“Florida Man stories often go viral for their weirdness such as “Florida Man Arrested for Drunk Dialing 911 When He Wanted Vodka,” but there’s more to him than a punchline, which Tyler Gillespie breaks down through an exploration of his home state’s history, landscape, and his own recovery from substance abuse.
In the tradition of C.D. Wright, Gillespie — a reporter for national publications — utilizes journalistic techniques in an innovative nonfiction hybrid that merges poetic sound and form in pieces that range from alligator anatomy to Southern heritage to growing up gay in a Christian school. As Gillespie writes, Florida is not only a vacation spot or a retirement destination but an ideal state for “A country full of people // who would spend their last / chance on a dream & a plot / their happy ending.”
Tyler Gillespie is an award-winning journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, VICE, GQ, Playboy, and Salon. His poems recently appeared in Hobart, Prelude, Tahoma Literary Review, Cleaver, and Exposition Review.
He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and is in-progress for an MA in Journalism & Media Studies from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. He currently lives in Largo, FL.”
– Press Release by Red Flag Poetry
1. So, Tyler, your book is coming out soon – what should potential readers know when they see Florida Man: Poems?
The book uses the virality of the Florida Man meme — someone who’s gotten arrested for doing something bone-headed — to look at the state’s history, environment, and economics to see how they affect the country as a whole. Also, there’s partying, drag queens, and a lot about alligators in there — from anatomy to mating habits to the process of how their heads are sold in gas stations.
2. Your book has an interesting form, not only does it merge the Non-fiction and Poetry genres, but it also is constructing the picture of this entity, “Florida Man,” can you tell us a little bit about the decisions you made and the inspiration behind crafting your book using these elements?
The form came from wanting to mix actual stories from different points of view to get a fuller picture. I didn’t write any persona poems. Anything from someone else’s point of view is in that person’s words. I’ve been a journalist for about eight years. I kind of have a slow-burn style in interviews where it’s a conversation more than an interview. I like doing these long interviews, because I’m often surprised by what people tell me. They’ll tell me these really beautiful or ugly or illegal stories and for an article or essay I’d condense a quote or write around it. In a poem I can let all their words speak for themselves. It’s contained. The poem’s its own complete thing.
3. Why did you choose to write this book?
I think in some ways writers are writing their way back home. I wanted to contextualize my experience and give a perspective on Florida. There’s a lot of interest in the state because of our environment, politics, vacations, and crimes. People spend their lives elsewhere and end up here, too. They want to know what’s up.
4. What do you want your readers to take away from reading your book?
Florida is so many different things to so many different people. To me, it’s like a python: dangerously beautiful, misunderstood, pretty chill, can be deadly but it’s usually not. There’s no one Florida or one Florida Man. He’s a composite of a bunch of different people who have committed a crime. These poems, when put together, make up a version of the Florida Man narrative that I understand right now. His history is complicated just like ours.
5. Were you inspired by any other authors or any specific works?
A book that changed how I think about poetry is C.D. Wright’s One Big Self. Sheshe mixes in interviews — or conversations — she had with prisoners in Louisiana throughout it. That book, wow. I hadn’t read anyone that did this blend before, so the form helped me see a new path.
6. Tell us about the work you put into interviewing the people in your book.
One of my favorite interviews included in the book happened down in the Everglades. There’s this place where people wrestle rescued gators — the nuisance gators over four foot long have to be either killed or rescued. I went down to the Everglades, rode around on an airboat for a while, and talked to a second-generation alligator wrestler turned businessman. There’s a method to the madness. He told me about how he’d done it as a kid, how it had helped him become who he is. Then, I watched someone wrestle a gator. It was fun.
7. What’s the next project you’re working on?
I’m working on a book of poems about climate change and romantic relationships, which, you know, for some people are both major disasters. I’m also working on a collection of reported-but-humorous essays on Florida. It’s in the same vein as this book but follows a different thread, more focused on the environment and culture. So far, I’ve talked to a notorious pet smuggler and python hunters among a bunch of other people.