The past few years have been hard ones for Poets House, the nonprofit poetry library founded in New York City in 1986. When Covid all but shut down the country in March 2020, the organization announced in November of that year that it would suspend all operations indefinitely—a move that involved laying off nine full-time employees, the exit of longtime executive director Lee Briccetti, and a divisive public back-and-forth between former employees and the board. Poets House intended to restart operations in late 2021. Then, that August, a burst water supply line in a condo above the organization's headquarters and library, at 10 River Terrace in Manhattan's Battery Park City neighborhood, put an end to those hopes.

Finally, on January 27 of this year, a redesigned, more waterproof Poets House reopened its doors to the public, with a reopening celebration featuring music by poet Cornelius Eady and his americana/folk outfit, the Cornelius Eady Trio, and readings from poets including Nicole Sealey and Monica Youn. (All three poets sit on the organization's board.) The space is now open again Tuesdays through Saturdays, with further public programming starting up again this week.

The organization has also staffed up, with seven full-time staffers, plus one part-time staffer, currently employed. Poets House currently has offers out for three more hires, and will publish another two job descriptions shortly, hoping to hire for those positions this month if possible, a representative confirmed.

While much of the building will feel familiar to returning visitors, executive director Rob Arnold, who took the helm as executive director in December 2022, said it was quite the feat to make the space seaworthy once more.

“We saw a tremendous amount of damage in the floors, the ceilings, the walls. We had molds we had to treat. The water is the first threat, but the second threat is mold, and mold carries through the air,” Arnold said. “We ripped all the floorboards up, we ripped drywall out, we did inspecting up in the ceiling and behind all the other treatments, applied mold treatments. Our elevator had been destroyed in the flood, and that costs a pretty penny to fix."

All told, the renovations cost roughly $2.7 million, funded through insurance settlements, City Council Discretionary Funding, a $900,000 capital grant from the New York State Council for the Arts, and individual contributions. “We had to dig deep,” Arnold said, “because it wasn't just to repair the damage—at a certain point, we realized that this was an opportunity to to incorporate some of the changes that we had wanted to incorporate for many years.”

Those changes, Arnold explained, include expanded seating and library stacks, the renovation of previously underused spaces into special collections and media rooms, and plans to revamp its auditorium space, Elizabeth Kray Hall, into an area with cafe seating. The organization also focused on floodproofing the building, which is on the Hudson River waterline, and decreasing its environmental footprint. That included replacing wood flooring on the first level with tile and rubberized cork, insulating and applying heat tracing to the piping, installing a heat curtain at its front door, and leveling out the previously sloped floor in Kray Hall—making the cafe plans a real possibility.

Then, of course, there are the books. Poets House, Arnold said, hosts about 80,000 volumes in its poetry collection—“although,” he conceded, “we haven't done a count in a while”—including chapbooks, children's poetry, and literary magazines. About 500 volumes were lost during the flood. “Books are replaceable in the sense that they're inexpensive, by and large, but the entirety of our collection has been developed over the years through the kindness of our community. It's donation-based,” Arnold said. “Any time we lose any single book, it's an irreplaceable loss.”

Arnold, a CHamoru poet and essayist, joined the organization from Seattle-based nonprofit community writing center Hugo House, where he was interim executive director following a few years as a literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management. His passion for literature and literary culture is entwined firmly with a passion for community development—a passion he nurtured while working as program director at Hugo House before stepping into the interim director role.

“I was finding a fulfillment in my career there that was very similar to publishing,” he said. “You get to make an investment in somebody's art in a tangible way, which I thought was really beautiful. And a lot of what I had been trying to do in my career was uplift people.”

Arnold places a great emphasis on “building trust in the community and supporting the artistic vision of exactly the people who felt excluded,” he said. “I am a person who has been held out from literary spaces as well. So that's something that I often think about when I'm thinking about how to build a programmatic vision for the community: Who are we missing? Who feels unwelcome, and how do we change that?”

Rebuilding is, in a sense, like writing a poem. It's a perpetual act—one is never really done with it, even when the last word is in ink or the HVAC system is humming. It's fitting, then, that on the second floor of Poets House, there is a line on the ground that clearly indicates where old floorboards were removed and new ones put in place. “I was worried about it at first, but now I think it tells a really interesting story about our resiliency as an organization,” Arnold said, laughing. “And maybe stubbornness, I guess."