In the Spotlight
Founding Editor, YellowJacket Press; Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing, Saint Leo University; Director, Sandhill Writers Retreat
Tampa, FL Member Since: 2005
About: Gianna Russo is the author of the poetry collection Moonflower, winner of a Florida Book Award. She is the founding editor of the Florida poetry chapbook publisher YellowJacket Press and Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University, where she directs the Sandhill Writers Retreat.
Photo Credit: Lou Russo
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
I teach undergraduate and graduate students at Saint Leo University. Often they experience writer’s block or simple frustration because they want their work to be pristine as soon as they write it. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet the American poet William Stafford and hear him speak. Stafford was famous for being extremely prolific: He professed to writing a poem a day. He shared his secret: “Lower your standards.”
“‘Lower your standards’ is the best writing advice I can give students and myself. It means accept that the first draft is going to be bad. And that’s okay because it’s just the first draft. I ask students to think about what potters do: They throw a big, messy, unwieldy slab of clay on a wheel and then slowly start shaping it. ‘Lower your standards’ means be okay with that big slab of words. Don’t strive for perfection, just get the raw material on the page, get something down. Later you’ll start to shape. As Steve Martin said, ‘I think I did pretty well considering all I had when I started was a blank sheet of paper.’”
How do you balance teaching, running a press and directing a writers’ retreat with your own creative work? When do you find time to write?
Years ago, when I was first teaching and raising my sons, an up-and-coming poet told me that I wasn’t a real poet because a real poet wrote every day. I didn’t—still don’t. And I was devastated.
Between teaching fulltime (almost all heavy-duty undergraduate writing classes—no Scantrons in sight!), running YellowJacket Press, and directing the Sandhill Writers Retreat, my own writing time is extremely limited. Like many teachers, I have brain drain by the end of the day and the week. So my major writing time is during the summer and on Sundays. In the summers, I try to generate plenty of new work that I can return to for revising and polishing throughout the year. Summers are for that heavy lifting. Sundays I work on individual pieces and on sending work out. That’s my rhythm. I’ve come to realize that my lifelong love affair with writing poetry, that sustained involvement, is what makes me a real poet.
What is your organization’s mission?
YellowJacket Press (YJP) is the nonprofit, self-supporting poetry chapbook press that I founded in 2005. The mission of YellowJacket Press is to support emerging and established poets in Florida with an annual chapbook contest, chapbook publications, and public readings. YJP creates a means for poets to share and promote their work and nurtures a sense of community among poets and audiences across the state.
YJP has an advisory board of approximately eight volunteers. Everything we do is a labor of love. Generally, we publish two to six chapbooks a year and sponsor readings statewide. Up until 2018, we published only Florida poets, believing that if we didn’t overextend ourselves we could be successful and maintain longevity. This has turned out to be true, as we are approaching our fourteenth year. However, in 2018 we decided to open up one of our chapbook contests, the annual Peter Meinke Prize, to poets across the nation. This year we will publish our first poet from outside of Florida.
What are some of your organization’s proudest accomplishments since its inception? What project(s) are you currently working on?
The program that is ongoing and that we are extremely proud of is our Poets Laureate Series. Our goal is to publish at least one chapbook by every known Poet Laureate from the various counties and cities in Florida, as well as the State Poet Laureate. We currently have chapbooks by six PLs including one by Peter Meinke, Poet Laureate of Florida. It’s possible we may expand the series in the future to perhaps include PLs across America.
Another endeavor we’re really proud of is our tenth anniversary anthology, Glass Bottom Sky, which came out in 2015. We launched a Kickstarter fundraiser to pay for the book and got so much support from people all over Florida that was really heartwarming. Glass Bottom Sky features a poem from every poet we had published up to that point and every poet who had served on our board. Overall, the anthology includes work by over forty Florida poets and is a terrific representation of the vitality of poetry in our state.
What programs would you like to develop and create for your organization?
YellowJacket Press would like to offer workshops for the community and also close reading and editing services. We have also toyed with the idea of starting a blog that focuses on close readings of individual poems. These are all ideas that excite us. But with everyone on our advisory board working, our biggest challenge is finding the time to implement and maintain these additional services.
Describe the region where your organization is housed. What is the literary community like?
The Tampa Bay area has an extremely active and vibrant writing scene. We even hosted AWP! In Tampa, there are two MFA programs and undergraduate creative writing programs or minors at several nearby colleges. My school, Saint Leo University, has a low-residency MA in Creative Writing and hosts the annual Sandhill Writers Retreat, a two-day writers workshop on campus that attracts writers from across the state. The annual Other Words Literary Conference also takes place at a university in Tampa (this year at University of Tampa).
Community-based organizations and events abound, and there are weekly open mics at several coffee shops and cafes in Tampa, including two veterans writing groups/open mics. Annually there is a publishers’ conference and a writing contest in our local weekly alternative paper. As well, along our riverwalk are public art projects that include poetry, and YellowJacket Press events are well known throughout the area.
Across the bay in St. Petersburg, there are many literary events. St. Petersburg has a monthly fiction showcase and a citywide program called “Keep St. Pete Lit,” and the Dalí Museum has a monthly poetry event hosted by the city’s Poet Laureate. The Tampa Bay Times hosts the annual Times Festival of Reading, a daylong celebration that features some of the best-known writers in the country. Eckerd College sponsors the annual weeklong Writers in Paradise workshop.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
“That poem brought tears to my eyes.”
