The poet who took his idea from suitcase to shelf space 00:00

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The poet who took his idea from suitcase to shelf space

A South Los Angeles teacher started a poetry library to help his students keep up with their reading assignments. Now, Hiram Sims says the Sims Library of Poetry is more than 5,000 books strong – and he has sights to expand.

Hiram Sims: Poetry is important to me and is also important to thousands, if not millions, of people. And so people need to be able to, to access it. And I need to be able to share, right?

Aria Velasquez: Hiram Sims is a poetry professor and the executive director of the Community Literature Initiative, an organization dedicated to teaching writers of color how to write and publish books. He also started a poetry library. 

Hiram Sims: The Sims Library of Poetry, which I’m currently sitting in, we have 5,000 books of poetry, which include individual poets, anthologies, children’s poetry. Anything poetry related, we got it.

The Sims Library of Poetry in Los Angeles is dedicated to providing the community with access to poetry books and a space for poets to write and share work. (Photo by Susan Lee for IPondr)

The poetry library started as a suitcase that I bought from Ross for $38. I was teaching a poetry class at USC, and I made it a requirement that students read a poetry book every week. And my students were not doing it. I asked them why, and they were like, “We don’t have access to poetry books.” So, I put 80 copies of my own poetry books in a suitcase. And then I brought it to class every Monday night. Open the suitcase. Students would put a book in, take a book out. And so one of my students said, “Oh this is the little Sims Library of Poetry, right here.” And I was like, “Yeah, I like that name.”

Later on, maybe three or four years later, I learned how to build a bookshelf out of scrap wood. I looked at my garage, which had a lot of crap in it, and sort of like an unused space. And I was like, “I bet you I could build a wrap-around bookshelf that goes all the way around this garage.” So me and my brother built the shelves and once we stood them up, painted them, it looked like they could hold maybe around 2,000 books. So, I brought all of my books from the house into the garage. At the time, I only had 300 books of poetry. And when I put those on the shelf, it looked tiny.

I had a birthday coming up and I asked all of my poetry friends to come celebrate by helping me open a library in my garage. So, I asked all these poets to bring donations of poetry books. At the end of that day, we had 2,000 books. To me, it was a great example of just people coming together and putting in their 10 books, their 20 books, and people creating a library together.

But a couple of weeks in, there were some problems. Problem number one is there was no bathroom outside. And the second problem is we’re renting our house. And the woman who owns it lives next door, she was not very happy about me opening a library in my garage. 

This artwork, a reference to an essay in Maya Angelou’s 1993 “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” is a remnant from the former preschool that was housed at the current site of the Sims Library of Poetry. (Photo by Susan Lee for iPondr)

And I told my students that together, I wanted us to move the library out of the garage and into an actual public space. And so we were looking at different buildings online, and then the pandemic hit. And we sort of forgot about it, and I forgot about it. And then a couple months later, probably around April, one of my students was like, “Hey, Hiram, we were supposed to open a library this year. Remember that?” And I was like, “Yeah, but I was just trying to make sure that I didn’t die.” A week after he said that — My wife had a preschool in this very building. She was like, “I really want to close the school. If you want to, you can move your library into the preschool building and just take over the lease.”

You know, she’s really the co-founder of the library and giving us a space to be in. So in July of 2020, we moved in — or began the process of moving in. Again, me and my brother built the shelves with the help of my father. These shelves were a lot bigger and could hold probably about 8,000 books of poetry. So, it’d be like four times as big. There are so many kindhearted people that volunteered. We built the place together. 

It was about six years from the suitcase to the building. When you’re creating things, it’s not linear. It’s not smooth. Like “Up up, up, up, up, up, up.” That’s kind of how we perceive life as just like a gradual incline, but with anything you’re trying to do, especially things you’re trying to do over time is going to be some ups and downs. Right? But the important thing is to move forward, and to realize that the struggle is the part of the story.

Sims first set up the library in his garage with his brother. Pictured here is Sims with poet Kamau Daáood in front of the library’s original location. (Photo by Susan Lee for iPondr)

One of the things I’m really big on is multimodal access to literature, or using different mediums to consume literature, because some people are very comfortable reading. Some people are not. Some people would prefer to hear, and some people prefer to watch. So one of our goals is to always give people those three choices. You can hear this poem. You can read it. Or you can watch it. 

I see eventually us moving into a larger space and I really see the library as a place where people would come on field trips to learn about poetry, really endeavoring to create like a home for the art itself, for the genre.

My favorite poem is by Marcus B. Christian. It’s called “The Craftsman.” He says, “I ply with all the cunning of my art/ this little thing, and with consummate care/ I fashioned it — so that when I depart,/ Those who come after me may find it fair/ And beautiful. It must be free of flaws —/ pointing no laborings of weary hands;/ And there must be no flouting of the laws/ Of beauty — as the artist understands./ Though passion, yearnings infinite — yet dumb —/ I lift you from the depths of my own mind/ and gild you with my soul’s white heat to plumb/ the souls of future men. I leave behind/ this thing that in return this solace gives: ‘He who creates true beauty — ever lives.'” Marcus B. Christian. 

I love it. I keep that poem in my wallet. And I probably read it once a week. But it just hits me. It’s a craft, I guess building a library, too, is a craft and we have to put our energy in it. Richard Wright said, “The artist must bow to the monster of his own imagination.” That’s what I’m trying to do is sort of bow right to these things that I imagined — and serve them. 

Aria Velasquez: The library officially opens its doors on July 10, 2021. For iPondr, this is Aria Velasquez.

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