It’s not everyday you get asked to interview a poet about a book you would have happily chosen out of a line-up. But that’s what happened when Tyler Gillespie reached out to me with Florida Man (Red Flag Poetry, 2018), his debut poetry collection. A journalist whose reporting has appeared in GQ, Vice and Buzzfeed, Gillespie’s collection turns his searchlight onto Florida man, the world’s worst superhero. At least that’s the tagline you’ll find at a viral Twitter account that streams mugshots and arrest records from the Sunshine State. The headlines serve as the digital springboard for Gillespie’s poetic investigations: Florida Man attacks dancing flamingo. Florida man caught trying to smuggle dead alligator in car. Florida man tries to leave strip club, crashes into house, runs himself over. Forget oranges. Florida produces enough chaos to feed the country.
Yet Florida Man brings serious scrutiny to America’s favorite court jester. And Gillespie well-qualified to do it. He’s a Florida native (only one-third of the state population is) with a past nearly as colorful as his viral counterparts. Here he turns to poetry to weave together meditations on the state’s cultural and ecological heritage with a deeper personal disclosure. Alligator killings share the page with reflections on the poet’s white conservative ancestry. Internet-famous criminal defendants echo aspects of his own teenage arrest record. In searching out Florida man’s unlikely ascent, Gillespie sets forth a new kind of archetype to consider: one that reckons with his past while enjoying, and protecting, his present.
The following is a transcript from a telephone conversation with Tyler Gillespie, edited for clarity and length.
Elle Aviv Newton: You’ve been publishing poetry for at least three years, and I imagine you’ve been writing journalism a lot longer than that. What brought you to creating the collection Florida Man?
Tyler Gillespie: I started off writing essays from my reporting on Florida and I wasn’t really satisfied with what the essays were doing – what the form was doing. Then I started to think of them as shorter poems. Where the essay was trying to answer a question, the poem was meditating. As I saw the poems moving in a direction that I could understand, I thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s a collection there.’
EAN: I run a poetry platform called Poets Reading the News. A lot of that work investigates and serves needs that mainstream journalism doesn’t fulfill—emotional labor, for example, or connecting issues that get presented to us as isolated. That lacuna where poetry steps in is fascinating to me. It’s very real work and so many different poets are coming in to fill that space. You’re a working journalist; that’s your entryway to a lot of the material in Florida Man. Can you tell me a little about that career and that perspective?
TG: I’ve been a journalist for about 8 years now, and I think it all starts with wanting to hear other people’s stories. I was mostly a self-taught journalist. When I worked for my undergraduate paper, people were saying—at the time this was 2008—“You can’t get any jobs being a journalist.” So I didn’t really study it academically, but you can read enough journalism and read enough articles where you can figure out what they’re doing. That’s where I find it most interesting, where journalism and poetry overlap for me: there is a structure for them. If you’re writing a sonnet, then you’re sticking to certain tradition, just like if you’re writing a news piece. I had always been writing and freelancing and then I took an Advanced Features class in graduate school with a journalist named Keith O’Brian, whom I am a huge fanboy of. He showed me the power of storytelling within journalism. He made me start thinking about how to do it more ethically and how to do it more holistically. From there I learned how to pitch. I learned how to approach publications. I remember he told me the difference between being a writer and being a reporter: “You’re a really good writer but you need to do more reporting.” Which just means talk to more people. Search harder.
EAN: You definitely bring both of those ethos, poetry and journalism, into your work. The poem “Year of Headlines @_FloridaMan Twitter Account (381,000 Followers)” had me falling over laughing, maybe from bewilderment. I was new to that stream. Are those headlines taken directly from the Twitter feed or are some of them part of your imagination?
TG: That’s a really good question because my grandmother just asked me that same question. She was like, “You know, I found a couple typos in your book.” It was from that poem. I was like, “No, those are copied and pasted from the actual Twitter.” I looked at a year of what that account tweeted and I copied and documented almost everything in chronological order that they posted.
EAN: It gives gravity to the rest of the book because it shows what’s at stake with Florida Man: what he’s capable of. You go deeper into the “worst superhero” archetype with Florida man’s “viral counterpart” — a Florida woman, Rachel Hayes. She became a viral sensation for slapping her grandmother for not friending her on Facebook. As you point out, anyone can access police records from Florida. That’s how all of these different arrests are going viral so quickly. You track Rachel down in Fort Lauderdale. What did you feel about what you saw?
TG: I can’t make up those headlines because they’re seemingly far-fetched, but that’s how life is. So I wanted to go into what a real life behind one of those headlines was. I was talking to my friend about it and she said, “Oh, I know two people who that happened to.” Rachel happened to be one of them. I was working on a series of essays so I didn’t have a publication in mind. I just knew that I wanted to go talk to her to see what happened after, because I’m not necessarily as a journalist interested in the moment. I’m interested in what happened before that moment and what happened after. And that’s the story that we don’t get with the headlines. Also, these folks have been arrested. They’re not in places of power. So how do they get their actual story out there? It doesn’t happen a lot. [Rachel Hayes] boarded a Greyhound a little while after that night and went to a halfway house. She chose to leave because too many people knew who she was face-to-face here, so getting some distance was helpful. And I can relate to that. Sometimes you have to leave your space to rethink who you are.
