You could call Walter “Wally B” Jennings the godfather of Tampa Bay’s spoken word scene. The community-minded poet, performer and mentor helps young poets find their voice through monthly spoken word events and annual competitions. A better orator than most politicians, Jennings began writing poetry in 1989, inspired by an eighth-grade English assignment. In 1998, he read his poetry aloud for the first time, shortly before graduating from Florida A&M University with a degree in business economics — yes, he’s a true Renaissance man. In 2011, Wally B won Best Spoken Word Artist in CL’s Best of the Bay. The 38-year-old has commandeered two major events in local poetry scene: He leads Heard ’Em Say Teen Poetry and co-founded Black on Black Rhyme-Tampa open mic night with another local spoken word icon, Life Malcolm. The two Capricorns and lifelong friends have birthdays the same week — he on the 30th and Life on New Year’s Day. They recently celebrated their birthdays at Life’s Straight-up Poetry night at the Ybor City Jazz House. The dual birthday celebration has become an annual tradition.
The youngest of three — all seven years apart — Jennings grew up in West Tampa and now lives in Northview Hills (near Sulphur Springs and Seminole Heights) with his wife, Charmaine, and two daughters. Crediting his parents as great role models — his father owns his own landscaping business; his mother is an RN and advisor at Blake High School — Jennings also works in education at the USF Alumni Center as facility manager. “No Master’s yet, though my wife would give me a side eye because she’s been after me to pursue one,” he confesses.
Both grounded and spiritual, Jennings says his poetry delves into the common experiences of everyday life — marriage and fatherhood, youth empowerment, and self-determination. Though he can emote with fury onstage, Jennings is admittedly low-key. “Believe it or not I am actually the quiet one among my siblings.” (Sadly, older brother Edward, aka “Big Money Ced,” died suddenly of a heart attack in April 2014 at only 44 — the most devastating event in Wally B’s life last year. The WTMP-AM DJ, also with a strong sense of community, was “a champion for the projects in West Tampa, for College Hill, Ponce De Leon. … The children knew who he was. That was big for him.” )
A Tampa guy and Floridian through and through, Jennings shared some of his favorite local places while lunching at one — Savvy Jack’s Southern Gourmet in the Temple Terrace area.
“The epitome of a Mom and Pop operation”: SAVVY JACK’S is a dining spot Jennings recommends for those mornings and early afternoons when you feel like taking your time and decompressing a bit. The little bistro, owned by a retired couple from Paris, specializes in Southern American and French favorites. Wally B usually orders the grouper sandwich and ginormous chocolate mousse for dessert. “I’ve always been a fan of the story behind the story, and I love their story,” he says of owners Roger and Nicole Daon. “They retired and followed their dream.”
Favorite down-home dinner: FRANK-EL SOUL FOOD RESTAURANT, also in North Tampa. Jennings recommends the barbecue chicken, greens and turkey wings.
Best place to write and meditate: JULIAN B. LANE RIVERFRONT PARK in downtown Tampa (across the river from the Straz Center, next to the University of Tampa). “Great sightlines of downtown Tampa.”
Favorite spot at USF: MARSHALL STUDENT CENTER. “I can’t spend enough time over there. They’ve really made a huge multi-function, comfortable space that’s for the students, but as an adult, I love it.”
Where he takes his kids: Charmione, 12, shares a birthday with Martin Luther King, and lets everyone know. Simone, 6, is on the autism spectrum. “Because of Simone’s condition, we have to be strategic where we take her. We love feeding ducks at the Magnolia Pond at USF.”
Jennings says he also loves the parks he calls “watering holes” — “they’re a godsend for us.” He takes Simone to GIDDENS, CURTIS HIXON WATERFRONT and WATER WORKS parks, where run-and-play sprinklers offer free recreation. “Simone’s very energetic, so she’s very active but isn’t social and interactive — she is in her own little world and the other kids are just there. In parks like those, she can just blend in and look like she’s enjoying herself, because she’s playing and enjoying the park like everyone else. It’s important to have public places like this where children with autism can play and their condition isn’t on their forehead.”
Romantic getaway: For wife Charmaine’s birthday last November, he took her to AQUA for dinner (7627 W. Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa), and they stayed overnight at the WESTIN TAMPA BAY on Rocky Point, which houses the waterfront restaurant. He took her shopping at ELLENTON PREMIUM OUTLETS on Saturday, and they took the scenic route back to Tampa, over the Skyway Bridge. “A perfect weekend.”