Ann Arbor poet David Jibson on Crazy Wisdom's Poetry Circle, "3rd Wednesday Magazine," and his new book, "Protective Coloration"
It’s well-known that the life of a poet often means being attentive to the world around oneself, seeing parallels between things or living beings and their thoughts, actions, ideas, and values. David Jibson, co-host of the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle, uncovers these connections throughout the poems in his latest book, Protective Coloration.
The collection’s title is made clear by the poem of the same name, in which a restaurant scene unfolds "with the poet of a certain age, hidden in a corner booth / at the back of the cafe, as quiet as any snowshoe hare, / as still as a heron among the reeds.” There, we see the poet blending in while also taking in the view. Jibson welcomes the reader to join him in seeing striking insights through straightforward language, like the person in “Amy’s Diner” who, while studying the group of men in baseball caps eating the senior special, gets the invitation to “Pull up a chair.”
As people in another poem speculate while preparing and waiting for the arrival of guests, they are “as ready as we’ll ever be, / realizing, now, how much time has passed / since we last dusted in the corners of our lives.” The poems encourage readers to wonder at such things in their own lives.
Discarded books, notes in their margins, and an advertisement for movie extras lend themselves to observation in the collection. The poem “Casting Call” declares, “I’m a versatile actor who can play any role,” with the caveat of “if it’s small enough.” In another poem, an abandoned copy of Anna Karenina places the book and its main character on the beach, “the railroad station nowhere in sight.” Her fate is inked on paper. Yet, what if the plot could actually shift based on location of the book?
That question of what if also surfaces in Jibson’s other poems on topics ranging from string theory to having a horse and turning time to a favorite moment. When a clock stops, the response is to marvel at the battery’s lifetime and also to wonder about time. The poet declares, “let it always be Tuesday at 6:34, / just minutes before the lasagna / comes out of the oven.” The moment is compelling, and yet some luck and chance would have to be at play to stop the clock then. We all might consider which moment in which we would choose to pause the clock.
The poem “Ex Libris” offers suggestions about the sounds different sections of the library would make, such as screams in mysteries and clashing swords in history:
But in poetry, where both
love and death have come to read,
only the sound of leaves
falling on water.
The word “only” narrows the focus to just the leaves and water, yet the leaves and water seem to be enough. Poetry, as Jibson clearly knows, distills situations to their essence.
Jibson lives in Ann Arbor and is editor of the 3rd Wednesday Magazine. I interviewed him about the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle, 3rd Wednesday, writing, and his book.
Q: You were a social worker. Did you write poetry before retiring or turn to it in retirement? What makes you want to write poems?
A: I wasn’t writing poetry before retiring from social work, but I was writing stories—hundreds of them. We think of social work as face-to-face interactions between people. We don’t often think about the social worker’s role as a writer. In child welfare, there are investigative and fact-finding reports, court documents, etc. In many social work roles, there are individual and family histories, problem assessments, and service plans to address them. In medical settings, it’s often a social worker who conducts interviews with patients and family members, distills information, and produces reports that go into medical records. At the root of all this activity and record-keeping is the need to tell the story, and that job often falls to the social worker.
Now that I no longer have those roles, I’m still a storyteller at heart, which is apparent in the poetry I write, but now I write my own stories and I choose to write them as poetry because I love the challenge, the compression, and the intensity of poetry—of saying a lot with a few words.
Q: Poetry is very appealing. You are now involved in the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle. Tell us about the group. How did it start?
A: I wasn’t around at the beginning so the early history of the group isn’t familiar to me. It’s been going long enough that I am about a third-generation coordinator.
Q: How did you get involved with the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle? How did you come to be a co-coordinator?
A: I had been active with a writer’s group in Ludington, Michigan. When I moved back to Ann Arbor after being gone for more than 20 years, I wanted to connect with a writing community here. I found the Crazy Wisdom events and started attending the readings and workshops. One night I suggested to the coordinators that they should have a web presence. They said they needed someone who knew how to do that. I had developed those skills and knowledge through my involvement with the e-commerce of a yarn shop that my wife, Jane, owned at one time, so I volunteered to help get the Poetry Circle on the web.
Now, in a pandemic, we have experienced a lot of growth. Our online events can now include readers and listeners from anywhere in the world and attendance is way up. We have to figure out how we’re going to blend live in-person events and virtual events in the future. We’re having to redefine ourselves. I think a lot of organizations face these questions. Do they go back to their previous normal or do they modify the way they do things?
Q: Those are good questions. The Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle offers workshops on the second Wednesday of the month and readings on the fourth Wednesday. What do you learn from the workshops and from the readings?
A: From both the workshops and the readings the most important thing I learn is how much I have yet to learn from both experienced and from new poets and writers. Everybody has something to give.
Q: You are also co-editor of the 3rd Wednesday Magazine, a quarterly print journal of literary and visual art. How did you come to be editor? What do you enjoy about interacting with authors?
