Throughout the years, Oakland librarian Nina Lindsay shelved books, helped cardholders with reference questions, and aided children in interpreting their school assignments, sometimes with instructions from teachers that were somewhat lost in translation. As she helped other people, slowly but surely she was collecting something of her own: poems.
While she worked among the books at the library, she was creating her own writing project. Lindsay’s second book, Because, will be published on April 2 by Sixteen Rivers Press, a poetry collective named after the 16 rivers that flow into the San Francisco Bay.
It may not always be explicitly stated, but much of Lindsay’s life and experience in Oakland is reflected in her work. “I think that my work, whether it speaks directly to place to the reader, is very focused in the place where I’m perceiving it as the writer. Pretty much all of my poems, even the ones that seem a little strange and otherworldly, are set somewhere in my mind in Oakland,” said Lindsay.
Lindsay’s poems focus on daily and work life. She wrote many of her early poems while riding the bus to work in Oakland; some of them include scenes and observations from that experience. “Mostly I focus on noticing how people interact,” said Lindsay—in particular “thinking about small details that help us make sense of each other and the world.”
The first stanza in her poem “Opening Shift At The Bakery” reads:
“Hey, the streetlamps just switched off. See the clouds lift like pastry
layers from the bus commuters? Did I tell you,
last night, at tango, I had a duck for a partner, and I didn’t know what
to do so I just sat there.”
Her poem “Like” was written in the aftermath of the Occupy protests, and Lindsay refers to it as “kind of a love poem to Oakland.” At that time, she was working at the Oakland Public Library on 14th Street. “There were several mobilizations of activists happened right in or around the library,” said Lindsay. “It’s a good gathering point for people who want to gather in downtown Oakland.”
Lindsay and her co-workers would go down to the Occupy camp site on their lunch breaks to help out. “I’m glad I was able to witness it, because I feel like it was very, very different being there than how it was covered in the news,” she said.
The beginning of the poem reads:
“I love Oakland like
I love my dirty kitchen. Love
the morning bus like I love
the way that all of us who work in
this geriatric building work
despite it, and together
despite the perils of togetherness.”
Lindsay’s poem “Four Years Left on Earth” describes a scene in Temescal, at the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue. In it, Oakland readers can find references to the local Walgreens, Cam Huong Café and Bakesale Betty. The third stanza reads:
“Four years left on earth, it is Monday morning of spring break, and
three staff daughters work the counters at the bakery—twelve-year-
olds, cutting scones, delirious with capability. Sunday’s “Sorry, sold
out for the day!” sign still hangs at the door. The floor has not been
swept. The sun approaches the corner bank of windows, and then they
“It’s meant as an homage to the work that all of us do, everyday, whatever it is … how the smallest action can be heroic,” Lindsay wrote in an email.
Lindsay, who is 44, grew up in Oakland and attended Oakland public schools. She developed a love for poetry as an elementary school student, and began to read and write poetry in the classroom. After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, she studied linguistics at UC Berkeley. Through a family friend, she was introduced to a job shelving books at the Berkeley Public Library. While shelving books is physically challenging, Lindsay said it has creative benefits. “It’s a good job for noticing what’s going on in the library and being able to play in your own mind while you’re shelving,” said Lindsay.
There, she discovered a group of people who loved their work, and decided on her career path. She attended college in Madison, Wisconsin, earning a master’s degree in library science. “I found very quickly I had no interest in working to make a profit for someone else. But the idea of working to help people with whatever information or ideas they’re pursuing is really, really appealing,” said Lindsay.
Today, Lindsay is a supervising librarian for all children’s services in the Oakland library system, and she said that when she was working as a children’s librarian, the job provided plenty of inspiration for her poetry. Work as a librarian can be more challenging than some might realize. “It’s physically hard, especially in the children’s section because the books are all small and low to the ground, and it’s kind of dirty, you know. People—you’re handling these hundreds of library books that have been through so many hands!” said Lindsay.
Dealing with people at the front desk can also present a challenge. Not all people are happy. Some come in with fines, and others can’t find the books they want. “But I actually really enjoy the variety of ways in which you get to meet people and interact with them, find ways to help most people walk away satisfied,” said Lindsay.
This experience of dealing with people and finding out what makes them tick influenced Lindsay’s poetry. One notable theme in her poetry, she said, is “how to approach the day to maximize happiness for yourself, but also for the people that you come into contact with each day—picking up on what is good in the world and what’s not great in the world and trying to spin it so that you leave the world a little bit better than it was when you started.”
Nina Lindsay will read her poetry at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley on April 14, along with fellow Sixteen Rivers Press poet Rosa Lane.