St. Petersburg’s poet laureate, Gloria Muñoz, just received a $50,000 grant from the American Academy of Poets to support her work.
So what does a poet do with that much money? Does she just buy a bunch of new pens?
“Feathers. Only feathers,” Muñoz says with a laugh.
But the image of a solitary poet writing with a quill pen in a garret doesn’t fit her. Since Muñoz, 35, was appointed the city’s poet laureate by Mayor Ken Welch and the St. Petersburg City Council in October, she’s been all about outreach, meeting and working with writers, readers and arts organizations around the city.
In April, she partnered with community organizations and businesses to put on a monthlong City of Writers Poetry Festival that drew about 1,000 in-person attendees and more virtual participants to multiple events.
“It was a phenomenal response,” Muñoz says during an interview at a downtown St. Pete coffee shop. The month kicked off with a reading at Tombolo Books by nationally acclaimed poet Ross Gay. The youngest participant was a 7-year-old who read a poem at an open mic event. “And some were in their 80s, writers who are legends,” she says.
She’s already planning the 2024 festival, and she has much more in the works.
The American Academy of Poets grant was one of 23 awarded to poets laureate of states, counties and cities around the U.S., totaling $1.1 million. The grants are tied to public poetry programs in the awardees’ communities, and Muñoz has big plans for the funds.
“About $15,000 is earmarked for programs and partners” who went into her application for the grant, she says. Those include the City of Writers Lab, which aims to connect youth and emerging poets with working writers through an after-school poetry and art program with NOMADstudio at the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center; Semillas de Poesia, a series of multigenerational community conversations with St. Pete Youth Farm featuring a poet and a local farmer, farmworker or food activist; and workshops at Tombolo Books in collaboration with local literary nonprofits including Keep St. Pete Lit, Kitchen Table Literary Arts, Cultured Books Literacy Foundation and Wordier Than Thou.
The rest, she says, will support programs throughout the year. She’s eager to find ways to pay writers for their work in programs and events. Her experience in community organizing has made her acutely aware of all the unpaid labor that goes into nonprofits.
One example: being poet laureate: “It’s honorary service.” She says that Celeste Davis, the city’s director of arts, culture and tourism, has been “instrumental in getting funding for (other) writers.”
Like most writers, Muñoz has always had a day job, and until this month hers was in academia. She has a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence and a master of fine arts from the University of South Florida. She taught for several years at Eckerd College and, as of the last academic year, “I was finally on tenure track at the University of Tampa.”
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But she has left that position and pivoted to work full time in Moonlit Musica, a bilingual media sound production company she and her spouse, Mark Feinman, had been operating part time. “I’m a scriptwriter and composer, mostly for kids,” on projects for a variety of partners, including Hulu, Apple+ and the New York Times.
The company “did surprisingly well during the pandemic,” she says. “We got a lot of work. We had a newborn, so we were sleep deprived anyway.
“Mark and I, throughout our relationship, have always loved songwriting together, and when we had a kid we fell back into it.”
Muñoz says, “I was looking for what excited me, what gave me joy. I think we’re on the right track.”
She’ll still be teaching, she says. “Once the word got out I wasn’t in academia, so many teaching doors opened.”
A poet laureate’s job sometimes includes writing occasional poems to mark important events. Muñoz says Helen Wallace, her immediate predecessor as St. Petersburg poet laureate, has been “an incredible mentor. We’ve talked a lot about how to write a poem for an occasion that’s still a poem.”
Muñoz has partnered with Tombolo to present readings by local poets — the next one is coming up on Sept. 7, featuring Anne Barngrover and Heather Sellers.
Muñoz also plans a series of workshops for writers about the “business side. They don’t teach us that in school.” She wants to demystify how to get an agent, read a contract and other nuts-and-bolts issues.
And, of course, she has her own writing. Muñoz’s 2021 book, “Danzirly/Dawn’s Early,” is a gorgeous bilingual collection of poems that won the 2019 Ambroggio Prize and the 2021 Gold Medal Florida Book Award. Muñoz was born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of parents who moved here from Colombia, so she’s fluent in both Spanish and English. That plays a role in her next book, which is still under wraps.
As poet laureate, she says, she’s always conscious of reaching people across the community. “We have a lot of female-run organizations, a lot of BIPOC and LGBTQ writers,” she says. “If your question is, there’s no seat here for me, we want to say build a seat. Or build another table.”