A: I think I’ve become the “editor” at this point. I sort of fell into it. I began my association with 3rd Wednesday from knowing the founding editor of the magazine, Laurence W. Thomas. Larry and I had a mutual friend in George Dila, a Detroit writer who had retired to Ludington, Michigan, where I lived for a time. Larry read a few of my poems and invited me to submit. 3rd Wednesday was my first publication credit. I had poems in several issues and, eventually, Larry gave me a feature in one issue. Then he asked me to join the unpaid staff as an associate editor. When he decided to retire, Larry asked me to take over as editor. I gave him an emphatic “NO” because, in my view, I was unqualified, having no academic background in literature or publishing. Larry appointed Joe Ferrari, another associate, who had been doing the layout for many years. Joe soon found the labor was more than he had time for, so I offered to come on as co-editor. We worked together for a couple of years, then Joe took a job that precluded his participation. I now find myself “editor by attrition.”
Interaction with so many writers and poets is why I continue to do it. Every quarterly issue, I send acceptance letters to about 50 of people. They are always thrilled and most let me know how much it means to them. Of course on the other side is rejection, but most people who are submitting are used to rejection and have learned to accept that it’s not personal, and they have learned to ignore the bad news.
Q: This journal includes authors from around the world. What do you like about reading submissions to 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and how do you select which ones to publish?
A: 3rd Wednesday began as an offshoot of a group very much like the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle. Over 10 or so years before I became associated with it, the magazine grew slowly but steadily, and it developed an excellent reputation. It was under my direction that the magazine developed a web presence and began a path to wider readership and more international diversity. I saw that as step in building the magazine into a writing community, a worldwide community. That’s the beauty of the internet and that’s where I find the most satisfaction with my role. The internet has changed everything about publishing, and now 3rd Wednesday is onboard with change wherever it takes us. It’s great to be a part of that.
I am only able to produce 3rd Wednesday because I have an all-volunteer staff of talented writers who know everything that I don’t. Six people read blindly before submissions get to me. There is seldom consensus among them about what should be published, but I rely on their opinions in putting each issue together. It’s democratic in a way. If three of my editors like a poem, it’s almost sure to get published, if two of them agree, a poem might get published. If only one person likes something, it’s unlikely to find its way into print. The final selections are mine and I have confidence in my decisions because I have confidence in the opinions of my associates.
Q: Let’s talk about your book now. Your recent poetry collection, Protective Coloration, explores a range of situations, from a tractor show to constellations. I loved how the poems engage with daily life. Are you always looking for a poem amidst the circumstances that you encounter? Do you carry a notebook in which you jot down thoughts?
A: The “where do you get your inspiration” question: An idea for a poem can strike at any moment and who knows where it might come from? The problem with many of those inspirations is that many of them are just not interesting, and those ideas fail. The first test of my own poetry and of other poetry I read is the “who cares test.” A poem can describe a small everyday incident, but it only works if the poet can find a reason for that poem to exist. The reader needs a reason to care and a reason to participate in a poet/reader relationship. “Old Tractor Show” starts with a mundane small-town activity few people can relate to, but the poem is really about people and their passions.
At one time I did carry a notebook around with me, one small enough to slip into a coat pocket. Lately I have not been doing that and can’t tell you exactly why not. Perhaps I’ve gotten beyond the need to do so or perhaps, in this time of plague, I’m just not going anywhere I’m likely to need it.
Q: Several poems focus on aviation. “Permission to Land” shows “a box of charts identifying all of life’s dangers, / … / and every radio frequency I would ever need / to request permission to land.” Another poem, “How to Fly,” introduces a pair of mourning doves and their chicks, while the speaker decides to “sit at the table with my cup of tea, / turn to the chapter on Takeoffs and Landings, / begin reading to them aloud.” Was there something that drew you to the topic of flight? Did you write these poems near each other?
A: Those two poems were not written near each other in time but share a theme because everyone dreams of flight. Flight was in our childhood imaginations, and it’s in our grown-up dreams whether awake or asleep. We all wish we could fly, and most of us have had those dreams that find us floating or flying around in our otherwise familiar world.
The two poems you mention reflect two different kinds of envy. In “Permission to Land” the narrator is talking about conventional human flight—a pilot with an airplane and how he imagines himself as a pilot rising “above” all the dangers and limitations inherent in being stuck on the ground. “How to Fly” is more about our childlike fantasies and how we long for the freedom of birds. In this poem, the poet pretends he has at least a small role to play in teaching the young birds what they need to know. We think we stop pretending as adults, but we all know better.
Q: What’s on your nightstand to read and recommend?
A: Ted Kooser’s new book, Red Stilts, is next on my list, but I’m approaching it with some trepidation because I fear it may be something of a “swan song,” and I don’t want it to be. It was my privilege to publish Mr. Kooser a half dozen times in 3rd Wednesday, including two of the poems in this book. The magazine has enjoyed a special relationship with him, as he has included poems from the 3rd Wednesday in his American Life in Poetry column many times so I know he’s been a regular reader. Mr. Kooser has been an influence on both my writing and on the aesthetic values of the magazine.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Protective Coloration included everything I had published over about five years. I’ll probably do that again, though my submission efforts have slowed some because I’m busier now. Maybe instead of another full-length collection, I’ll think about a chapbook-length effort next. I’ve self-published a couple of chapbooks in the past, and I like that I can afford to give them away with no worries about a publisher or marketing.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Thank you, Martha and David…
Thank you, Martha and David for this fine interview. I learned many things about David, his writing and approach to poetry that I was not aware of even though I am acquainted with him. Thank you for talking about our CW Poetry Circle and the excellent publication, Third Wednesday. Lissa Perrin