Jane Ellen Ibur works to change lives through writing

St. Louis Poet Laureate Jane Ellen Ibur leads a poetry class in her home in August 2019. Photo: Michael Sherwin

Jane Ellen Ibur writes a poem nearly every day. Today is No. 3,014. She been at it for roughly nine years.

“It keeps me limber, like working out every day for your sport,” she said. “If you’re a pitcher, you have to keep your arm loose. I feel like I have to keep my mind loose and writing a poem everyday loosens up my brain muscle.”

It makes sense considering that Ibur, who is Jewish, is the Poet Laureate of St. Louis. The 69-year-old was installed last April for two years and is the third person to hold this post, following the late Michael Castro and Shirley LeFlore. Ibur says her main objective as the city’s poet laureate is to bring other people to writing and poetry rather than “how many readings around town I do.”

“I have a whole lot of places I am interested in working with,” she added.

Truth is, she’s already worked in a whole lot of places, mostly non-traditional settings. Her poetry teaching resume includes 29 years at the St. Louis County jail, where she taught male inmates in maximum security. She worked with female inmates, too, at the Adult Correctional Institution at Gumbo before it was destroyed by the Chesterfield Valley floods in 1993.

Currently, she is working with veterans suffering with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the Jefferson Barracks Division of the VA St. Louis and breast cancer survivors, of which she is one. Her other students have included abused women, cancer patients, Alzheimer’s patients, homeless people, underserved children and juveniles in detention centers. 

“I have seen people change dramatically through poetry,” said Ibur. “One of my friends who is a very haunted man because he was a sniper has found freedom in writing poetry. He is happy now. He is laughing. And he is still writing devastation. 

“But he’s like, ‘I’m here now, moving it around and it’s not going to get me anymore.’ He’s written over 1,000 poems. He’s a veteran.”

Pursuing her own path

Ibur, who prefers to be called “Janie” or “Jane Ellen,” met her spouse, Sondra Seiler, 45 years ago at a feminist picnic. They married in 2014 in Maui, one of their favorite spots to vacation and snorkel. 

The two live in a stately Victorian home in south St. Louis, the dining room of which serves as Ibur’s makeshift home office where she teaches a poetry class on Monday nights. (She also has an office at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s High Low building, which opened late last year as a literary hub.) 

Nearly every surface of the home’s back sun porch is covered with seashells the couple has collected on their many snorkeling trips. A dozen or so colorful fish mobiles hang from the porch’s ceiling, too.

Upstairs, one of the bedrooms doubles as the “cowboy room,” replete with all the Western accoutrements you’d expect to find, while a spaceship of sorts lurks in the basement. Ibur admits that she and Seiler may have gone a little overboard in theme decorating, but the results make them smile.

Ibur grew up in Frontenac, the second eldest of six children. She remembers starting a magazine either before or right after she entered grade school and would line up her dolls to teach them.

“I made this magazine I still have — every single page is nothing but scribbles,” she said. “The wallpaper in my bedroom was parts of speech in French. I read the writing on the wall literally and it sent me into being a teacher and writer.”

Ibur attended high school at Ladue and then went onto college at Webster University, where she graduated with a degree in English and a certificate to teach secondary English. Despite teaching being an early passion, she soon realized that it wasn’t a good fit for her at the middle-school level.

“I hated it. Grades, protocols, parents, administrators, I hate all of it,” she said. “It was not right for me. I did it for two years and I was done.”

Ibur says growing up, she “knew something was different” about her but she didn’t know what. While she went out with young men in high school and college, she couldn’t really handle dating, so she began to drink. It wasn’t until she met Seiler and they started spending time together that Ibur realized she was gay. Her family didn’t take the news well, and relationships with several family members were strained for years.

“I finally got into AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and I haven’t had a drink for 40 years,” she said.

She credits Mary Woodard, who worked as a housekeeper for the Ibur family for 40 years, as helping Ibur to face her depression and ultimately get sober. In high school, she made Woodard a promise to take care of her when she could no longer work. At 24 years old, Ibur made good on that promise; she and Seiler cared for Woodard both emotionally and financially until her death in 1985 at the age of 72. 

