by Casey Clague
Casey Clague: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in poetry?
Gianna Russo: Well, up until the last year and a half, I’m more or less self-taught. I started writing poetry seriously when I was an older teenager like around 18 or 19. I went to USF and while I was there, I met some people who were doing literary magazines and journals. There was a professor there at the time; his name was Willy Reeder and he was really kind of famous in the sense that he was really encouraging to students and had done some publishing. He had a magazine called Poets of the South that was a regional magazine out of USF. So through him, I met a number of other people. One of his students was Tom Abrams, who had a magazine called White Mule. He published my first poem.
When I was around 20, I formed a critique group with some people from USF. Some of them are not around anymore, unfortunately. One of the pivotal people in that group was Sylvia Curbelo and she’s still here in Tampa. She’s won a lot of national awards. We met every other week for 12 years and taught each other how to write, turned each other on to other writers. That’s really how I learned to write. I’d always loved it as a kid.
Through my experiences there and through our group, we had our first publishing venture, a literary magazine called the Tampa Bay Review. In our very first issue, we published William Stafford because he happened to visit USF and I went up and asked him if he could send us something. That was a huge thrill to us to have him in our first issue.
CC: That’s a pretty big name for a first issue!
GR: It really was! We ran Tampa Bay Review basically the same way that we run Yellow Jacket Press now. We were all volunteer, 501c (3), a voluntary editorial staff. This was way back in the day though. You’re talking about the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, so everything was being mailed in and you’re having to read everything and mail everything back, so the correspondence was not at all like it is today. TBR ran for about 5 or 6 years with around 4 issues a year. I served for a long time as a literary arts advisor to the Hillsborough County Arts Council. I worked at USF; there was a professor there at that time who was very pivotal in the department. His name was Dr. Steve Ruben. He and Dr. Ed Hirschberg had put together a writers’ conference called the Florida Suncoast Writers Conference that lasted from the late ‘60s to the ‘90s. At the time when it was at its peak, it was the largest in the country. I worked on the conference as a student volunteer and eventually as an administrator before it shut down. I was there for some really pivotal years, though. We had Allen Ginsburg, Edward Albee, Carolyn Forché. It was really incredible.
Around that time, a national literary arts program opened through the YMCA. It came out of New York, but it spread nationally through the Y. It was called the Writer’s Voice. The YMCA here [in Tampa] decided that they wanted to adopt that program and so I applied for it and became director of that program and launched it in Tampa in the early ‘90s. I worked with them for 3 or 4 years and then I wanted to go back to teaching.
I had been teaching first as a graduate student and then as an adjunct for a number of years while I worked on the writer’s conference. I started working at Blake School of the Arts here and developed the program for the literary arts. It was a 12-course program and all the students had chapbooks finished by the time they graduated. A number of them did not pursue writing after high school, but a number did and went on for MFAs or went on to be involved in the literary arts in some way. After Blake, I took a break and then went back to St. Leo University. This is my sixth year there.
That’s my history of being involved in the literary arts! I just have a devotion to writers and to the art itself and the craft. Because poets are so unsung and underappreciated in America, I just want to do whatever I can to help them out. That’s one of the main reasons I continue to do Yellow Jacket. It’s very time consuming and requires a lot of energy. This January we’ll be starting our 12th year and we do a lot. We publish anywhere from 2-4 books a year. We have 2-4 readings a year and two contests a year. All of that is volunteer energy. Everyone on the board is a really hard worker, but ultimately I’m the editor and the founder, so if anything doesn’t get done, I have to pick up the pieces at the last minute. It’s a lot, but I’m still really devoted to it. I get thrilled when we find really good work and can bring it to the public. That’s why I keep doing it and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.
CC: And what do you look for in a manuscript?
GR: One of the big things we look for—maybe it’s the overriding thing—is poetry that’s accessible. I appreciate and even really like some experimental work, but that is not what we choose to publish. What we publish tends to have a lyric narrative element to it. Lots of it tells stories. It’s image-driven. We also look for a collection that’s fairly unified. If people send a collection of poems and they don’t seem to have any relationship to each other, it’s generally not going to do as well as a manuscript where you can see some sort of link going on.
CC: You mentioned earlier how much you enjoy contributing to the work and lives of poets because they might otherwise be not get the attention they deserve. What is your favorite part of working with your authors?
GR: When we run our contests, my favorite moment is to call them and tell them that they won! That starts us on this journey of putting the book together. The second favorite moment is when they actually see the book and have it in their hands and they’re so thrilled and happy. Then they do readings and let me know that people love the book. They’re just so happy and it’s really great. All the stuff we publish, we totally believe in. When the contest submissions come in, people on the Board will sift through all the work and siphon down—and it’s all done anonymously, so you don’t know who you’re reading until you’ve chosen a winner.
