An Iowan and a Poet

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized

by Laura Wille Fueled by a passion for her native state, Iowa Poet Laureate and ISU Distinguished Professor Mary Swander strives to bring out the poetry in all of us. Mary Swander takes her projects to Iowans.Bob Elbert photo

A fourth-generation Iowan, Mary Swander’s two-year reappointment by Gov. Terry Branstad as Iowa Poet Laureate is very fitting. Swander has written poems, books and a musical about Iowa, directed an Iowa-based reader’s theatre and is a Distinguished Professor of English at Iowa State University.

As Iowa’s symbolic leader of poetry, Swander has found many ways in her first and now second term to incorporate works of poetry throughout her home state.

“Poetry is a really vibrant genre,” Swander said. “I try to think of ways to make it more accessible and exciting, and get larger audiences.”

A friend and colleague, Neil Nakadate, University Professor Emeritus and former president of the board of directors of Humanities Iowa, said Swander “has a knack for finding new audiences for poetry and new poetic voices among those audiences. We see this in her insistence on taking her dramatic readings and other projects to all corners of the state.” All of Iowa As only the third Iowa Poet Laureate, Swander is traveling throughout Iowa. She has visited schools, nursing homes and a prison where she reads her own work, teaches a class or leads a workshop.

The tasks come naturally to Swander, who has written 11 books of fiction, nonfiction, collections of poetry, essays and memoirs, and has taught English at Iowa State since 1986.

“I’d been to all 99 counties before, but I’m seeing Iowa in a different way now,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to work with the young ones to the elders.”

Those corners of Iowa include making poetry more accessible to persons with disabilities. Swander and her ISU students have collaborated on poetry projects with the Iowa Department for the Blind and the Iowa School for the Deaf, giving the students an opportunity to experience poetry outside the classroom.

She also sponsors Writing Through Change, a free class in creative writing for persons with disabilities. Now in its third year, the response has been great, Swander said, and the writing course has mushroomed into photography, quilting and painting courses by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“People are finding self fulfillment through the arts,” she said. The theater, the theater The Iowa native’s popular reader’s theater, “Farmscape: Documenting the Changing Rural Environment,” continues to tour Iowa and the U.S. Based on interviews with Iowans, the production was written by students in her Writing About Environmental Issues class in 2008.

“Farmscape” documents the changing rural landscape as told through interviews with Iowa farmers, winery owners, bed and breakfast proprietors and a confinement worker. The production became a book in early October this year, published by Ice Cube Press in North Liberty, Iowa, and authored by Swander. Said Nakadate, “As long as I’ve known her, Mary has been interested in a diversity of land and landscape, from urban gardens to the Loess Hills. Her writing expresses an understanding of our relationship to place – land and water, weather and climate, and the everyday and extraordinary events that shape people’s lives. Another way to put it: Mary helps people see that poetry is what-we-say in collaboration with where-we-are.”

Her next play will be yet another way to experience poetry. “Blind Sculpture,” inspired by the work with the Department for the Blind, will open later this year on the ISU campus. Swander transformed the students’ poetry into dramatic form. Directed by Matt Foss, lecturer in the Department of Music and Theatre, special effects will give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be visually impaired. Promoter of poetry Swander also continues to promote her other compositions, many of which revolve around the people and landscape of Iowa. Her latest book, How I Got My Dog, is a three-essay compilation about living in Kalona, an eastern Iowa town. The hand-printed and hand-sewn book, designed by an Anamosa, Iowa, artist, is available only at her speaking engagements.

Keeping up with Mary To keep up with Mary Swander’s Iowa activities, visit her homepage at and follow her on Facebook.

These projects and many more, as Iowa Poet Laureate and ISU English professor, keep Swander happily busy. “I’m practically booked for a year,” she said. “It’s hard to find a lot of free time.”

Swander has always been an enthusiastic promoter of poetry, Nakadate said. “She never tires of reminding us that poetry is constantly ‘out there’ and inside all of us. As Poet Laureate, Mary is helping everyone see that Iowa itself is a diverse landscape of voices, of stories, of styles of expression.”