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St. Louis’ would-be poet laureate Jane Ellen Ibur is 'incredibly disappointed' in delay filling post

Poet Jane Ellen Ibur, seen here in a May 1, 2017 photo, has enjoyed a storied career. For nearly 20 years, she co-produced and co-hosted the local radio show "Poet for the Halibut."
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
Poet Jane Ellen Ibur has enjoyed a storied career. For nearly 20 years, she co-produced and co-hosted the local radio show "Poet for the Halibut."

St. Louis poet Jane Ellen Ibur is certainly a character. She's appeared before a class of children wearing a cape and carrying a magic wand. She sometimes wears two pairs of glasses at a time — one for distance, a second for close-up.

What's not as certain is whether she'll be the city's next poet laureate. Ibur has been waiting since late last year for the city's Board of Aldermen to take action on the Poet Laureate Task Force recommendation that she fill the post.

"I'm incredibly disappointed over this, and very sad that it's been five months since I was unanimously chosen by a six-member task force to be poet laureate," Ibur said.

Ibur says ‘Jump in’

The panel charged with choosing the next poet laureate unanimously recommended Ibur, 66, in December. That put her on the path to take the post after the term of inaugural poet laureate Michael Castro ended Dec. 31. But the Board of Alderman has yet to bring the selection up for a vote.

As behind-the-scenes conflicts delayed the process, Castro agreed to stay on. "But not for the entire two-year term,” he said, in April. On May 11, Castro resigned. In a letter to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, Castro called it unfair the he retain the position after Ibur's nomination.

Ibur said she'd still take the position if she's voted in.

During much of the delay in naming a new poet laureate, Ibur put off publishing her new book. Shortly before her nomination became official, she felt she had to go ahead. The book is a collection of poems about women, ranging from Eve (of Garden of Eden fame) to Rapunzel and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Jane Ellen Ibur's latest book, seen in this file image, will be available soon.
Credit Provided | Winnie Sullivan
Jane Ellen Ibur's latest book will soon be available.

“The book is about women who have been voiceless in a semi-comic way,” she said.

Her curiosity about a woman she calls “Mrs. Noah” — the wife of Noah from Biblical story — sparked the series.

Ibur imagines Mrs. Noah as scoffing at her husband’s excitement after hearing that he’d have to build an ark that would hold two of every kind creature.

“Let me get you some water,” Mrs. Noah offers. “Don’t talk to me about water,” Noah answers.

There is a serious side to Ibur’s writing and teaching. But even as she works with military veterans, and people who are in prison or jail, she aims to make poetry accessible to all. Ibur compared her methods to a “put me in coach; I can play” approach to teaching baseball.

“I show ‘em the form, I show ‘em how to get there, and I say, ‘Jump in,’” Ibur said.

Her chief advice to students is “relax and have fun.” She believes everyone has the ability to express theirself through poetry.

One of Ibur’s favorite stories draws on the collaborative nature of her classes. She remembers a roomful of veterans whom she instructed to use a painting for inspiration. One woman stared at the painting in dismay.

“She said, ‘I don’t know where to start. All I see is green,’” Ibur recalled. “And the whole class, in unison, went, ‘That’s your first line.’”

The woman took it from there and completed her assignment. Ibur said the story shows that poetry shouldn’t be intimidating.

“Even the most minute thing can be part of a poem,” Ibur said.

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.