I prepared a list of twelve questions for Gianna Russo, all thoughtfully constructed after reading over her eleven-page-long Curriculum vitae. But what came out of my mouth when she settled in my office and I turned on the recorder wasn’t written down. “How do I get to be you?” I asked. She let out a loud and carefree laugh before responding “Work your ass off!” Still chuckling, she added
“that’s off the record.” There would be several more remarks labeled off the record during our conversation, and I’ve honored those. Hopefully she’ll forgive me (she did) for this one slip, because there’s no better summary of all her accomplishments. While teaching at Saint Leo University, Gianna returned to school and in 2017 earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Poetry. As an Assistant Professor, she is now compiling her portfolio to apply for tenure. In addition to teaching, class-design, and committee work, she has spent her time at Saint Leo as editor-in-chief of the school’s literary magazine, the conference director of their annual writers retreat, and as the creator of the university’s new Master of Arts in Creative Writing low-residency program. All of that is in addition to Gianna’s work as founding editor of YellowJacket Press, her extensive list of published works across all genres, and her continuous readings and conference presentations. Yes, she’s worked her ass off.
Gianna earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of South Florida in 1978. Although she always wanted to teach college and pursue a writing career, her grandfather was an attorney and Gianna’s plan was to follow that path and become a civil rights attorney. The idea was to establish financially security, and then quit at age forty to read and write. However, Gianna was filled with dread the moment she was accepted to law school and applied instead to graduate school, earning her M.A. in English in 1983. Gianna’s goal was to stay in the Tampa area and she did just that, raising her family while teaching. She was an adjunct at various institutions before spending ten years at Blake School of the Arts, where she became the first director of the largest creative writing high school magnet program in Florida by creating, developing, and implementing its comprehensive four-year, 10-course curriculum of study. Gianna then worked as the Curator of Education at the Henry B. Plant Museum before settling at Saint Leo. Gianna’s vast experience means her teaching philosophy has changed over the years. Her predominant aim in the beginning of her career was to make students understand how wonderful literature and writing is. She wanted them to have her same passion. Now, she meets students where they are and tries to help move them along by increasing their comprehension skills and ability to think more thoughtfully and complexly about literature and their writing.
I asked Gianna what else has changed during her teaching career. “I don’t think teachers at any level are in a great place in this country,” she said. She went on to explain there are cultural biases against teachers and intellectualism in general, in addition to a number of students coming to university culturally impoverished. She finds it very distressing that many American students don’t have foundational knowledge of our country, yet “everyone knows who the Kardashians are.” Gianna states there is a loss of value for an arts education, which is a huge disconnect considering our culture’s love of television, movies, music, and theater; it seems like many people don’t understand valued artists are needed to make it all happen.
When asked about her best and worst teaching experiences, her answer for the latter was instantaneous – Columbine 1999. She was teaching high school in Tampa and heard the news of the shooting on the TV in the teacher’s lounge. This was before everyone carried cell phones, so she returned to class knowing her students were unaware of the tragedy. One student who had recently been hospitalized for mental illness got mad at her and yelled that he wanted to kill everybody. “Don’t say that,” she responded, “especially not today.” “Ok, not everybody,” he replied, “just you and me.” Gianna is quick to push that memory aside though, in favor of all the wonderful ones. Her mission is to make poetry accessible, and she loves nothing more than when “students just get it.” One such case was with a Nature Writing course she and another colleague developed with help from the Biology department. The students had fun as they could easily relate to the subject while also reflecting on the destruction happening to the planet.
This brought other social issues to mind, so I took the opportunity to ask Gianna if she ever had any classroom struggles due to being a woman. She nodded. She was stunned at the beginning of this semester when, as she was shaking hands with her new students, one young man tried to hug her. She knows it was his way of trying to establish dominance. It doesn’t happen often now that she is confident, middle-aged, and works to establish authority right away. Gianna also tries to make her classroom friendly, which she believes helps to diffuse some of that powerplay.
I ended by asking Gianna how she balances work and writing, to which she responded, “that’s such an awful question.” What she meant is there is no real balance, the struggle is always there. In her early thirties an established author told her “if you don’t write everyday you’re not a real writer.” Gianna had just started to view herself as a writer, and his words devastated her. But she’s come to learn not many teachers write every day. Personally, she puts in a lot of effort during the summer when she’s not teaching by generating new work and attending a writer’s residency. Then, during the school year, she can sit down for a few hours on a Sunday and revise some of that work. “It’s a two-edged sword,” Gianna says. She feels if she had not married and had children, she would be more focused and further along. Of course, Gianna very much wanted that family, but there is a tinge of sadness as she admits she might not reach the public accolades she once aspired to. “But,” she says, “after forty years I’m still persevering and that’s something.” No Gianna, that’s everything.
For more information on Gianna Russo, please visit russo15.wordpress.com/about/
For more information on YellowJacket Press, please visit www.yellowjacketpress.org/