Tampa Bay is known for many things: Hurricane dodging, café con leche, and awful drivers come to mind. But a thriving literary scene? Between YellowJacket Press, the Bluebird Book Bus and MFA programs in creative writing at the University of South Florida and University of Tampa, the Tampa Bay area is a also a pretty cool place for those who are spellbound by the written word.
I’m one of these people; the type who consider poets rock stars and are freakishly proud of their bookshelf collections. When the talented duo of Katie Riegel and Ira Sukrungruang moved to the area from upstate New York, they gave our community an injection of fresh creative energy. Katie and Ira, both renowned writers and USF professors, are like the Brangelina for the local literary set.
Three years ago KatIra asked me to be a reader for Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), the online journal they’d started in New York. Here I was, an MFA student living off Ramen and bottom-shelf wine, thrilled that two writers I deeply admired would want my help. Sweet publishes poetry and creative nonfiction (sorry, fiction writers), and has been home to the work of up-and-comers and more well-known names such as Lee Martin, Tim Seibles and Brenda Miller.
While millions page through Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, it’s refreshing to know there are still many havens for, shall we say, more irreverent, thought-provoking prose and poetry. (Believe it or not, some of us actually read poems. They move us, inspire us, they wake us up.) Literature is alive and breathing, and Sweet is a vibrant bastion of creative endeavor, of making art out of words. This ain’t your grandfather’s lit scene, stuffed in a tweed coat reciting Proust.
As a volunteer reader for the magazine, I get to sift through the slush pile, which has offered valuable behind-the-scenes experience. Reading through submissions has attuned my ear to what kind of writing ignites me, though my editors — KatIra — would say it is the mouth that holds language’s music and gives meaning to the delectable, sensory world.
Sweet publishes work that can be savored, and now us bookish types have another reason to rejoice: Sweet Publications, the publishing arm of Sweet, produces limited-edition, handmade chapbooks. With their team of ingénues, including Jim Miller, Gloria Munoz and Claire Stephens, Sweet has published gorgeous, one-of-a-kind collections that will make you put down your Kindle and re-inspire your connection to the book as an object, a thing to be held. (But don’t worry, they still offer everything in e-book format too.)
The latest release is Donna Steiner’s Elements, an unforgettable, poignant essay collection rich in imagery and rendered with heart. Steiner is propelled by a deep yearning to understand her relationships, the world and what makes us all tick the way we do. No matter what subject she plunges into, from her lover’s alcoholism to how the wind moves, she delivers candid insights with a lyrical love for language. Deeee-licious.
KatIra have built something beautiful, and essential, and as they put it, “There’s a reason ‘sweet’ has come to mean ‘awesome’ in slang. It comes back to the mouth, to pleasure. … We want you to think, ‘Mmmm, sweeeeet.’ We want you to find something here that you need, something perhaps not as practical as a potato, but just as vital.”
Melissa Carroll is a writer, poet, yoga instructor, tree hugger, former dance-off champion and teacher of creative writing at the University of Tampa. Her poetry chapbook, The Karma Machine, received the Peter Meinke Award (YellowJacket Press 2011).