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Politics and poetry? St. Louis’ next poet laureate waits in the wings while process is delayed

 In this file photo, St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro talks with students at an event presented by the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation.
Adelia Castro
St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro talks with students at an event presented by the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation.

Some in the St. Louis poetry community are upset about a delay in announcing a new poet laureate.

In December 2014, Michael Castro was ushered in with great fanfare as St. Louis’ first official poet. It was a two-year term.

This past December, the head of the task force charged with naming Castro’s successor told poet Jane Ellen Ibur that she’d been selected. But she still doesn't have the job.

When Ibur first got the call, she was completely surprised.

“What an honor. I was so excited,” Ibur said.

The city’s Board of Aldermen hasn’t made it official. Four months later, local poet and educator Meru El Muad'Dib isn’t happy.

“It’s a letdown,” Muad'Dib said.

‘Ready to go’

When Ibur found out she’d been chosen, she was completing a book of poetry. She held off on publication, wanting to include her new title in the book.

Jane Ellen Ibur, seen in this file photo, imagines history from the point of view of the women in the lives of figures like Hopalong Cassidy. She said that women often changed their lives to fit into the roles of wife and mothe
Credit Provided | Jane Ellen Ibur
Jane Ellen Ibur calls herself a cowgirl. Some of her poetry imagines history from the point of view of the women who were with figures like Tonto and Hopalong Cassidy. She said that women often changed their lives to fit into the roles of wife and mother.

“I think that might have made people take a second look at the book and give it a chance,” Ibur said.

But after three months, she had to go ahead with publication.

Now she’s been waiting in the wings for four months. But Ibur’s not bitter. She’d still jump at the chance to serve as poet laureate.

“I would say great, good. Glad to hear it," Ibur said. "I’m ready to go."

Ibur has spent decades not only writing and teaching poetry but also bringing the genre into prisons and organizations that work with people who are homeless, live with mental illness or are recovering from domestic violence.

The vote for Ibur was unanimous, task force chair Aaron Wiliams said.

“We selected the poet most qualified as well as interested in serving and who offered the most benefit to the community based on a past track record of community service, literary achievement and competence in the broad genre of poetry,” Williams said.

‘A blight on the entire process’

The poet laureate position is overseen by Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. The first few months of this year were busy ones for Reed, who lost his bid for mayor to Lyda Krewson in the March 7 primary.

Reed wouldn’t cite a reason for the delay but said Castro said he would stay on until a successor is in place.

Castro acknowledged he agreed to continue, “But not for the entire two-year term,” he added.

MK Stallings, seen in this file photo, founded the UrbArts organization in north St. Louis.
Credit Provided | MK Stallings
MK Stallings founded the UrbArts organization in north St. Louis.

Poet and educator MK Stallings was on the task force that selected Castro. This past December he told St. Louis Public Radio that he was removed from the committee because he and Williams disagreed about the choice for Castro’s successor.

Stallings called the selection of Ibur “laudable,” but said he thought longtime St. Louis poet Shirley LeFlore should hold the position next.

“In my view, there’s still more legacy work to be done,” Stallings said.

Williams said LeFlore was among four finalists considered by the task force. He also said the ordinance establishing the committee allowed Stallings' term to expire in June 2016, before the group decided Castro's replacement.

Muad'Dib said, regardless of the reason, the delay is demoralizing — especially now that April, National Poetry Month, is almost over. He’s spent two years telling middle- and high-school students about Michael Castro and the significance of poetry.  

“It’s a blight on the entire process. If Michael Castro’s term was up in December, how do you convey to children that, you know, people in the city dropped the ball?” Muad'Dib said. “And it makes it seem that poetry is unimportant.”

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL 

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