Tampa Bay's packed with poet laureates

Gulfport's the latest town to crown a poet.

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click to enlarge Margie Davis and Peter Hargitai. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Margie Davis and Peter Hargitai.

Tampa Bay's packed with poet laureates

True story: A group of poets is called an iamb, as in "-ambic pentameter."

Another true story: The Tampa Bay area now has an iamb not just of poets, but poet laureates. 

With the appointment of Peter Hargitai as Gulfport's poet laureate, the area now boasts four laureates. Eckerd College professor of poetry and nonfiction writing Helen Pruitt Wallace officially begins her tenure as St. Petersburg's new poet laureate in January, James Tokley serves as Hillsborough County's poet laureate, and the state poet laureate – Creative Loafing contributor Peter Meinke – lives in St. Petersburg. Before Governor Rick Scott appointed Meinke to the state poet laureate-ship, he served as St. Petersburg's poet laureate.

Of the four, Hargitai represents the smallest area. Gulfport has less than 13,000 people and marks the first small town in Tampa Bay to appoint a poet laureate. While the small bayside town has long enjoyed a reputation as a haven for artists, that reputation has not extended past the visual arts.

Enter the Gulfport Public Library's Circle of Friends, a support group that funds additional cultural programming. The group championed the designation of a poet laureate. Margie Davis, a Circle of Friends member, led the charge, soliciting candidates. The Friends ultimately selected Hungarian-born Hargitai, a retired professor from Florida International University, from 19 local poets.

Hargitai writes both poetry and prose. His prose ranges from readings at the Morean Art Center to Who Let the Bats Out: Twisted Tales of Transylvania, a collection of stories retold with an eye towards satire. His poems have earned honors including publication in Sixty Years of American Poetry and the 2009 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Poetry Prize.

As Gulfport's poet laureate, Hargitai says he wants to make poetry more accessible.

"I'd like to bring poetry back to the people and bridge the gap between elitist and pop culture, the classics and the spoken word, T.S. Eliot and the poetry of hip-hop," Hargitai says. "Poetry is many things: love, activism, cerebral pyrotechnics, self-expression, confession, prayer, and all of the above and below. For me, it's a state of being."

In recent years, the Gulfport Public Library has evolved, patrons say, crediting Library Administrator David Mather for strengthening cultural engagement and community participation. Mather, in turn, praises the Circle of Friends for their cultural slant, noting an overwhelming response from locals.

"I think programs like the poet laureate fill a real need in the community," Mather says. "It's no accident that the Gulfport library consistently packs the house when we have quality programming of this nature. From poets and classical musicians to our 'lunch-and-learn' series, there is a real significance to the cultural presence of Gulfport, and a great artist like Peter really personifies that attribute."

At Hargitai's inaugural reading on November 19, Gulfportians packed the library for a chance to hear his work. Other local spoken word artists followed, and the event lasted well past its scheduled two-hour window.

The relative proliferation of laureates, Wallace says, "show the vitality of our literary community." Meinke agrees, adding the Tampa Bay area's passion for poetry presented a pleasant surprise when he became St. Petersburg's poet laureate in 2009.

"I was surprised at the intensity of different groups who loved poetry: a passionate group of homeless writers, whom I met at St. Anthony's hospital; older poetry lovers at ASPEC at Eckerd College; middle school students from New Port Richey who did a video of my reading at our house," he says. "Who knew?"

So what, exactly, does a poet laureate do?

Well, they read their poetry. Nice work if you can get it, and also if you don't mind it being more of a "prestige" thing than a "pay" thing. Hargitai's poetic duties will include composing poems for city events as well as public readings and readings at local schools. 

For Hargitai, these duties usher forth his aim of showing everyone – not just the local literati – the appeal of a well-penned poem.

"For me, poetry transforms the banal into the sublime – although I'm mostly inspired by the foolish little things of this world," Hargitai says. "My earlier poems were dark and full of whining. I've changed. I'm celebrating everything now, I haven't flipped, I'm not drinking, I'm not on drugs, I'm not manic, just enthusiastic." 

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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