EAN: What brought you back to Florida?
TG: I started writing about Florida Man in my grad school thesis for my MFA program. And so then I came down here. There’s so many stories here that affect the country in this weird kind of way. Florida is kind of a microcosm of the country. I’m an environmental reporter too, and there’s so many stories here. It’s a magical place and I always knew I would come back here. But I had to leave and go to Chicago and New Orleans and figure out what else is out there.
EAN: Something you don’t let your reader forget in this collection is that you are also Florida Man. One poem is composed of fragments from your own police affidavit from 2005. You also continually draw personal connections between yourself and the people you’re interviewing. In the poem “Alligator Mississippians,” you point out that a mere five out of thirty-eight alligator eggs reach adulthood. You finish that reflection by writing, “I’m no good at math, but my years of sobriety say that’s a fighting chance.” Are you trying to become a different kind of Florida Man and to redefine what that could be? That it could be someone happy, with limits, who uses their creativity for healing?
TG: That’s beautiful. Yes. People are complex. These stories are complex. When I got arrested, I didn’t understand what was going on with me as an alcoholic, because I was 18. So, I learned after that about my own drinking and my own history with it, that, “Oh wait, I’m a textbook alcoholic.” It’s learning to have compassion for myself because that’s the lowest point. I’m in no way proud of that moment at all. In some ways, it doesn’t feel like even me when I think about it, but it’s very much me. And I always have to remind myself, “That is me,” so that it won’t happen again. So writing about sobriety is probably one of the hardest things for me to do. I’ve had publishers ask me to write about it, and I’ve declined because it’s something that can go away so quickly for some people. I’ve known people that have been sober for 10 years and just literally decide to drink one day. I don’t know why that is. We have tools, and it’s not like everyone that’s sober for 10 years is going to do that, but I take that very seriously. So I know that’s a possibility. I don’t necessarily want to remind anyone more so than myself. As a journalist, when telling these stories, I have to be transparent first of all with the person I’m writing about. With Rachel, specifically, she didn’t necessarily want to talk to me until after I told her, “Hey, I’m not trying to make fun of you, I can relate to some things that happened to you.” I obviously can’t relate to the public nature of it. With the affidavit I’ve thought a lot about not including it because it is something I’m not proud of. But then I’m like, if I’m going to write about other people’s affidavits, I’m going to be writing about mine. And if I say these records are public, then I have to expect someone to look up my record.
EAN: Right. You are creating from a situation of vulnerability.
TG: One thing I just remembered—I teach an introduction to journalism class, and I teach the students how to look up public records. One time I did it using my own name, which was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. And then I looked up my name and — there are the charges. What I talk about too is that people can be charged with something—that doesn’t mean that’s what they’re convicted of. But if you look up someone and you see these charges, you think, “Oh damn, oh wow, that person shouldn’t be trusted” or something.
EAN: The way that this book is framed — you as the author has had experiences like that, and after reading the Twitter poem — one might think that a lot of people in Florida have such a colorful history.
TG: I think for me, a lot of the people I know, have all had our moments. If you live in a place like Chicago you’re not going to have the same beach life/party/spring break atmosphere we have here. Where I live, Clearwater Beach, is a huge spring break place. Fort Lauderdale, where Rachel lives, is a huge spring break place. There is a culture. Only a third of the people that live here were born here. People’s relationships to the land, the laws and community aren’t necessarily as developed as in other places. The way certain people treat the land seems like they’re not very connected to it. But we like to have fun here. Just because someone’s a Florida Man, doesn’t mean they’re actually a Floridian or even live in the state. They could be down here for work or for spring break and then they get arrested. They’re not necessarily living here. And then they may have to live here because they have to come back for court and so they move here.
EAN: You’re an environmental reporter, and in a lot of ways that informs your work. The very first poem, “Alligator Mississippian,” describes how from the minute tourism arrived in Florida, there’s such a sense of violence toward the natural landscape and the animals that live there:
ppl would pay good $$$ to see gator moved
off tracks & kept in outhouse a roadside
attraction. Soon people began to shoot
gators for fun let bloody bodies float
down St. John’s River. State mythology
hardly ever pretty…
So as one reads this book, it’s really interesting; I’m learning so much about alligators! And they turn out to be a fruitful way of looking at masculinity. Can you speak to how the alligator became such an important metaphor for you?
TG: So the alligators, growing up, were just always around. I love them so much. I just love them. They’re very misunderstood. I was writing an article about the new roadside attraction, which is ecotourism here. That’s when I interviewed the alligator wrestlers and Billy Walker. Then I was just writing about alligators. Someone who read the early manuscript was telling me what you just said and I was like, “Oh, you’re right.” The alligator is a metaphor for queerness. For being misunderstood but important to the environment. It’s a metaphor for masculinity, alcoholism. It was doing a lot of work I wasn’t realizing. Which I think is the thing about poetry that’s so exciting: it’s doing work for you that is more associative. When you go to an essay, there isn’t so much room for that associative thinking or for the reader to make those leaps. The way that people read the poems, they have a little bit more freedom.
