Poetry Library finds niche, if not a home

Poetry Library finds niche, if not a home

In 2008, Kimberly Escamilla founded the nonprofit International Poetry Library of San Francisco to serve the rapidly growing number of master of fine arts students and the corresponding boom in small press literature.

The idea is twofold: to provide students and the public access to relatively hard-to-find poetry collections and to establish an archive dedicated exclusively to poetry, which will include a physical space to accommodate events and poets in residence.

“What happens in those residency MFA programs is that each student is matched up with a mentor, and that mentor typically will assign somewhere between 25 and 40 books for a six-month period,” Escamilla says by phone. During her MFA study, she “ended up spending about $400 in shipping because the local library didn’t have all the books. And it’s hard because some of the books you want to keep but some you don’t, and they’re expensive.”

She points out that many of the assigned small press books become rare because they’re published in small batches. There are textbook rental sites online, but they rarely carry poetry books.

As a solution, students and members of the public will be able to purchase a membership that gives them access to the archive. When they check out a book, they’ll have the option of paying one rate to return the book and another to keep it – something they can decide after checking out the book. Currently, the library has about 7,000 volumes and 2,000 literary journals, all of which are in storage.

While writing grants and fundraising to find the right home for the library, Escamilla puts on a handful of regular events each year. The library has partnered with Litquake the past four years, producing an event at the Lit Crawl, and teamed in April with San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia to produce the S.F. Flor y Canto Youth Poetry Festival, which they plan to put on again next year. Another focus is to present poets who don’t often read in the area.

On Saturday, they present the acclaimed and married poets Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar at the Emerald Tablet in San Francisco. Laux has been selected for inclusion in the “Best American Poetry” anthology three times, including this year, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Millar has won a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award.

“We think poetry is often a way of re-entering your life in order to apprehend it, a way of slowing down or even stopping time,” Laux says via e-mail. “The minutes roll into one another at such great speed, and we get lost in the rush. Poetry allows us to settle back into ourselves and take a long, deep breath. Also, it brings pleasure to make something from the raw materials of one’s life, particularly from its failures and disappointments, but also from its happiness.

“We both often write about domestic issues: family, friends, work, daily life, though our subjects include more than that. It’s hard to pin down. Mostly we try to look out at the world from an oblique angle rather than straight on. Our poems can be serious or humorous or both. We like it when they are both at once. … I would say our poems are, on the whole, hospitable, inviting the reader into a world that seems ordinary, but which may take an odd or extraordinary turn.”


Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar: 6:30 p.m. Saturday. $5-$10. The Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno St., S.F. (415) 500-2323.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Courtesy Kimberly Escamilla