When we get to 10 manuscripts (we get anywhere from 40-50 because we’re only open to Florida writers) the judges will send them to me. I will look through them and say 5 or 6 are my favorites and send them back to the judges. We will all rank them 1, 2, 3. And interestingly, all of our number 1s tend to be the same. It’s fun to read the work too. It’s great.
CC: You touched a little bit on how you came from publishing a magazine to doing Yellow Jacket. Were there any more practical, rather than circumstantial, reasons why you chose to start working with chapbooks?
GR: I got interested in them when I was at Blake teaching the high school kids. Also, my mentor Willie Reader had a chapbook thing that he did. I think one of his first collections that I ever saw was a chapbook, which is how I got introduced to them. Really, the main reason we decided to do chapbooks is because it was more fiscally feasible and that we could probably stay afloat if we just kept our costs down. Chapbooks are really inexpensive to print. We’ve sold our chapbooks for $6, but we’re making money on that. To do a standard size book or even a glossy magazine, these days you really couldn’t do it. I don’t think it would be sustainable, especially for a shoestring operation like us. So we chose to keep our focus small, but know that we could be successful with it.
CC: How do you see YJP’s role within the larger literary community? And your personal role?
GR: I think that I’m known in the state, but I don’t really have a national presence as a writer. As an editor, I think I’m in a good place. I get invitations to judge contests, give talks, or to do workshops around the state. If I can, I always say yes. I love doing readings. I love connecting people. Do you know the chef, Anthony Bourdain? He has a show where he goes all over the world. Did you ever watch it?
CC: Is that No Reservations? I’ve seen bits and pieces, I think.
GR: The reason I ask is that every time he goes to a place, he connects with someone who is integral to that place. That person knows where to take him for the best food or to meet the most interesting chef. That person he calls a “fixer.” And that’s kind of how I see myself. As a fixer. Having grown up in Tampa, going to school in Florida and living here my whole life, I know so many people and I’m really interested in connecting them. I think one of my roles now is being a resource for other poets and writers and I’m happy to be that.
CC: That seems like it would be very rewarding in a similar way as you’d mentioned earlier with telling poets they’d won the YJP contest. It’s altruistic, too.
GR: There is a sense of altruism there. I’m not saying I’m such a great person or anything, but I do have a need to contribute to the world. Sometimes I feel that poetry is not enough of a contribution; maybe when I stop teaching, I’ll start doing other things in addition. However, poetry is some kind of a contribution. People tell me all the time how much it means to them to read a certain piece or to hear someone read. People do get moved by poetry. It’s on a very small scale, especially in the grand scheme of things. It’s still really relevant.
I think my biggest disappointment is that it’s not more relevant. I think it could be. I think it has a lot of potential. That being said, it’s kind of a weird gift to not be as relevant to the culture as I would like because it keeps poetry free. There’s no corporatization. It hasn’t been co-opted and there’s a freedom there that is super essential. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out how to make money from poetry and it’s going to get Wal-Mart-ized. If that ever happened, the freedom that poets have would be impinged. I guess it’s a double-edged sword, but it’s kind of cool.
CC: I recently saw Carolyn Forché at St. Leo University. Are you in charge of booking the writers there now? Are there any more plans for visiting poets?
GR: Yes. St. Leo and up until this year, USF, were part of this consortium called the Florida Literary Arts Coalition. That coalition would bring writers on a tour. I don’t know if you saw any poets at USF last year…
CC: I missed Terrence Hayes at USF, but I saw him at University of Tampa. The previous year I saw Naomi Shihab Nye, and Li-Young Lee before that.
GR: Unfortunately, our department doesn’t have the money to bring in that kind of heavy-hitter, so when you saw Carolyn Forché, that was actually sponsored by our library. The director of the library gets our input, but he ultimately makes the decisions about booking the bigger-name poets. Two years before that we had Philip Levine. [The English department] books more regional writers.
I also direct the Sandhill Writers’ Retreat, which happens in May. This coming year , it will be on May 20th. It’s a smaller scale conference that’s set up the way the old Suncoast Writers’ Conference was. We will have 2 or 3 sessions a day with simultaneous workshops running during each session. You might have a fiction, nonfiction, and poetry workshop all running at the same time. You’ll have that repeated throughout the day so people can pick and choose. We’re trying to keep it accessible. For St. Leo students, it’s only 25 dollars. For other students, it’s only $40 for the whole day. We try to focus mostly on regional writers because we don’t have a big budget. But we have some wonderful writers. Last year we had Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer prize winner who writes for the Tampa Bay Times.
CC: How do you balance your teaching work with your publishing and your own writing?
GR: Right now I’m in graduate school, in my third of five semesters in a low-residency program. I’ll have a second book by the time I’m finished, which is great. It’s killer. It’s totally killer; that’s all I can tell you.
I’m teaching, but Yellow Jacket is on hiatus this year. We only published one book and we’re not doing any contests because I absolutely could not manage it. One good thing about this time period is that I’m able to focus on my own work.