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I’d really like to talk about the one I’ve just wrapped up, my second poetry collection One House Down. I’m excited about it because it grapples with the legacy of the South as it has played out in my hometown of Tampa. These poems touch on class, race, income inequality, even Florida’s crazy gun laws. I’ve lived in Tampa my whole life. The neighborhood where we live now, one of the city’s oldest, was what the realtor called “transitional” when we moved here over twenty years ago because houses were so cheap. The main avenue for prostitutes, drug deals, the homeless, and the disenfranchised bisects this neighborhood. Many nights we’ve heard gunfire.
I wanted to weave some of Tampa’s past with this present and really interrogate what it means to be comfortable when you live among a lot of folks who are suffering or on the street. In a way, I wanted to act as a witness to the hardness of my city, which has other parts of town that are really gorgeous and affluent. I wanted to put the scenes out there and at least consider how I’m culpable.
The other thing that I think is cool is that, to my knowledge, I’m the only Tampa native with a collection set in and about Tampa, and I think my perspective has the kind of insight that family members have about each other. Friends might love and appreciate you, but nobody knows you and loves you, with all your ugliness, like family.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
Initially I joined AWP because I wanted to “professionalize” myself. AWP is known throughout the country for its advocacy for writing programs, students, faculty, writers, poets, editors, and publishers. Since I count myself among all of those individuals, I wanted and needed to be part of the highly respected AWP community and I wanted to understand the kaleidoscopic literary world.
In recent years, my membership has come through my institution, Saint Leo University. The most concrete example of AWP’s importance to me as a faculty member occurred about five years ago. My colleagues and I proposed a new minor in creative writing. In order to make the best case possible to administrators and colleagues who have no knowledge of what a creative writing program offers, nor of the professional standards that would make our minor successful, we turned to AWP’s Hallmarks of an Effective Minor in the Undergraduate Study of Creative Writing. I’m certain that our incorporation of AWP’s best practices and pedagogies contributed to our success in establishing the minor. Two years after this effort, I began developing a low-residency MA in Creative Writing for Saint Leo and was again able to incorporate solid professional goals and standards into the proposal. It passed, and our low-res MA just graduated its first cohort.
AWP has published guidelines that establish the MFA as a terminal degree for a writer who teaches in higher education. Many—perhaps most—of the faculty and administrators at my university were not familiar with the MFA when I joined the faculty as a non-tenured instructor eight years ago. The idea that there was a terminal degree that was not a PhD or EdD was foreign. Through informal chats and discussions, my colleagues and I began to educate our colleagues outside the department. When I completed my MFA in the summer of 2017, I immediately got a raise and was allowed to join the tenure track. So, in a very palpable way, AWP has contributed to my quality of life, while also supporting me as a writer and poet.
Finally, as a teacher, poet, and editor, I’ve found The Writers Chronicle invaluable for its interviews, articles on craft, and listings of opportunities for writers. Our institutional issues are distributed among our students and faculty and help us maintain a lively involvement with what’s going on around the country.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
The Wednesday night before the opening of AWP in Tampa, my hometown, I was struggling to set up the booth for YellowJacket Press. It was our first rodeo at AWP. We wanted everything—from our signage to our chapbook displays to our BIG Poetry Love gift boxes to be arranged perfectly. But as newbies, we ran into the inevitable snafus—like not realizing that the carts for transporting our supplies from the car (parked so far away) were unsteady and would spill something every three feet and that yes, we had forgotten a whole box of giveaways at home. I’d been on my campus since 8:30 that morning and by the time we finished setting up, it was approaching 8:30 p.m., and we’d worked through supper. Still, I was determined to go to the Women’s Caucus Reading where Rita Dove was the featured poet. Rita happens to be about my age, so I’ve read her work since her earliest days. She is one of my idols, and the previous year I had written a detailed analysis of Thomas and Beulah. I had my tattered original copy and my admiration to keep me energized.
The reading venue was unfamiliar to me, even though I pride myself on knowing downtown like my own house. Unlike the crowded, neon-lighted streets along the Hillsborough River, the block where The Attic was supposed to be located was dark, not a soul on the sidewalk. I circled the block twice wondering if I had the wrong address. From the car, I watched a handful of folks stroll down the block, but they just kept going.
Then I saw it—a small sandwich board sign in front of an old office building doorway. Yep—The Attic was upstairs. But why was it so deserted out here? Why weren’t there any lights to signal to out-towners that this was the place? If I, a lifelong Tampanian, had trouble finding it, how would anyone?
I opened the large door and stepped into a glowing foyer. Just as I did, two college students slipped inside, bubbling with excitement. We agreed—this was the right address, but since all the offices on this floor were locked tight, could the reading really be happening up above? They hung back checking their phones. I stepped into the dim elevator and watched the floor numbers click up. Then the doors opened.
Do you remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from black and white to Technicolor? That’s what happened as soon as the doors opened. The Attic was bursting with people—mostly women—laughing, drinking, talking, reading, gossiping, whispering, shouting across the room, welcoming me to the party. Bam! A house had landed on me, but instead of killing me, a middle-aged woman on the town by herself hours after a long workday, it brought me instantly to life. The place was absolutely crammed. At the bar, women asked my name, what I wrote, where I lived, and did I know this person right there at the end of the bar, such a wonderful poet? Other women insisted I pull up a chair at their table, where we exchanged poetic obsessions and figured out our six degrees of separation.
Then she walked into the room. The energy became livewire real and magnetic. All eyes were on Rita as she made her way to her seat in front of the packed room. Rita’s co-readers were all young, gifted, and riding the crests of new fame. Every reading rode a wave and smashed it. But when grande dame Rita took the mic and knocked us out with poem after poem, each and every one of them (along with us in the audience) knew we were in the presence of Poetry Incarnate. I was dazed. I was stunned. As she signed my book, I watched her like a star-struck girl. I was happier and younger than I’d been in years.