Updated: Feb 18
Poetry in greater Los Angeles has a vibrant history: from Beyond Baroque to the Watts Writers Workshop to the countless open mics at any given house or local bookstore. Amidst the artistic history and activity stands the Sims Library of Poetry opening its doors to community, which raises the question: what is the relationship between community and poetry? I want to explore two definitions of community and the role the Sims Library of Poetry has in the community to help us understand poetry as a communal practice.
Community and commonality
While there are varied definitions of community, I will discuss two definitions, starting with one that stems from its Latin root word communis. Communis is defined as “that is common to several or to all, common, general, universal, public (opp. proprius, that belongs to one)...” This root reminds us that community exists when people have something accessible in common. This definition reflects the Sims Library of Poetry community growth.
The Sims Library’s story began when founder Hiram Sims started lending his poetry books to his students. By doing this, poetry books became objects that bound Hiram and his students as a community; the books started distinguishing them within the university as a group of poetry readers. Rather than proprius, the book was treated as communis; this exchange opened up the possibility of a space dedicated to poetry.
This space first found its home in Hiram’s garage where he stored about 3,000 books and organized various events, including open mics and poetry classes. This shift moved poetry from the center of academia into a home that momentarily functioned as a public space where a community could gather. Because the collection kept growing, the books needed a new place, which led to the library's current location.
This development of the library to its current position in the community as a place where people can read, learn, study, and perform their poetry speaks to another definition of the word, one that asks us to examine the exchange not only of the book but of poetry itself.
Community as gift
Another definition of community comes from the Latin root word munus, which is defined as a “service”, “duty”, or “gift.” Michael Vincent McGinnis discusses the implied meaning of this root: “The word ‘community,’ in other words, is a metaphor. At its root is the idea of an exchange of services – out of duty, it may be, but also pointing to another dimension of the idea, freely, even affectionately, as a gift, or even a sacrifice.” (1999: 213)
McGinnis applies this definition to his discussion of bioregionalism, but I find it useful in thinking about the relationship between poetry and community. The process of creating and reading poetry is a form of sacrifice during which poets and audiences create possibilities for co-creating meaning. The sacrifice involves giving up time and suspending reality to enter the world of imagination where words can attain poetic meaning that impacts one’s understanding of the world.
From its initial idea to completion, the poem can take many detours, each of them redefining the way the poet imagines and reimagines themselves in the world. In Writing and Not Writing, John Oates explores the value of writing in a society that requires products as part of their economy. In exchange for writing, the writer must give up time: time to read, time to write, time thinking about writing and “the script . . . is the outcome of the ceremony” (Oates pp. 41-42; p. 47). All these activities, or processes, become the ceremonial aspects that result in that ideal we call poetry.