TAMPA, Fla. — It's a Saturday afternoon at a crowded cannabis festival in Tampa. An electronic club remix of Billy Ocean's Caribbean Queen booms over the loudspeakers. Guests with pot leaf necklaces and trays of limp nachos mill about the ballroom, laughing with friends and hollering to the vendors over the music.
Giovanni Cerro doesn't seem to notice the commotion. He sits at a table covered in vintage paper maps taped together. A banner, and a pile of tie dyed T-shirts, display the business name: GIO'S TYPOS.
Cerro stares down at the paper in his typewriter, dark eyebrows raised. His shoulders are pinned back, spine stick-straight. He writes.
Tap tap tap
He pulls the lever back.
Clack clack clack
Cerro pauses, peers down at the words on the page.
He dives back in.
Tampa Bay's "street poet for hire" will write anywhere. He posts up at local coffee shops and the St. Pete Pier. He's been hired for festivals, weddings, corporate events and bachelorette parties. He's written around 4,000 poems on the street since he started in 2018.
"It doesn't have to be an 1840s sonnet," he explains. "I'm not trying to be Shakespeare. This is for you."
"It can be dirty, it can be funny, it can be happy, it can be sad," he said. "You just tell me what you want, and we'll go from there."
Cerro, 34, wrote his first poem when he was 9 — a birthday present for his grandfather.
He said a rocky childhood led him to express himself through writing. Cerro found inspiration listening to R&B artists like Mary J. Blige.
Around 15 or 16, influenced by his male-dominated household, he swapped poetry for football, bodybuilding and wrestling. By the time he was working restaurant jobs after high school, his heavy drinking started to become a problem. He began writing about it.
"I knew there was something not right with my drinking, but I wasn't sure what it was. That's when I started figuring out, through journaling, through poetry," he said. "I was trying to work through my emotions with my writing."
By the time he landed his dream job at Tesla a decade later, writing was still part of Cerro's daily routine. He'd wake up at 4 a.m., and head to Caffeine Roasters in Tampa for an hour and fifteen minutes of writing practice. Then he'd go to work for long days as a technician's assistant, cleaning vehicles and spending hours driving to pick up cars and parts more than 150 miles away. Sometimes, he didn't get home until 8 p.m.
"It was draining both of our souls," said his wife, Kayley Robsham.
After seven months, he realized the money wasn't worth the monotony. He wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do next, but he knew he wanted to write. So he left Tesla and headed West to visit his mom in Bakersfield, California. His journey also led him to Washington and Oregon. In Portland, Cerro saw a woman hunched over a typewriter, creating poetry on demand.
"I had been collecting typewriters already and writing poetry, but I did not know that you could marry the two and then sit on a street corner and write poetry for people," he said. "And then people would pay you."
When Cerro returned to St. Petersburg, he walked up and down Central Avenue, asking coffee shops if he could set up with his typewriter.
"The business plan was just like, write poetry until enough people tell you, 'you suck,'" he said.
Plenty of people said no. Eventually, he got permission to set up shop at Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails. Billy, of Billy's Corner Barber Shop on Central, offered $20 for a poem for his new granddaughter. Cerro spun a tale previewing what life might be like for the baby, including the joys that awaited her.
"His wife came back and took the $20," Cerro said. "And they gave me a $50. She was crying."
After 10 years of journaling about how he wanted to be a writer, he felt vindicated. He turned to his wife.
"I have been waiting for this all my life," he told her.
Building a business
In the four years since, his topics have ranged. He's been asked to write about the end of the world. Love poems. A lot of sex poems.
Cerro loads his sticker-covered typewriter with two pages at a time — the back of a vintage map, to write on for the customer, and below that, a sheet of carbon paper so he can save a copy. He carries his finished poems around in a binder. When that fills up, he saves a digital copy on his computer. He plans to publish volumes of books out of his street poems.
Most often, Cerro finds himself writing outside. Hyde Park's monthly market is one of the most fruitful events — sometimes customers order four poems in one go.
When bills are due and he feels the crunch, Cerro fires up his Uber Driver app and looks for riders to shuttle around. Sometimes he shares what he does.
"If it's like 1 a.m, people are really interested," he said. "If it's 7 a.m., no one wants to talk."
While customers can reach out to him through Instagram or his website (giostypos.com), he enjoys the human interaction of writing poetry over Zoom calls and meeting people at live events. At the cannabis festival in July, customers come one after another, waiting for their turn to request a masterpiece. They hover by his table, flipping through the binder underneath a sign that reads, "Here to inspire."
He struggles to describe exactly how he gets words on the page. He knows it sounds "a little woo-woo," but the process is like channeling. The less he overthinks the words, the better they come out.
"It's like a dam," he said. "Just open it up and let it come through."
The poems range from about 10-15 lines. He writes about skateboarding, cryptocurrency, bad luck, astrology. One woman asks for a poem for a friend who just had a hysterectomy. Another wants something to help her forgive a man she once dated.
"Could I get something sappy for my wife?" a man asks.
Cerro smiles and nods.
"'Sappy for my wife' is my middle name."
Cerro met his wife at Black Crow Coffee Co. in the Old Northeast, early on Father's Day morning in 2016.
Six weeks later, they moved in together in an 800-square foot apartment across from Black Crow. Cerro contemplated going back to school. Instead, they took turns reading excerpts from books out loud to each other and looking up words in the dictionary.
"Living with a poet expands your vocabulary," Robsham said.
To give people a jolt of joy during their coffee run, Cerro hid scraps of poetry around Black Crow. He'd feed Robsham hints to help her find them, tucked in between couch cushions or behind picture frames.
He proposed to her at Black Crow two years later. He did it with a poem.
Sharing his gift
Some poems are for humor. Others, for healing.
"I like to say I'm giving people permission slips to feel their feelings again," he said.
Cerro sees people's pain, believes he can feel it too. He internalizes it as he writes. Out of nearly 4,000 poems, only two people have sent theirs back.
These days, he finds interviewing his customers beforehand helps. He interrogates of the sappy wife guy:
Tell me about her favorite things? Where did you meet?
Eye color? Green.
First date? Sushi. She hated it.
Other customers share everything he needs without prompting.
"I've just been going through a hard time lately," Lindsay Caitlin, 32, told him at the festival. "I just found out that I might have stomach cancer, and my boyfriend dumped me."
Less than 10 minutes pass before she has her poem. She tears up as she reads.
So I forgive you
Cause I rather you love
The one you desperately need.
All this means is I am closer
To being seen.
"Do you want a hug?" he asks. She nods, wiping away mascara tears.
Only becomes better
As I open my heart
Life is just abstract
And my life is art.