.)
As Allen further describes, "The project is also about amplifying Roy’s voice as a queer Latinx person, and getting his words out to those who might need to hear them. We are less powerful if we’re isolated, and for me, this project is about creating connection in the face of violence and grief."
Roy, writers are often told to wait for experiences/events to settle or somehow become less immediate before we take them on in creative work. Would you address the issues here, as you see them?
Guzmán: I hear that all the time: "process first," "wait because views on this subject might change," "the best poems about any incident are hardly ever the first to come out." Poetry has a delicate relationship to time. One of the skills I've honed most in my MFA program is exploring what time and memory do to your language and what that language does to memory. The version published doesn't look or sound like the first version I wrote down, and being open to that was helpful. Miles Davis once said, "Sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself," and in the midst of tragedy, it takes even longer to realize what your own cry wants to do, in what register, and in what form. Some poets who were directly affected by 9/11 still haven’t written about 9/11. In my MFA thesis, I'm still coping with Hurricane Mitch, a force that irreversibly changed the Honduran landscape--in 1998!
"Restored Mural" is by no means the "most comprehensive poetic response" to the Orlando tragedy. I never set out to do that. With each revision of the poem, I began to realize that while it honors the victims, the poem is really about my family, about growing up as a queer brown boy in Florida, about what it means to exist as an immigrant and to constantly have your safety and citizenship undermined. The only way to honor our victims, I thought, is to write about our lives as an act of resistance.
Who thought of the chapbook idea and why?
Allen: After I heard the Sunday morning news about the massacre, I invited a few queer friends to come over for dinner that night so we could share space and food and conversation, and Roy was there. On Monday, Roy and I went to a community gathering on campus at the Center for Queer and Trans Life in response to the shooting; on Tuesday, we were at my kitchen table writing together, and that's when Roy finished his first draft of "Restored Mural." He sent me two versions to read over on Wednesday, and by the time it got published on Public Pool on Thursday, I felt very connected to the piece, felt Roy’s words in my heart and body. On Friday, I was on the bus to meet Roy for his partner's [Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus] concert (Two Boys Kissing, which is mentioned in "Restored Mural"), and I just got the strong feeling that the poem could be a chapbook, and that if Roy was open to it we could make that happen together, with me handling art, layout, and binding.
"We're both broke poets, but between the
two of us we have words and images,
marketing experience, bookmaking
experience, website experience, and big
communities who we trust to support us
in this endeavor. It was a concrete thing
we could do to help the victims and
survivors." - MFA candidate D. Allen
Roy, it seemed that when Public Pool posted "Restored Mural for Orlando" it spread widely and quickly. What about the response surprised you?
Guzmán: I never expected this kind of response, because I am very familiar with the effort it takes to get a single poem published anywhere. Public Pool hasn’t been around for long, yet they've already published a wide range of incredible writers, some of whom have inspired me throughout the years. When the poem was republished on NPR's Latino USA, I knew the editors believed other readers in the community needed these words. The following day, author Melissa Batchelor Warnke contacted me to say that "Restored Mural" had inspired her op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times.
What most surprised me about the unfolding of these events is how many writers reached out to me to share their support for my work and wellbeing. People added me on Facebook and contacted me on Twitter. I received emails to submit work and/or edit journals focusing on this tragedy. Hermeneutic Chaos Press reached out to me and said they'd be interested in having me edit an anthology that honored the victims. Honestly, because of the deadlines I had to meet and the self-care I needed, I almost turned down the offer, until I randomly shared the idea with poet Miguel M. Morales, and he jumped on board as co-editor. The anthology we're working on is titled Pulse/Pulso. I am constantly reminded that my work doesn't only exist on the page; it also demands community engagement on my behalf, and I can't turn away from that.
D., what is the medium you use for these images? Is art-making a regular practice for you? Which of Roy's words particularly resonated for you as you created the images and chapbook?
