Poetry Month: Sims Library of Poetry

Catherine Sturgeon, Children's Librarian, Angeles Mesa Branch Library,
Sims Poetry Library from the outside
“You begin as a dream in a suitcase, / made of plastic wheels bit broken from sharp gravel”—Florence and Fifth Avenue by Anastasia Helena Fenald

It began with a man and a suitcase of poetry. Hiram Sims, professor, and poet started this journey by loaning books of poems to his students at the Community Literature Initiative’s (CLI) Poetry Publishing Class. One of the requirements for the class was to read a poetry book a week. However, the students were having a hard time finding poetry books at their local library so Sims began loaning out his own from a suitcase he bought at Ross. A student called it the “Little Sims Library of Poetry.” And the idea was born. The library was then moved to Sims’ garage, where the collection grew through community donations. In 2020, the library found its stand-alone space (a former childcare center) on Florence Ave, between Crenshaw Boulevard and Western Avenue. It is now the first Black-operated poetry library in the state of California, boasting almost 7,000 volumes of poetry and a venue for open mics, workshops, and performances.

The library is painted in shades of marine blue with a mural at the entrance to the parking lot declaring: “Poetry Lives Here.” The dragon featured on that mural and one inside the lot represent “the fire inside,” those flames of creation living inside of poets and flaming into poetry. A mural of Langston Hughes holding an open book and the words of his poem “Dreams” adorns one wall of the lot. When you first step inside the library, there is a small store with poetry books and merchandise and on one wall is a photographic timeline of the library hanging above Hiram Sims’s original suitcase. Stepping into the hallway, there is a private writing room for the community to reserve and use on Saturdays. This quiet space has walls covered in lines of poetry from Lynne Thompson, Kamau Daáood, William Butler Yeats, and others. Through the hallway is the library itself, with its bookshelves lined with rare books, books of poetry, poetry anthologies, poetry periodicals, poetry translations on three walls, with a comfortable and inviting sitting area in the middle of the room. The sheer amount of poetry in one space is an unexpected and welcome delight. Outside is a patio where the readings, open mics, and children’s activities take place. A bright blue piano with lyrics written on the sides sits underneath a mural of an open book with a quote from Voltaire: “Poetry is the music of the soul and above all, of great and feeling souls.”

Sims, his wife Charisse Sims, and the stalwart library staff—many of whom are poets themselves—have nurtured this passion and vision. The library’s mission is “to serve, educate, and find love for poetry, especially for marginalized people of color in the community of South Los Angeles.”

I spoke with Karo Ska, the library manager for Sims Library, who is also a poet and a teacher.

April is Poetry Month but every month, every day is Poetry Month for you. How do you celebrate something so essential, how do you bring your passion for poetry alive for others?

We celebrate poetry by providing a home for it. Here at the library, you sit amongst thousands of poets, past and present, well-known and emerging, big press and indie press. We encourage folks to spend time reading, reciting, or writing poetry. In most bookstores and libraries, the poetry sections are minimal. Our collection is vast and continues to grow. We are proud to have books by poets that aren’t available at any other venues.

Not only are we a library, but we are also a community space. We host readings, workshops, open mics, and book releases. Because April is a special time for us, we are having a different event each Saturday. On Saturday, April 16th we celebrated the poets who work for the Library and CLI with a “Poets on Payroll” reading and open mic. On April 23rd, we will be honoring some of our Poem-a-Week contributors. And then we’ll be closing out with a “Survivor Speakout – Take Back the Mic,” in recognition of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The image of founder Hiram Sims and his suitcase full of poetry books just begs to have a poem written about it. You must have seen or written any number of such poems. Do you have a couple of favorite lines you could share with us?

“You begin as a dream in a suitcase, / made of plastic wheels bit broken from sharp gravel”—Florence and Fifth Avenue by Anastasia Helena Fenald.

As a poet yourself, what would you like to say to others, either in the encouragement of its appreciation or encouragement in the writing of it?

Don’t give up. Read every day, write every day. Daily habits help us grow our talent. Sometimes that may mean waking up an hour earlier to schedule that writing before you have to go to work or before the kids are up. You have to make room in your day for writing and reading or it won’t get done.

Poetry can be daunting, and sometimes difficult to understand. You have to find the poetry that speaks to you and that opens up your mind and heart. If a certain poem or poet doesn’t do that for you, that’s okay. There are so many other styles of poetry out there. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t relate to poetry considered to be part of the literary canon.

Also, make sure you listen to poetry! You can watch poets reading on YouTube or you can go to open mics or readings.

Nikki Grimes writes in “A Safe Place”: “I have learned to protect my heart-songs.” What would be your advice for those people writing in secret, for those who have braved sharing their work with someone they trusted or respected and had it dismissed or ridiculed and now keep it only inside and private?

I think the act of writing and sharing poetry can be cathartic. However, not everyone is going to resonate with your poetry. And that’s okay. You have to find the people who do and those people do exist. It may take time and perseverance to find your community, and it can be difficult to do so after feeling dismissed or ridiculed, but I’ve found that most poetry communities are welcoming, compassionate and kind. One of the best communities I’ve found is through the Los Angeles Poet Society and CLI. The poets come in all shapes and sizes and many of the events are intimate and nurturing.

Would you tell me a little more about your Children’s Art Program?

The Children’s Art Program is a monthly offering, facilitated by CLI student Sarah Pavsner-Mael. She is currently taking the Children’s Book Publishing Class. She comes to the library every 2nd Saturday of the month to read a poem by Shel Silverstein to the kids. After the reading, they create a piece of art. This month, the children made yarn dolls, from the poem “Us.” A couple of months ago, they made the “Bloath” (a creature from a Silverstein poem) from clay.

What is your hope for the future of the Library?

My hope for the future of the library is that it continues to grow and expand. I want more people to know about the library and that we exist. I want us to get more funding so we can be open for longer hours and possibly provide after-school resources for students. Having consistent and sustainable funding would definitely be helpful. More funding would mean more programming for the community and would help us spread our love for poetry. We want people to see and appreciate the diversity of poetry, and that all writing and all stories are valuable to someone.

Poetry lives here, in the Sims Poetry Library and in the Los Angeles Public Library, and in each of our souls. If you are willing and interested in accessing and unleashing that creativity–the fire within–or just exploring the beauty of poetry, here are some resources to get you started on or to further your journey.

The Beauty of Poetry

The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry
Addonizio, Kim

The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within
Fry, Stephen

The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets
Kooser, Ted

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop
Kowit, Steve

A Poetry Handbook
Oliver, Mary

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse
Oliver, Mary

You, Too, Could Write a Poem: Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015
Orr, David

The Poet's Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of Their Art

Writing Poems
Sansom, Peter

For Children

Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry: How to Write a Poem
Prelutsky, Jack

Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku
Wright, Richard

Write Your Own Haiku: See the World Through "Haiku Eyes"
Donegan, Patricia

General Writing Handbooks and Resources

Zen in the Art of Writing
Bradbury, Ray

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Goldberg, Natalie

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
King, Stephen

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Lamott, Anne

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Zinsser, William