Wednesday, February 8, 2023
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Words Are Free, But Poets Are Cashing In
By Daniella Masterson, Contributing Writer
Published August 11, 2022

Community Literature Initiative Founder and Executive Director Hiram Sims has a vision of publishing 300 poets by 2023. (Courtesy photo)

When Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Inauguration ceremony in 2021, not only did it catapult her into greater literary stardom, the first National Youth Poet Laureate demonstrated the power of prose in a moment.

But Gorman was not the first poet to appear solus on that hill. Robert Frost performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. President Barak Obama invited a poet to both of his inaugurations, one being Richard Blanco, an openly gay Latino man.

But when America decided to pay tribute to one of its most revered poets by placing Maya Angelou’s images on the reverse side of the quarter in 2022, the caged bird flew, taking poets into a new era.

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“There is a poetry renaissance,” said Hiram Sims, the executive director at Community Literature Initiative (CLI) a nonprofit organization that offers courses on writing. “I believe poetry is like scripture if scripture is about writing the truth,” he added. “Poetry has always been written and published. The difference now is that poets are making money. When Maya died, she had about six million dollars.

“When people tease me about poets being broke, I pull out my quarter with Maya Angelou on it, and I tell them not only are we making money, we’re on money,” Sims added.

Sims is a sweet-soul person who transforms into an adept sage when discussing the works of poetry masters. Armed with a Master’s in Professional Writing (MPW) from the University of Southern California, the idea of a 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. job eluded him. After graduating, he launched CLI in 2013 with in-kind donations and free classroom space at USC. Today he boasts a growing  program of online and in-person classes in Los Angeles, East-Los Angeles, Long Beach, the Inland Empire, and Austin, Texas. The curriculum includes courses in poetry and children’s books. Tuition can cost up to $250 a month for a one year or two-semester program.

Tekira Briscoe was offered a publishing deal for her first book titled “Sown in Light” after enrolling in the Community Literature Initiative poetry-writing program. (Courtesy photo)

To qualify for admission in the advanced course for  “seasoned poets,” applicants must have an extensive body of work already. Once enrolled, students overhaul those poems and create more at weekly classes that teach them the craft of writing and interpreting poetry. After a year  of tapping into their raw emotions, their efforts culminate into a book and a reading at CLI’s annual Author Draft event where authors pitch their manuscript to local publishers including CLI’s own publishing division, The World Stage Press.

“This is our 9th year,” said Sims. “By our 10th year anniversary, we should have published 300 poetry books and 30 children’s books,” boasted the 39-year-old father of  six.

From the Black Lives Matter protests to the pandemic’s global disruption, the country is experiencing a massive cultural shift. Poetry and language have become part of the heartbeat of movements for change. Gorman said this shift has led to the current renaissance in Black art because there has been a surge of creativity.

“We’re living in an important moment in Black art because we’re living in an important moment in Black life,” said Gorman in a Times interview with the former FLOTUS Michelle Obama. “Whether that’s looking at what it means politically to have an African-American President before Trump or looking at what it means to have the Black Lives movement become the largest social movement in the United States.”

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CLI is helping to shape the renaissance by giving aspiring writers of color access. Tekira Briscoe is a former student and mother of two. She now has a publishing deal with Mama’s Kitchen Press after completing CLI’s course.

Sims meets with students after a recital. (Courtesy photo)

“My goal was to hone my craft at CLI,” said Briscoe whose forthcoming book will be entitled “Sown in Light.”   “I was eager to learn about the skill of poetry.  …Every week I was challenged. I was critiqued, pushed, and inspired. The lessons were extremely helpful, and the homework prompts made me step outside my comfort zone and see what else I could create as a poet.”

Some of the books written by graduates of the Community Literature Initiative. (Courtesy photo)

For more information on CLI, visit www.communitylit.org or stop by their library located at 2702 West Florence Ave. in Los Angeles.

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