Allen: Artmaking and writing are very much intertwined for me, and have been since I was a kid. I studied printmaking and bookmaking alongside creative writing and literature in college, and though I stepped back from visual art for a few years before grad school, I’ve been doing a lot more visual and performance work in the past year. My own poetry manuscript-in-progress includes drawings, digital collages, photographs, and other mixed-media work, and this summer especially I’ve been making images alongside my writing work, so when Roy and I decided to make the chapbook I felt like I was primed to respond to his poem visually.
The images in the chapbook all come from a single drawing; the drawing is represented in its entirety on the front and back cover of the book, so you can see the whole image if you hold it open. The drawing is made with India ink, gouache, and acrylic paint, and I made gouges in the paper with a sharp tool. The images printed inside the chapbook are all close-up photographs of that drawing, treating it like a three-dimensional surface—I imagined a wall on which a mural had been painted and then damaged, as Roy's title suggests—rather than trying to reproduce it cleanly as a scanner would. I often photograph drawings and other artworks and found materials this way, because I find value in the resulting distortion. It surprises me and makes me look at the materials in a new way, and I hope it can do the same for other viewers.
Rather than trying to make representational illustrations of specific components in Roy's poem, I focused on the movements and gestures in his work. I also used my own grief as a guide towards these specific materials and images, because as a queer person I was feeling all of this in my body and wanted to make visual work that represented the physical sensations I was experiencing. Also, Roy and I spent nearly every day of that week and the following weeks in conversation with each other about Orlando and this project, and so the image-making was very much an extension of that dialog.
The chapbook and website both credit two UMN units who helped support the project. How did that come about?
Guzmán: D. and I talked about organizations and spaces that would be willing to help us fund the initial run of the chapbook. Because Marco had already worked on a Spanish translation of the poem, I knew I wanted one of the main supporters to be associated with a Spanish-speaking entity on campus. Last spring, I took this wonderful course with Professor William R. Viestenz titled "Speaking the Periphery: Modern Iberian Literature at its Margins," and it occurred to me to ask him for his support. Viestenz committed $100 to our cause, under the Hispanic and Lusophone Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics graduate program.
"Violence is not a means for a dissertation
or a poem à la mode for those of us who
have to face this violence every day. . . .
Ultimately, the 'material object' I care about
is how we are creating safe spaces for queer
and trans people." - MFA candidate Roy
We needed about $300 in total for the initial run, and the rest of the money came from the Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life on campus. We met (Director) Stef Wilenchek during that community gathering the day after the shooting, and because they were so welcoming, we reached out to them. Both programs received copies for their libraries.
This past couple years it seems like one mass murder follows another so rapidly that the grief is eclipsed—or made general. For some communities, as Claudia Rankine and others have pointed out, the condition of life is already "one of mourning" or as Roy wrote: "most of us were born or bloomed out of sorrow like swans always bent on pond water or unpaid bills / as though we are fishing for clues about our graves." Was part of the impulse to create a material object to offset the potential of erasure?
Allen: I'll let Roy respond to this in more detail, but one of the reasons we wanted to make the chapbook—a tangible document that records this moment in history and our responses to it—was because it gave us a way to directly support the victims of the massacre in a way we couldn’t individually. We're both broke poets, but between the two of us we have words and images, marketing experience, bookmaking experience, website experience, and big communities who we trust to support us in this endeavor. It was a concrete thing we could do to help the victims and survivors, and also a small object we could offer to other people who were hurting with grief, as we were (and are). In times of grief and loss it's important to have something to offer, or something to hold onto. This is not a metaphor.
Guzmán: When you grow up disenfranchised, you see how transience leaves marks on your mind and your environment. Nothing stays still. You’re used to things disappearing. In the section you pointed out, the "materiality" I'm working with is intertextual. I'm definitely echoing Rankine, but I'm also echoing Rubén Darío, my mother who worked for most of her life cleaning houses, my stepfather whose income has never been enough to sustain him, the Florida that feels like a graveyard of foreclosed homes, and my current means of survival.
While it's true that tragedies may drive some toward desensitization, as D has pointed out, violence is not a means for a dissertation or a poem à la mode for those of us who have to face this violence every day. We need to feed ourselves. We hurt like others. Ultimately, the "material object" I care about is how we are creating safe spaces for queer and trans people, and how we are empowering one another through our words.