Years later, in 2014, PenUltimate published a collection of short writings and poems about Woodard by Ibur called “Both Wings Flappin’, Still Not Flyin’.” In 2017, her second anthology, “The Little Mrs./Misses,” was released – inspired by some of the “invisible women from 1950s Westerns,” she explained.

Ibur’s work has been included in more than 60 poetry journals and anthologies. She also has received numerous awards and honors, including a World of Difference Award from the Anti-Defamation League, a Visionary Award for Outstanding Arts Educator and the 2019 Outstanding Alumna Award from Webster University.  She’s currently at work on two books of poetry, including one about her own cancer experience.

Laughing through trauma

On a recent Monday night, Ibur’s poetry writing class took place like most other meetings do these days, through Zoom teleconferencing. The number of participants varies from week to week. Tonight, four students have joined the class.

One of them is Fred Kramer, 76, who has been with the group for five years or so. Kramer spent 14 months with the Army infantry in Vietnam and suffers with PTSD. When little else seemed to help him cope, his psychiatrist suggested Kramer take Ibur’s creative writing class at Jefferson Barracks.

“At first, I was like, geesh, I don’t like writing, I don’t like English. But I thought I would give it a try,” said Kramer. “I come to find out that it was Janie facilitating the class. It was really enjoyable. 

“Here is this gal who has taken me, someone who could not stand English, and now she’s got me writing poems. What the hell is up with that?”

Like Kramer, Heather Smoot, 58, first took Ibur’s class at the VA before joining the Monday night group about three years ago. She, too, initially got involved in the  class to help cope with her PTSD, stemming from incidents of sexual assault in the military as well as before and after her service.

Smoot, who served in the Air Force, describes her poetry as “very dark.”

Janie “gets me excited about poetry,” said Smoot, who like Ibur, now writes a poem a day. “Janie suggests different ways to go about writing the same thing, pointing us to different angles, challenging us to challenge ourselves. She’s so pumped about poetry, it’s infectious.”

Ibur teaches formal and free verse poetry. “We also make up our own forms, which I do with all my classes because when you focus on the rules it can shut out the editorial voice,” she explained. “Poetry is very fluid and you want to be open to surprises.” 

One night the focus is on the villanelle form, which has its own set of demanding rules, including 19 lines, five stanzas of three lines each and one closing stanza of four lines. Ibur supplies certain prompts to the groups — words or phrases to incorporate into their villanelle, though she is the first to admit she often juggles the exact form. Her students seem to trust not only Ibur but the rest of the group, making it a safe place for them to expose their trauma.

“That’s the thing about the class,” Ibur said. “Even though we write this dark stuff, we are laughing the whole time.”

Longtime friend and colleague Ann Haubrich isn’t surprised that a lot of laughing goes on. In the late 1980s, Haubrich hired Ibur to teach a class at the Writer’s Voice, a national literary program run by the YMCA in Chesterfield.  

“I remember the first time Janie came to class. It was overcapacity because at the time, there wasn’t much for people to do creatively in Chesterfield,” said Haubrich, senior associate director, foundation relations at Washington University. “Janie came to this class of white suburban women in full cowboy regalia. She said matter-of-factly, ‘Well, I was coming out West.’ That just set the tone. Those women loved her.”

For 19 years, Haubrich and Ibur co-hosted “Literature for the Halibut” on community radio station KDHX. In 1997, through the Regional Arts Commission, Haubrich recruited Ibur to help start the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute, which centers on art as an impetus for positive social change. The program continues to operate today.

“Janie is an unconventional person willing to take risks and a charismatic teacher with an appetite for the dark side while maintaining a sense of humor and wonder,” said Haubrich. “She understands where her individual students are coming from and turns that into something very positive.”

In her last year as poet laureate, Ibur plans to continue working with “often unheard voices,” including those in the Latino, Bosnian and East Indian communities as well as older black women in north St. Louis. She isn’t sure if poetry can heal one’s demons or bring disparate communities together, but she is certain it can help.