Author and journalist Tyler Gillespie talks about his new book Florida Man: Poems, a collection that exposes the weird yet vibrant heart of the Sunshine State.
Florida is a little bit like “that” uncle: he’s eccentric, sometimes makes questionable decisions and is always a little sweaty. But at the same time he’s lovable, everyone wants to visit him in the summer, and the same blood runs in his veins. Florida may not be the most traditionally Southern state, but it still shares some political and cultural traits with the rest of the South. In Florida Man: Poems, Tyler Gillespie uses poetry to reveal the heart and humanity that Florida possesses. He shows us that there’s more to Florida than just theme parks and swamps.
An award-winning journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, VICE, GQ, Playboy and Salon, Gillespie currently lives in Largo. In Florida Man, he explores the wacky traits of Florida in all its glory, from collections of newspaper headlines in the vein of “Armed Florida Man Found Wandering around Park Dressed as Tactical Police Dinosaur” to the eating habits of alligators. As he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and an MA in Journalism & Media Studies from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, we asked Tyler how his background in journalism influences his poetry and just how inseparable gators and Florida really are.
Erin Z. Bass: Why did you decide to take a journalistic approach with this first collection of poetry?
Tyler Gillespie: When an alligator wrestler told me the techniques he uses to wrestle gators, I heard it as a poem. There’s a lyricism to Floridians and the landscape. The state’s even shaped like a poem—it looks stichic to me. The book started as a collection of essays, but I was a little bit unsatisfied with that approach at the time so I went to poetry to help me figure it out. I had read C.D. Wright’s One Big Self when I got my MFA at the University of New Orleans. I took a poetry class with Carolyn Hembree, who said I think you should read Wright, so I did because anything Carolyn says do you just do. Wright’s work changed how I could approach poetry because in One Big Self she uses portions of interviews from prisoners in Louisiana. The book helped me understand how journalistic techniques can be used in poetry, and it seemed to fit Florida.
EZB: I couldn’t help but notice that you have lots of poems about alligators in this book. Is that just unavoidable when writing about Florida?
TG: Alligators are pretty much unavoidable here. I guess you can avoid them, but then you’re probably not having much fun. You’re not doing anything outside. I researched them because they fascinate me. I love them. I started to see how their being misunderstood worked as a metaphor for the state.
Alligator Named Florida’s Official State Reptile in 1987, Or, Birth Year
A male gator bellows: heart-stopping roar
to attract females & claim his territory. They mate
then he peaces out (as some men do…).
She makes nest: mud & sticks call it
single-mom ingenuity. She lays up to 90 eggs
incubates & waits months for young to hatch.
If baby cannot break shell on its own
she takes egg in mouth gently does it
herself. These newborns instinctively
know how to catch their own food but
they can’t yet protect themselves from predators
so the mother defends her offspring from a father
who eats everything – his young included –
if he ever gets hungry enough to come back.
EZB: What do you want people to take away about Florida from reading these poems? You’ve said the state is more than just a punchline, but the headlines don’t lie.
TG: Yes, but they also don’t tell the whole truth! So that’s what the book is about. Florida is complicated. It’s not one thing, it’s not really even one place. The state—at least on the internet—has become associated with these viral headlines, but there’s more important things going on here. A lot of people don’t consider Florida Southern, but it is politically, so what goes on here can affect policy in surrounding, smaller states. We have environmental and economical issues, but there’s also a lot of humanity here. It’s a real place and not a vacation land.
EZB: The Millions reviewed your collection in a roundup of other Florida books. What authors/poets from the state have inspired your work, and have you read Lauren Groff’s new book?
TG: My work is probably most inspired by Florida storytellers like the women in my family, my 90-year-old-friend who likes to tell me about times when our county was basically orange groves, and people who hunt giant snakes for fun. The authors I’d say most inform this book are historian Gary Mormino, who I interviewed and who was like before I talk to you I need you to read these two books and a book chapter from this other book. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia for the gator wrestling aspect and Craig Pittman’s Oh Florida! because he’s basically an expert on Florida’s weird news cycle. Martha Brenckle is a mentor. I think Sarah Gerard, Kristen Arnett and Heather Sellers are all doing really interesting work. Florida has a lot great journalists and authors! I haven’t read Groff’s Florida yet, but it’s on my list.
EZB: You’re currently working toward an MA in Journalism & Media Studies from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. What do you plan to do with your degree?
TG: People don’t necessarily need a degree in journalism to do the work. I was mostly self-taught early on and learned how to write the news through reading the paper and by doing a few internships. I thought I’d go to grad school and work on a book, and in a way that’s what happened—it just ended up being a different book. I didn’t really have a plan beyond that, but the program helped me improve my reporting, my technical skills, researching, stuff like that. The 2016 election happened during my first semester, too, so we had a lot to talk about in class. It was a good time to study the media. The degree allowed me to teach journalism, which I’ve done at a college for the past year. The student journalists are where it’s at, because they’re the ones who are going to have to decide how journalism moves on from here.
Read Tyler Gillespie’s 2015 story “Crackers and Collard Greens” in Deep South here.