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St. Louis Poet Jane Ellen Ibur

Poet's "Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'" explores a remarkable friendship

Jane Ellen Ibur at her home in Tower Grove East.

photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)

August 28, 2015
It took Jane Ellen Ibur nearly 30 years to publish "Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'." It is an extraordinary collection of poetry and prose that honors the equally extraordinary relationship between Ibur and her friend Mary, who was many years older and in the employ of Ibur's family.

The book is proof that friendships between black and white, old and young can be life changing. Mary (black) and Ibur (white) formed an unbreakable bond when Ibur was just a toddler. When Mary grew ill and needed care, Ibur took on the role of caregiver.

"Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'" explores an 11-year journey through Mary's illness and death, and the profound impact it had on both women.

To say that the collection is solely about that journey could quite possibly be missing the point. As Ibur says in her introduction: "The book will tell you what it's about. Then tell me. I'm eager for the conversation."

What Mary Said

"… You got to thank the Lord for what you have. He didn't promise you every day it's gonna be sunshine. 'Cause some days it's gonna rain."

– Jane Ellen Ibur

Some of the poems in "Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'" were written just after Mary died, although the book as a whole wasn't published until December 2014. The process of grieving was a long and difficult one; it has been 30 years since Mary died.

Some of the poems in the book, which describe unappealing health crises Mary endured during her illness, almost didn't make the cut for inclusion in the book until Ibur insisted.

"I feel like that kind of stuff happened," said Ibur. "Nothing degraded Mary. Those were just human things.

"The hardest thing about the book is getting that we laughed every day," she said. "We cried every day, too. It's dark humor. We laughed our way through it."

The Color of Our Faces

"… They say I'm not her family from the color of our faces … "

– Jane Ellen Ibur

The first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson this August caused moments of reflection for Ibur, whose friendship with Mary enabled her to experience life outside of her privileged white upbringing.

"The Michael Brown situation brought all the inequalities in the black community to the forefront," she said. "There needs to be major systemic changes – and they're happening. But if we made any steps before, we've taken 100 steps backward."

Ibur sees the effects of escalated racial tension in her Tower Grove East neighborhood, with an increase in crime and uneasy residents.

"I feel there is so much anger, so much young anger," she said, pointing to the upheaval in under-performing school districts like Normandy, in which she once taught.

"What has that emotionally done to the children?" she asked. "What does it do to the teachers and kids to be displaced and unwelcome? If you're an adult and overwhelmed by it, think about being a black boy now."

She said the whole situation reminds her of Mary.

"There need to be more cross-cultural relationships like we had," she said. "We both had a foot in other worlds."

Warrior Poet

"The hardest thing about the book is getting that we laughed every day," she said. "We cried every day, too. It's dark humor. We laughed our way through it." — Jane Ellen Ibur

photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Ibur has spent nearly four decades honing her craft as a poet and educator. She's been named a "Warrior Poet" by Word in Motion; received multiple awards, including the Visionary Award for Outstanding Arts Educator; and has had her work published in literary journals and anthologies since 1972.

For 19 years, she was co-producer and co-host of "Literature for the Halibut" on KDHX radio, and she continues to teach poetry classes both privately and in public schools and other institutions.

A few years ago, Ibur embarked on a quest to write a poem a day.

"I did it for 60 days and stopped, and then I felt bad," she said. Those feelings prompted her to continue writing.

"I wrote one poem about a grilled cheese sandwich," she said. "It doesn't matter. A good grilled cheese sandwich can make a good poem."

At last count she had penned close to 1,300 first-draft poems.

"I have two manuscripts that are being looked at," she said. "I will absolutely start mining these poems."

Ibur said she has taught poetry to "every age through 93," from children, to Vietnam veterans, to Alzheimer's patients, including classes on the maximum security floor of the city jail.

"Writing, and writing poetry particularly, has literally saved my life," she said. "For some reason I couldn't keep that to myself."

She is one of the founders of the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute through the Regional Arts Commission, and continues to collaborate with some of the institute's alumni.

For several years she has taken seventh graders at North Kirkwood Middle School on an exploration of creative writing.

"I take them into the library for class. I come in, read a little bit and do writing exercises," she said.

And, brave Warrior Poet that she is, she invites a critique of her own work.

"I bring in a poem of mine and say, 'change 10 things about this,'" she said, although initially the students have no idea the poem is hers.

The students later take a field trip to the Missouri Botanical Garden and create a book of their experiences.

Ibur also offers private lessons in her home. Called "STL Poets & Writers, Ink," the program continues its successful run this academic year on Sunday afternoons, beginning Sept. 13. To learn more, email Ibur at poetsandwritersink@gmail.com.

"Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'" is published by PenUltimate Press. It is available in local independent bookstores and through Amazon.com. Reviews of the book have described it as elegantly written and remarkable, among other accolades.

"People who are frightened of poetry do not need to be. All will be welcomed by this book if it's your first venture into poetry," said Ibur. "It's hard because life is hard – but there are moments of such joy. I want the book to make Mary proud."

Ibur will be reading from "Both Wings Flappin', Still Not Flyin'" during "Revelation: Two White Ladies with Curly Hair Discuss Race, Gender and Privilege Through Film and Poetry," Friday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m., at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd. She will be joined by artist Sarah Paulsen who is screening her film, "Elegy to Connie."

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