What’s the use of an office job if you can’t use the Xerox to make copies of your poems?” laughed Jane Ellen Ibur. The locally based poet and teacher had spent the afternoon cleaning out file cabinets in her home study. “I was once a Xerox addict,” Ibur said. “But now I’m in recovery. I just keep one copy of each [poem], instead of 50.”
The fact that Ibur devoted time to discarding anything in her study is a marvel; it doesn’t look like much has been thrown out. Ever. Shelves line the room, sagging with the weight of books and journals. Thousands of them. It would be a generic visual of a writer’s workplace if all the books and journals didn’t keep company with the photos, souvenirs, family heirlooms, found objects and infinite collections that fill every nook, cranny and sliver of free space. And rest assured that every tchotchke has a story. I’ve asked.
Acknowledging my response (somewhere between amusement and shock) about the organizing effort, Ibur confessed, “Oh, I do go through and pull books, too. Besides Xeroxing my poems, I do have multiple copies of my favorite books [such as “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham and “Transformations” by Anne Sexton]. I have to make room for more.” Ibur then went on to explain how she plans to enter each of these one-copy archived poems and save them to her computer. “So you see, I have a lifetime of work ahead. I could stay here forever. The only problem is, I have to teach.”
And that’s the thing. She has to teach. Yes, Ibur is a poet. Her work has been published in more than at least 60 literary anthologies and journals, and she’s participated in more than well over 125 invited and commissioned readings. But she is also very much a teacher. Ibur teaches kids: grade school, middle school, high school. She teaches teachers. The elderly. Homeless men. Prisoners. Through the Community Arts Training Institute where she is lead faculty, she teaches artists and community workers how to work together to bring the arts to at-risk and underserved communities. She teaches in schools, prisons, community centers, retirement homes and around her dining room table (to sign up for lessons, e-mail her at email@example.com).
So when and where does the poet end and the teacher begin?
“I have always said that I’m a poet first and an educator second,” said Ibur. “But I’m really aware that I give much more of my energy away in teaching. Teaching exhausts me, but I can’t give it up! I guess it’s … what is it? Yes, passion. I can’t not teach. And I can’t not write, so I combine them – I write when I teach, I write with my students. Often, this is where my first drafts come from.”
The most starving of all the artists must be the poet, so poets find other things to make ends meet. The professor/poet is the intuitive path, but famously, many poets wrote in the moonlight of less obvious career choices: Wallace Stevens made it big in insurance; William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician; T. S. Eliot, a banker. Ted Kooser, our current U.S. poet laureate, also worked in insurance before taking a position with the University of Nebraska.
Before Ibur was a writer, she was a reader: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot. “My mom had this great old school book that I stole for many years that she eventually gave to me after I returned it,” said Ibur. “I think in today’s terms, I might have been a real nerd. I don’t think that it’s normal to be sitting around reading Wordsworth at 11.”
While Ibur can’t remember not wanting to be a writer she knows exactly when and why she wanted to become a teacher. “I had an English teacher when I was a sophomore in high school who saved my life.” Ibur found her calling as a teacher of nontraditional students following a difficult experience as a seventh-grade English teacher. With 35 kids of all different learning levels in one classroom, Ibur felt stifled and ineffective. “I was taught to teach to the middle of the class,” she said. “Nothing to do with art and creativity. The system failed me.”
Ibur then worked a number of jobs, including the aforementioned office job where the Xerox machine was apparently in overdrive. “Oh, I did stuff I don’t include on my C.V.,” she said. “I did work at a law firm, where I typed up all my poetry. Ibur also worked in bookstores, including her favorite place on earth, Left Bank Books. “That was a little closer to home,” she said.
Eventually Ibur found her way back to teaching when she went to work at OASIS, a senior education facility, with her cousin, fellow teacher and poet Marilyn Probe. After conducting a workshop for seniors, she felt a desire to teach the nontraditional, at-risk and non-writer. “I’m a great teacher because my job is to give people a voice,” she said, “and I know how to do it. Poems tell the emotional truth. Everything that I teach is the truth. It’s not about writing about what you know. But it is about the emotional truth.”
Ibur not only finds the voices of her students, she gives voice to the characters in her poems. “I give voices to voiceless women, having them tell their stories. Mrs. Claus, for example, who no one thinks about. I think about her being bored and lonely. She thinks about what Mrs. Noah is up to and how she can get in touch with her. I think that they are humorous but dead serious. It’s the same with my teaching. I use a lot of humor in my teaching, but I’m always serious.”