Talking with Kimberly Mahler of the International Poetry Library of San Francisco
1) Tell us about yourself as a writer, educator, and editor. Who and what inspired you to pursue this path? Did you enjoy your MFA program?
I came to poetry late, after five years of teaching composition at various colleges. My initial masters degree was void of creative writing and primarily emphasized nineteenth century British and American literature, so I was more entranced with big novels (George Gissing, George Eliot), slave narratives, and Poe's short stories and criticism. With a few exceptions, the poetry rarely captured my imagination or spoke to me. It was a last minute decision to attend a Neruda workshop at Esalen Institute with Dr. Amelia Barilli that set my creative life in motion. In that short weekend, I fell in love with Neruda's literary and political life, his appetite for women and food, and, of course, his poems. I returned two months later to attend another workshop with Barilli on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My own appetite couldn't be satisfied. Numerous workshops with poets like Ellen Bass, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Kim Addonizzo followed as did a few night courses at San Jose State University. In 2003 I applied to and enrolled in New England College's MFA program. This was a new low residency program that solely focused on poetry. I had fabulous poet mentors and made life long friends with other poets. While I was in my program, I wanted to start serving in my own literary community and joined the Board of Directors at Poetry Center San Jose. For three years I edited their literary magazine, Caesura. Working from the inside of a non-profit helped me build my vision and focus for IPLSF.
As a low residency student, I was assigned by my mentor 25-30 books every six months. These books were not ones the college library stocked, and I lived on the opposite coast from the college. When I visited SF public library, I assumed I'd be able to find these books--no luck. So, I was left making hefty orders with Powells, Alibris, or Amazon, forking out huge sums for shipping. While some of the books are still on my shelves, many of them were not ones I needed or wanted to keep. I started thinking about how to avoid this waste. This is where the original idea sparked. Then, there's the allure of other poetry libraries: London, Edinburgh, and NYC. I feel the west coast literary history and current scene warrants such a resource. A public poetry library that lends, sells, archives--and for out of towners--rents. Our first phase for building regular income is to rent (Netflix style) poetry books to MFA programs across the US. There are textbook rental sites out there, but poetry is a narrow market, and most distributers don't want to touch it. We are also interested in digital sales for poets whose work is out of print, supporting poets who might feel their work is hibernating from audiences. The second phase would be to have a physical location in SF (we love the Lower Haight). We've worked hard to bridge the divisions in the poetry world, hosting readings of all genres and stages of career. Our dream is to provide a home for ALL poets/poetry (especially so many under-represented poets in countries that don't support private presses). We also want to serve students of poetry in a practical way: renting books, offering workshops, readings, and lectures in a fun creative environment (no musty smells or fluorescent lighting).
3) What kinds of community programming are you envisioning? Why do you consider community poetics important?
We are envisioning writing workshops (that's a boring and general term for getting the juice out), lots of hands on programing for K-12 and their teachers. (I keep thinking about how an earlier exposure to poetry could have helped me.) collaborations (Writers Corp, Rumpus, Youth Speaks, Center for the Book), and tours/talks regarding making books, poetry videos, all while appreciating archival items (we have a growing collection of rare items that wouldn't be for rent, but as artifacts of the SF bay area poetry history.
While working as an editor and even in my recent work with the library, I noticed many divisions among various schools or groups of poets. It's easy to become complacent or assume one has no need for the poetry on the other side of the bay or state. Sometimes poetry needs to be risky, in the face, on the walls, spit on a mic, mixed with video, tweeted, whatever. Only in a community of inclusion and funding can this be realized.
4) What can we do to support the Library?
Make a financial donation (tax-exempt), which goes a long way. We are a working board of volunteers, so all monies go to our phase one campaign for the MFA lending site and supporting local poets by hosting readings in SF and promoting their work.
Become an intern: We have room for a Facebook intern and a poetry blogger/reviewer. No need to live locally. Just be a big poetry lover with a penchant for words/people.
Interior Design/architecture intern: Need a graduate project? We'd love to see your unique library designs.
Donate books and literary magazines. Clean your shelves. We continue to collect and catalogue our 5,500+ collection.