One of last and hardest challenges in the creative process may be finally sharing your work with the world. It certainly seemed a daunting prospect to poet Nathaniel Bush Jr. A black gay man raised in Orlando whose sexuality left him estranged from members of his family, Bush had plenty of material but less support for pursuing dreams. Fortunately, he had Deonka “Zeus” Drayton, a friend who celebrated his words and urged him to write.
“She would always encourage other people’s gifts and quirks,” Bush recalls. “When others would say this was silly or stupid, she would say, ‘No, that’s just you.’”
Unfortunately, Drayton can’t celebrate the release of Bush’s first collection of poems. The 32-year-old lesbian was working as a bartender at Pulse the evening of June 12, 2016, when a gunman attacked the Orlando gay bar. She would be among the 49 people killed in the shooting. But her spirit thoroughly informs Fairy Tales, Tragedies & Reality TV, Bush’s collection, which was published earlier this month. Drayton’s memory provides a backdrop to much of Bush’s writing. The poet started working on these poems in 2014, and the boost in confidence from Drayton’s prodding helped him persist through personal doubts.
Bush, now 28, first embarked on the writing process after a difficult breakup in 2013. While he’d never tried to write professionally, the emotional rift led him to explore his feelings about relationships and personal struggles. The third poem in the collection discusses his heartache, but he also used the written word to explain the comfort he found in Orlando’s LGBT community. A poem titled “Disco Balls and Stars” documents his first visit to the Parliament House, while other works touch on rifts with his family following his decision to come out. “It’s basically a gay journal,” Bush says.
This creative process also started around the time he first met Drayton, already a friend of roommate Raymond Velazquez. Orlando’s gay clubs provided the social atmosphere for their friendship, with venues like Southern Nights, Parliament House and occasionally Pulse providing the setting to the friends’ story. The two supported each other through various personal and legal dramas. Bush, who worked at the Walt Disney World Resort, still recalls a trip to the Magic Kingdom with Drayton and her girlfriend Chaz shortly after Drayton completed a work release program. And Bush’s love of rhymes would also help the two forge a friendship. “I remember times when she would beat box and I would rap over it,” he recalls.
Bush had intended to be at Pulse on the evening of the shooting but instead took a last-minute trip to Tampa with new boyfriend Bryan Gutierrez. He would learn of the shooting when Drayton’s girlfriend called frantically trying to find someone with news of her whereabouts. About a day later, authorities confirmed what friends and family feared; Drayton was dead. The loss hit Bush hard, he says, and it would alter the course of his poetry. Family buried Drayton in North Carolina, but the Orlando community served as a second family for her, so Bush set upon organizing a second service for the bartender in central Florida. In truth, Bush went overboard, renting a room for a service and spending money on flowers and balloons that he simply didn’t have. He and Gutierrez would get evicted from their apartment, and the two would break up.
But nothing informs art like hardship. While Bush wrote the first 40 poems in Fairy Tales, Tragedies & Reality TV before the shooting, he completed the last 26 afterward. After leaving his apartment with Gutierrez, he moved in with friends Lyndsey and Ashley Fain-Rhodes; he would eventually read one of his poems at their wedding.
He settled into a structure for his collection, choosing 66 poems to correspond to each book of the Bible. Indeed, as the Old Testament has 39 books, the divide between Old and New Testament would mark the clear delineation between poems written before Pulse and those penned after the event.
It’s only a loose association. The opening poem describes a man looking in a mirror and imagining what he might change, a sort of creation of man tale akin to Genesis. The poem corresponding with Leviticus serves as Bush’s coming to grips with his affection for another man and ultimate rejection of rules against homosexuality.
Standing in for Revelation would be “Beating Hearts,” a poem dedicated to Drayton that imagines the loss at Pulse in vivid, emotional terms. “It’s the only one explicitly about the tragedy,” Bush says, “though it’s hinted at throughout with various metaphors.”
Bush this year moved to Raleigh, N.C., to be near his sister and to leave the tragedy of Orlando behind. He works alternately at a call center and a local tavern, and volunteers regularly at the LGBT Center of Raleigh. Bush published the book through CreateSpace and put it up for sale on Amazon, where it almost immediately climbed into the best-seller list for gay/lesbian poetry, reaching number 17 after just a couple days. As of this story’s publishing, the book held the number 8 spot on the list. But whether the work becomes a classic or not, Bush feels excited to finally put his creativity into the world for consumption. “My writing is basically a mix of if Dr. Seuss and Maya Angelou had a baby,” he says. While the shadow of Pulse looms large, he says the collection ultimately exists if an expression of his blackness and gayness.
Read “Beating Hearts,” the last poem in Fairy Tales, Tragedies & Reality TV, below.
Beating hearts hit the dancefloor
And now they beat no more
They were shattered into many pieces
And unable to be mended
The promises of fairy tale endings
Have very well been rescinded
Food, sleep and sanity
Became distant illusions
The only guarantee now is such unpleasant confusion
Help is nowhere in sight
It feels like it got denied, not delayed
And I believe that death probably feels this way
In an eerie hospital
With nothing but love as our disease
Hearing our own funeral music
Played on our own organ keys
Chest open, doctors around
I see nothing but white
On an operating table desperately holding on to life
That patient could not be revived
Some lovers rarely survive
So close the lids to her eyes
Don’t let the news read my eulogy
For they will blame this on the fool in me
Yet some have been fed that strange fruit
Which made him feel so entitled
To the shots of his rifle
While ignoring the words in his Bible
Our innocence was lost like Adam and Eve In the Bible
Our Pulse stopped as suddenly as the death of Michael
All I can hear are shrieks and cries and then deafening silence
Our terror speaks of lies and turbulence and violence
The pain, it roars louder than thunder
Those hearts keep no beat
For they have killed the drummer
Those youthful hearts they ate
With monster-like gore
And my memories are stained with hate, blood, lies and remorse
Tears and hearts sound no different when hitting the floor
A Bad Romance accompanied by a
Shall now sing them to sleep as we close
The dying door for
Those beating hearts
Shall beat no more