Poet and professor Gianna Russo is a living composite of all things Tampa.
At 65, Russo captivates with natural olive-skinned beauty. Energetic and cheery, she has a classic meets contemporary fashion sense and speaks in a breezy if slight Southern accent.
“My mom was a Florida cracker,” she explained, “Her family goes back to the turn of the 20th century, and my dad was a New York first-generation Italian American.”
Tampa Writers Harvest
Saturday, Nov. 20 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Donations accepted
Virtual event; to receive a link to the event, visit Facebook
As a “third-generation native Tampanian”—as Russo likes to say—she shares the heritage of 1900s’ cigar workers and German settlers.
The lauded poet and professor, who helped design the creative writing curriculum at Blake High School and holds graduate degrees from the University of Tampa and University of South Florida, has never relocated from Tampa, and her two sons and grandchildren live nearby.
Considering her hometown love and rootedness, it’s no surprise that Russo earned the designation of Tampa Wordsmith from Mayor Jane Castor last year.
Russo’s role as Wordsmith involves projects presented by the city’s Art on the Block program, with the mission of bringing art and artists into neighborhoods. One project centers on Ya La Ford's mural project at the RICH House.
On Saturday, Russo, also a Saint Leo University professor, will gather her extended literary family for the Tampa Writers Harvest.
The virtual event on Nov. 20, from 1 p.m.-3 p.m., will be staged at Saint Leo’s Tampa campus and features Russo and a long list of regional scribes: Gloria Munoz, John Henry Fleming, Victoria Dym, Rhonda J. Nelson, Shane Hinton, Rodney Dennis Jr. and several others (this prodigal daughter included).
Writing instructors from Saint Leo University, The University of Tampa, Black on Black Rhyme, University of South Florida, Tampa Bay Poetry Alliance and Heard 'Em Say will participate in the performance, and a video of it will be available for viewing on YouTube. Proceeds will go to Metropolitan Ministries, one of the nonprofits hard-hit by current supply chain issues. (Donate via @metropolitanministriesinc on Facebook.)
Like Metropolitan Ministries, Russo’s modus operandi includes continual humanitarian work, and she soldiers on as if compelled to raise up her fellow Tampanians.
Her book of poetry, “One House Down,” is a love letter to Tampa. Published in 2019, the book projects her affection for all humans and all things Tampa. Its poems invoke the city’s familiar, natural ephemera—from the Hillsborough River to cabbage palms to sea gulls—as well as scenes from her Seminole Heights neighborhood, where she and her family have lived for a little more than a quarter of a century.
“My great grandparents were the owners of what is now considered to be the oldest house in Tampa,” Russo said. “So we, you know, we definitely have these deep Tampa roots. I grew up in Wellswood, and I am a proud Hillsborough High School Terrier.”
This week, Russo and the city are celebrating Thanksgiving by collecting poems of gratitude. There are no restrictions on subject, form or style, and no experience required. Poems should be appropriate for all age groups. Submissions are happening online at tampa.gov/form/poetry-submission.
“What we're looking for is for people to send in very short poems about something or some things that city residents are grateful for,” she explained. “The idea is just to share gratitude across the city, and that's wonderful.”
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