Writers, readers and lovers of literature have been singing Maureen McDole’s praises ever since she began Keep St. Pete Lit, a producing and curatorial nonprofit that puts the written word on a pedestal and in the community spotlight, in 2013.
As she prepares for the 5th annual SunLit Festival, a 24-event marathon that begins April 11, McDole – the CEO, executive director, head visionary and dauntless keeper of the flame – is musing on the origins of Keep St. Pete Lit, its role in her hometown and the myriad reasons she started it up in the first place.
“I saw literature as something you could take anywhere,” says the 44-year-old granddaughter of St. Petersburg’s legendary entrepreneur Wilson Hubbard, the successful scion of a family of traveling carnival workers. “So you can create any kind of event with a literary bent.”
In those early days, she explains, “It wasn’t really ‘If we build it, they will come.’ It was more like ‘Let’s just build it and see what happens.’ It might be that carny aspect.
“I had no investment if it didn’t work. I would just try something else. I didn’t come into it with much money; I think we had $800 the first year, to put on 35 events.”
In a way, it was inevitable.
As a child, she’d buried herself in books. “Reading was the way I dealt with a dysfunctional childhood,” McDole explains. “And teenage years. Well, basically everything. And I’m also a very curious mind, so it was great to pick up a book and get anything answered I needed.”
An introvert, she was drawn to biographies, particularly of strong, creative women – the likes of Margaret Mead, Georgia O’Keefe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Diane Fossey. They became her role models.
“I never felt like I fit in anywhere. That’s where reading saved me. And I would always write as a way to process my emotions; that turned into poetry. I’m a very intense person. I just loved the immediacy – what’s the point? I want to know the point of things. Poetry gets right to the meat and marrow of things.”
After an “existential crisis,” the dedicated bookworm and nascent poet moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she launched a career as an artist (but the literary fire still burned in her belly – she always included words on the pots she threw).
In 2002, “I was newly married; I got the house,” McDole says. “I basically had accomplished all the goals I had set for myself, and I was still unhappy.”
McDole and her husband relocated to St. Pete and, in time, she self-published two books of poetry. Within a decade, the marriage dissolved.
Still, something important remained out of reach. “There would be a couple of poetry open mics, and there’d be events at the colleges,” McDole recalls, “but there was no larger literary dialogue going on in Tampa Bay. It was totally underserved. My needs as a reader and writer were not being met.”
Keep St. Pete Lit was launched – on slightly less than a shoestring – in August 2013. First, McDole established a “book club” with the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts (a partnership that still exists to this day).
Surrounded my like-minded and supportive friends, and encouraged by how easily partnerships were made, she enjoyed the creative rush of creating “litertainment” for a city that, it seemed to her, was aching for it.
“I just wanted to have fun,” McDole says. “And I also wanted to complement the (Tampa Bay Times) Festival of Reading, which is very important but it served a specific kind of market, a very traditionally published market.
“It was really just to satisfy my own curiosity, and hoping other people felt the same. I had no nonprofit experience. I had a little bit of business background from studying pottery, but I had no idea how to run a nonprofit. We had no budget at all, so I punk rocked that and just partnered with everybody.”
Five years in, Keep St. Pete Lit operates on approximately $60,000 annually. McDole, who’s raising her 12-year-old daughter Lily on her own, says she’s “getting her bills paid” but that’s about it; she’s confident that bigger money will come, through increased sponsorships and donations.
Major support for Keep St. Pete Lit is provided by the J. Crayton Pruitt Foundation, AARP Tampa Bay, SVP-Tampa Bay, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the City of St. Petersburg.
Part of the organization’s budget comes from regularly-scheduled writing classes, at the Morean Center for the Arts, which utilize professional instructors on a contract basis.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the City, McDole says, 150 at-risk youth are served weekly with writing classes. There are literature programs at elementary schools, community centers, senior centers and more.
The SunLit Festival is the celebration, the apex, the icing on the annual cake. ‘Last year was great, and I didn’t know how we could top it,” McDole exclaims. “But we really are covering all the elements. We have kids’ events, we have bilingual events, we have events that focus on African American artists. We have an erotic literature event. Writing contests. A whole thing about southern writers.”
On April 20, a Keep St. Pete Lit benefit event – Baked in the Florida Sun – will be held at the offices of Behar + Peteranecz Architecture, in the Warehouse Arts District (McDole’s office is in the building). Including a sculptural installation by St. Pete artist Chad Mize and poetry readings by local poets, including Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke. And lots more.
See the entire, wide-ranging April 11-28 schedule here. “I want people to think outside the box with literature,” McDole says.
“It’s really an amazing time to be in this city. I don’t think I could have started this organization in a bigger city, or a smaller city. St. Pete was at the exact right size and momentum for Keep St. Pete Lit to take off. Because in a bigger city, we probably would’ve had so much competition, and rents would be through the roof, and it would not have been as welcoming.”
At the heart of the matter, however, is this: “I love being part of the community. I love helping my community. I’m raising a child here, who’s also creative.
“My favorite thing is to do creative things with people I love. That’s pretty much always been my motivation. I think it’s fantastic if you can help make the city better.”