A Place Built by Poets for Poets

by
Jessica Kashiwabara
12.15.21

While South Central Los Angeles has long had a vibrant poetry community, local writers lacked a dedicated venue to write, read, and listen to the work of poets—until this past summer, when poet and educator Hiram Sims opened the Sims Library of Poetry in the Crenshaw District. The new space represents the latest of Sims’s efforts to connect local poets to the broader publishing and writing communities. Though the library just opened its first permanent location, its origin story can be traced back several years.  

Hiram Sims holds a 1929 copy of The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes, part of the library’s collection. (Credit: Jamie Asaye Fitzgerald)

In 2013, Sims noticed a disconnect between the community of active poets he knew from open mics and the staff of small presses who told him they didn’t know of and weren’t receiving submissions from these poets. “I met all these fantastic poets, none of whom had books,” says Sims. That’s when he started the Community Literature Initiative (CLI), a nonprofit organization through which he offered classes supported by his alma mater, the University of Southern California, on the process of book production, completing a manuscript, and finding a publisher. In the fourth year of running the program, Sims asked students to read one book of poetry a week, but a roadblock emerged: They couldn’t find poetry books at the library. “I didn’t believe them, and then I went to the local library and there was no poetry section,” says Sims. To help his students, Sims gathered eighty poetry books of his own and put them into a rolling suitcase to take to class. Students borrowed books and returned them the next week. Sims recalls one of his students saying, “This is like a little Sims library of poetry,” and the name and concept stuck with him.  

A year later, in 2018, Sims built a bookshelf from scrap wood and cleared out his garage to make room for the beginnings of a library. Soon his CLI students weren’t the only frequent borrowers, as local poets began visiting his garage seeking books by Amiri Baraka, E. E. Cummings, and Nikki Giovanni, to name a few. With demand growing, Sims enlisted his brother to help him build a wraparound bookshelf to line his entire garage. He then ran into a new problem: “I had about three hundred books of poetry, and when I put my books on that huge shelf, it looked like I had six books.” There was room to grow. In 2019, Sims hosted his birthday party at the garage and turned to his poetry community for help, asking for book donations to the library. At the end of the day there were two thousand books filling the shelves.

Still, Sims wanted to do more. “I always had a larger vision, even before I built those bookshelves in my garage,” he says. The pandemic offered a blessing in disguise. In June 2020 his wife, educator Charisse Sims, decided to close the preschool she operated and suggested the space for the library. Soon volunteers gathered and the team was off and running. “Over the span of six months, we converted a preschool into a library,” says Sims. The pandemic delayed the opening but offered time to create a circulation desk and digital catalog and to hire staff. On July 10, 2021, the Sims Library of Poetry, located on Florence Avenue, just a few blocks from Sims’s garage, officially opened to the public. 

“We have over six thousand books of poetry now, and 90 percent of those books were donated by poets,” says Sims. There are sections for full-length collections, chapbooks, anthologies, biographies, literary journals,  and magazines, as well as shelves dedicated to books by Latinx and African American writers. Painted on the concrete fence in front of the library are the words “Poetry Lives Here,” and inside on the walls are posters of book releases from local poets and a collage of flyers from poetry events in the area—a reminder, Sims says, that poetry “needs to be heard, not just read” and for poets to “stay active.” There is also a private writing room, a computer lab, and an outdoor reading area with space for events. Out front is a reserved parking spot marked “Poet Parking Only.”

“We want to make sure that all local poets, especially poets of color, know we are here and that this is a home for them,” says library manager and member of the CLI community Karo Ska. The library is currently open Monday through Friday, 9:30 AM to 2:30 PM, and Saturday from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Several events a month have been hosted at the space already, including workshops, book releases, open mics, and readings, with more to come. “We are growing, blooming, and expanding every day,” says Ska.

From the poets who donated books to the garage and the volunteers who helped build and help run the library to the donors whose funds help sustain and support the growth of the space, the Sims Library of Poetry is a testament to the power of poetic community. “Poets mop the floor, poets sweep, poets dust, poets pay the light bills and gas bills,” says Sims. “It’s a place that’s built by poets for the reading, writing, and performance of poetry.” It is a home poets can rely on. 

 

Jessica Kashiwabara is the digital director of Poets & Writers, Inc.