EAN: There’s a trend in journalism over the last few years for writers to be more upfront about their perspective, to try to identify their own biases or state their own race, gender, or sexuality for example. In that line of development within the journalistic form, I think that this book is a radical demonstration. For that reason it’s so valuable to read Florida Man.
TG: And I think it’s super important we think about who has historically written journalism or at least been lauded for it. It’s people with power. They sometimes miss certain stories that someone who is being transparent with their position can get into with more nuance.
EAN: In the poem Tampa Queen, you write about the drag queen Crystal Chambers. Later in the poem you talk about a drag queen that died, possibly of violence. I think about the Pulse nightclub shooting, though that’s not explicitly mentioned. Talking about the queer scene, you give the feeling that it’s dissolved somehow, that the power of it isn’t quite as you remember it being in the mid-2000s as a teenager.
TG: There is one poem, the poem about a dance floor in Florida, that is dedicated to one of my friends who died at the Pulse shooting. I knew I wanted to include it, but I didn’t know how, so I just wrote a poem for my friend. I wasn’t too literal with it. But with Tampa Queen, it’s mostly thinking about how queer stories are sometimes not told or sometimes swept under the rug. There’s so much violence, especially against trans people, that doesn’t go reported. Crystal Chambers was the first drag queen that I ever saw. The queen that died was another person that I knew. I think the scene is always going to be different when you’re a teenager or when you’re drinking. Underneath that what I’m trying to get at is that there’s a lot of glitz and a lot of potential, but we need to take better care of each other as a community and be looking out for each other. When I think back, you know, I could [have been] doing a better job, or other people could have for me. So I want to take that forward and look out for people in a different kind of way.
EAN: That’s a beautiful thing to say. What a great reminder for everyone. One of the questions that rises up in your poetic research is whether Florida is even Southern. You write about discovering your old baby bib with a Confederate flag and your name stitched below it. I wanted to hear a little bit more about that. It’s hard to share that with the world. I think it’s a very essential conversation to be having right now.
TG: A lot of people want to divorce Florida from a history, period, like there’s no history in Florida. “It’s a place where people can go” – it’s a tourist destination, it’s a retirement place, it’s almost like a receptacle for anything. To divorce the history from it means we don’t have to grapple with it or think about it or confront it. In my research talking to people about it, undoubtedly, politically, it’s a Southern state. What does that mean for people to say, it’s not a Southern state? Maybe they don’t want to move here from the North and grapple with that kind of history. In the Civil War, there were battles fought here in north Florida. I’m writing a book of essays called Florida Man and Monsters, where I look a lot more in-depth about the animal, ecology, environment, and history. For one of the essays I’m going to a Civil War reënactment in Florida, because they have them here.
EAN: If that doesn’t answer the question, what will?
TG: Right? I think people want to think about Florida as a place where anything goes – “It doesn’t matter, we can treat the land and people however we want.” And it’s just not the case because so many people live here.
EAN: In some ways, I see that as a sort of conservative fantasy: acting without consequence and being able to take without consequence. I was trying to figure out how many days has Trump spent in Florida while in office. As it turns out, a lot.
TG: He’s here all the time golfing and the area he lives in, Palm Beach, [has] some of the highest income discrepancy in the country. There’s a lot of service industry people here. But it’s a beautiful place, a magical place.
EAN: Yes. Can we do something to restore some of the wonder to Florida in this interview? Perhaps we’ve meditated on the negative qualities too much?
TG: I don’t feel like we’ve talked about anything negative. It’s just how it is, and unpacking it. I love the state, and I love the people that are here working to make it better because it’s not easy. I just got done doing a piece on Equality Florida, which is our largest LGBTQ organization state-wide. They made me really understand politically that this a Republican, conservative area, and [for] the people working here to make it better for those communities, it’s not easy. In the last poem, I got to swim with dolphins and manatees. The other day going to work I saw a dolphin jump out of the water. I had this weirdly spiritual connection with that dolphin. I was like, this is a good place to be and a good place to be from. I love it.
EAN: That’s beautiful. You saw a dolphin!
TG: I saw the dolphin, and then a bird flew overhead with a fish in its mouth. The landscape’s beautiful. And there are a lot of good people here. Like I said, for writers, there’s so many people who have stories because they come here for their second chance. And because our bankruptcy laws are a little bit more lenient than other states.
EAN: Amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me Tyler and reaching out about your new book!
Elle Aviv Newton is a writer and cultural producer from Oakland. She is co-founder and editor of Poets Reading the News. Newton’s writing has appeared in print and digital publications, on national radio, and was recently adapted for the stage. She’s based in Big Sur, California. www.elleavivnewton.com.
Tyler Gillespie is the author of Florida Man: Poems (Red Flag Poetry, 2018), and the co-editor of The Awkward Phase: The Uplifting Tales of Those Weird Kids You Went to School With (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016). Find him on Twitter: @TylerMTG and his website at www.tylermtg.com.