Gianna Russo has spent about four decades writing and teaching writing. She is now officially a Wordsmith.
The city of Tampa announced that Mayor Jane Castor has appointed Russo, a poet, publisher and college professor, as the first person to hold the newly created position of Wordsmith.
“It’s such an honor for this to be coming to me,” Russo said. In the two-year honorary position, she will bring creative workshops, readings and other projects to communities throughout Tampa.
She knows the city well. “I’m a third-generation Tampanian,” she said. “I know there are arguments about what to call people from Tampa, but I’m going with Tampanian.” She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing at the University of Tampa.
Russo, 64, developed and instituted the creative writing program at Tampa’s Blake Magnet School of the Arts. Since 2011, she has been on the faculty of the department of language studies and the arts at Saint Leo University in St. Leo.
She is also a widely published poet. Russo’s 2019 book, One House Down, is a collection of warm, acutely observed poems about Tampa’s history and present. Many of them are set in and around Seminole Heights, the neighborhood where Russo and her family have lived for 25 years.
Russo spoke with the Times by phone on Monday.
As Tampa’s first Wordsmith, did you have input on the creation of the position?
No, I didn’t. Robin Nigh, who’s the director of arts and culture, put out a request for applicants at the end of last year. They came up with the description of the position.
I did do a project for the city earlier this year called Haiku From Home. It was while everything was on lockdown. We put out a call to write haiku about what it was like for you staying at home. We got about 470 haiku! It was absolutely great. Some people sent multiple haiku, but we probably had about 350 people. It was done completely virtually, so I know we can do other things that way. It will be fun.
Speaking of the pandemic, how is it affecting your teaching at Saint Leo?
I got one of the luckiest breaks ever. For the first time in almost 40 years of teaching, I got a sabbatical. It’s for this fall, so I’m not in the classroom. I am working on some projects at home, and now of course this project, too.
I’m talking with some colleagues today from Saint Leo. They’re mostly doing the hybrid model, with virtual teaching and teaching in the classroom, half and half. I’m interested to find out how challenging it is. I’m trying to keep on top of it, because I’m going back in January and I don’t want to be sideswiped.
What’s the status of YellowJacket Press, the poetry publishing company you founded in 2005?
YellowJacket is on hiatus. We’re not doing poetry chapbooks. But we did a project with the Tampa-Hillsborough County libraries, an anthology called Chasing Light. It’s based on their Burgert Brothers collection (a collection of almost 19,000 photographs taken in the Tampa Bay area between the late 1890s and the 1960s). It has poems and a few pieces of flash fiction, almost 50 pieces in all in the anthology.
We coordinated the call for submissions. The writers could choose their photos and then write about them. Distribution (of the book) is on hold right now, because the libraries are part of emergency response and they have their hands full.
You wrote with such knowledge and affection about Seminole Heights in One House Down. Are you still living there?
Oh yes. We moved here about 25 years ago. It was a different neighborhood then. We still live in this little 1,200-square-foot house. We raised both our boys here. Now it’s perfect for two.
How are you feeling about being named the city’s Wordsmith?
It’s such an honor for this to be coming to me in this stage of my life. It feels like an affirmation of all the work I’ve done with writers over the years. If I was teaching 100 writers a year, then in 40 years I had at least 4,000 students. Many years it’s been more than that. It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with so many writers. This is an affirmation of that, and I think it’s more meaningful to me now than it might have been 30 years ago.