“At age five, I had a notebook of scribbles, before even being able to write,” the poet laughs and pretends to draw in the air with her fingers, “It’s all I ever wanted.”
Jane Ellen Ibur, though she’ll insist you call her Janie, is an educator, poet and author of the new collection of poetry, The Little Mrs. / Misses, her second with PenUltimate Press. “I was already teaching too. To a class full of dolls set up in the basement. I always felt like an ‘other.’ So the dolls were really there to me.”
She grew up in an upper middle class family in St. Louis, watching the sharp divisions of gender, race and economics unfold. Even as a child it filled her with frustration. “I saw so many women give up everything to be a wife, a mother.” She hesitates a moment and begins to choose her words very carefully, “My mother was an opera singer, a piano prodigy. It’s exhausting to give up.”
Janie’s family had help with a live in housekeeper, Mary, who like many African Americans in the mid-20th century, moved to St. Louis from the rural south to seek better economic circumstances.
“I never could get comfortable in my head with Mary working for my family. I didn’t think it was fair. But she didn’t carry around anger; I did.” Mary would have a profound effect on Janie’s life. She would care for Mary in her declining years and spend nearly three decades crafting her first book of poetry, both wings flappin’, still not flyin’, as a sort of lyrical biography of Mary.
“I thought when she got sick I was rescuing her, but it was her rescuing me.” Janie’s eyes are still filled with reverence for her old friend now long gone, “I was reading the poem “What Mary Said” and I got to the lines about her not being able to bend her knees and stoop … I froze. That’s me. I’m the age now she was when she died. We’re the same now.”
Giving a voice to those often overlooked or ignored has been a reoccurring theme in Janie’s work. For nearly 30 years she has been teaching creative writing in the St Louis County Jail, working with people convicted of violent crimes.
“Some are young, in gangs, some are old, veterans some of them. I’ve been trying to get this one kid to write for two years. He did his first piece the other day and he jumped up screaming.” Janie wears a proud smirk, like she is talking about a child that is her own, “So happy. He got it. But why was he coming those two years at all? Just to get out of his cell? I’m a different race, different age, I’m gay. How is it they come to hang out with me? What makes people insane is being voiceless, solitary confinement, being alone, whether on the inside or out.”
That exploration of confinement developed over the last several years into her new book, The Little Mrs. / Misses, an ambitious collection of almost 200 poems split into three sections, illustrating the lives of fabled fictional females. The Bride of Frankenstein. Annie Oakley. Mrs. Noah. King Kong’s wife. The book, while deeply powerful, can sometimes read like one large absurdist joke.
“Friends have always said they can’t tell when I’m joking. The thing is I’m always joking and I’m always serious,” Janie is dead pan, “At my readings I’ll kick off with ‘I know you all came to hear devastating poems about death and we’ll get to them I promise…’ I’d rather make you laugh first and then have you walk away thinking, was that really funny or am I sad?”
Janie will perform most of the book for the first time with the help of a half dozen playwrights, artists, and musicians in a multimedia performance on Saturday, September 23, at 12:30 PM at 510 N. Euclid Avenue as a part of BookFest St. Louis.
Now, two books into a career of darkly humorous and socially conscious poems, Janie has become embroiled in a political kerfuffle regarding the title of poet laureate of St. Louis, a position she was offered and accepted, only to have her term indefinitely deferred. She waves off the entire affair. “The thing is I didn’t ask for any of it. I’m not ungrateful, I was honored. But I don’t care about legacy,” when asked if in the wake of this controversy she has now grown comfortable with that persistent feeling of being ‘other’, Janie pauses, “most of the time, I don’t think about what other poets think of me. Most are attached to Universities. I’m not. So a book is a sort of validation. But If I never published again either? Ok. I’ve still had a helluva ride.” V