Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday Muse: Iowa's Poet Laureate

The value of poetry is  to allow one to look
at one's own life and the humanity in front of it.
~ Mary Swander*

Mary Swander is Poet Laureate of Iowa. Swander, who succeeded poets Robert Dana (2004 - 2008) and Marvin Bell (2000 - 2004), began her term on February 18, 2009. 

The position of Poet Laureate was created by law (Iowa Code, Chapter 303, Subchapter 89) in 1999. An appointment is for a two-year renewable term. The governor selects the incumbent from a list of candidates drawn up by a committee that includes the executive director of the Iowa Arts Council. Nominees must be residents of Iowa and deserving of recognition as Poet Laureate based on their accomplishments as poets. The position is honorary and is not compensated, and involves attending official public events at the governor's invitation. In addition to promote writing and culture in Iowa, Swander has created a site, The Iowa Literary Community, for writers with connections to Iowa.

* * * * *
Iowa is a good place to write.
. . .You never know what's going to happen in your life,
but it's only when you're in a place long enough
that you can do anything in terms of the folklore, 
knowing the character of the people, 
improving the environment. . . I have a unique perspective
having been here probably 40 of my 50 years.
~ Mary Swander *

Mary Swander is a poet, a playwright, a memoirist, a short story writer, an essayist, a journalist, and an editor. Her poetry collections include The Girls on the Roof (Turning Point Press/Word Tech, 2009), Heaven-and-Earth House (Alfred Knopf, 1994), Driving the Body Back (Knopf, 1986; reprinted, Bur Oak, 1998), and Succession (University of Georgia Press, 1979; available through re-sellers). For The Girls, a narrative poem about a mother and daughter waiting on a cafe rooftop while the floodwaters of  the  Mississippi River recede, Swander created with Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre a stage piece of the same name, which she has performed with puppeteer Monica Leo. She also has co-authored a musical set during the Civil War, Dear Iowa, and a docudrama, Farmscape. She co-founded AgArts, a national student group that seeks to explore the intersection of arts and agriculture. In addition to giving readings throughout Iowa, Swander is a commentator on WOI Radio in Ames, Iowa, and National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday program.

Swander is praised for her spare style, her narrative skill and control, her humor, her compassionate and insightful embrace of her subjects, her ear for midwestern idiom and dialogue, vivid detail, the sense of place with which she imbues her writing, and her often-moving observations about family, illness, marriage, love and marriage, loss and grief, faith, and rural life.

The follow excerpts show off Swander's ability to set a scene, her exceptional story-telling qualities, the breadth of her imagination, and the energy she brings to bear in moving her narrative forward:

The day the levee broke,
the day the Mighty Mississippi washed
Maggie and Pearl, mother and daughter,
up on top of their catfish dive,
the river rushed through our tiny town
of Pompeii (pronounced Pom'pee),
with a whoosh, crack, bam-boom,
a power so Herculean that with one
swift slap of its hand, the water
knocked out all the windows
and tore the door right off
the hinges of Crazy Eddy's Cafe.
The very gates of hell opened and
the Great Flood of the Twentieth Century
came crashing, dashing through.
Maggie and Pearl had been warned.
Sure, the whole town knew.
Any fool could've seen it coming.

Yup, and now ten years out
we're all back here
at the Great Flood Reunion. . .
. . . We gather here together once again,
the living and the dead,
the seen and the unseen,
the genuine and the ghosts—
all who've come and gone,
each taking a place at a table,
in a booth or on a stool,
duct tape stuck to vinyl.
We gather once again
to piece together a tall tale,
a story too long and wide
for a single person to spin.
We tile back out chairs,
watch turkey gizzards
swimming in the Mason jar
on the counter, hear the waves
lap at the banks outside the door
and realize just how lucky we are
to be here on dry land
with a beer in hand. . . .
~ From "Fireworks" in The Girls on the Roof

Batteries and blanket, this spring
I've made a little place here
down in the cellar to listen
to the radio crackle the weather:
TORNADO WATCH, high winds and hail,
take cover. In this furnace room,
I'm alone with the centipedes and
cinder blocks, the mouse scurrying
to squeeze in from the rain.
I'm away from all windows and
flying glass, the silver maple
that might crash through the roof.
Overturned bucket, my chair, I see
by an oil lamp on loan from a neighbor.
How dumb to depend on lines from
the world. . . 
. . . this year the blows have become
routine — they howl through the attic vents,
feed sacks tumbling across the field
smack into the fence. Two a.m.,
and I'm chewing gum, recounting 
other times — the snakebite, car wreck,
doctor goof, the bolt of lightning
so close it fanned the hairs on my arms.
. . . Now I sit up
and tell these tales to the mouse.
His black eyes glare back at me.
The two of us know the game.
Were on night ends, another begins
until all is forgiven, and the sky relents.
~ From "Scheherazade" in Heaven-and-Earth House

Swander's poems and other writings have been published in Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe New Republic, Image JournalThe New Yorker, Poetry magazine, and other literary periodicals and journals, magazines, and newspapers.

Other books by Swander or to which Swander has contributed include Living with Topsoil: Tending Spirits, Cherishing Land and The Desert Pilgrim: En Route to Mysticism and Miracles.

Among other honors, Swander has received an Iowa Author Award, a Whiting Writers' Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, two Ingram Merrill Awards, and the Carl Sandburg Literary Award. 

Currently, Swander is a professor of English (she teaches undergraduate poetry classes) and Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. She created for the Iowa Department for the Blind a multi-sensory poetry program (see "ISU Poets Stage Tactile Art/Poetry Show for the Blind").

A fourth-generation Iowan, Swander lives in Ames and  in an old converted schoolhouse in one of the largest Amish communities west of the Mississippi, near Kalona, where she grows her own food because of environmentally induced allergies. She writes of her experience in her memoir Out of This World: A Journal of Healing (University of Iowa Press, 2008).


* Quoted in "A Place for Poetry—in the Open" in Daily Yonder, May 30, 2009; and Michael Tidemann, "Iowa's Poet Laureate Lauds Iowa's Land and People", February 20, 2009 (see Fact Box)

Poetry excerpts © Mary Swander. All Rights Reserved.

Mary Swander's ISU Biography

Live recording of Mary Swander reading from The Girls on the Roof, July 21, 2009

Humanities Iowa, "The New Face of Iowa Poetry: Poet Laureate Mary Swander", Voices from the Prairie, Vol. XI, No. 3; pp. 4-5 [This interview offers insights into Swander's plans as Poet Laureate, her background, what inspires her, and why she thinks all arts, and especially poetry, are so important.]

Rustin Larson, "I Wander as I Swander: A Poet Sings of Our Common Folklore", Iowa Source, February 2006 [This article contains excerpts from Swander's poem "Heaven?".]

Mary Swander, "Light My Fire With Banana Briquettes" in MatriFocus: Cross-Quarterly for the Goddess Woman, 2009

Mary Swander's Poetry Foundation Page

Out of This World on GoogleBooks

Iowa Arts Council

YouTube Video of excerpts from Two Girls on the Roof, April 23, 2010 (Swander plays the banjo)

Mary Swander reading her poem "Heaven?" from Heaven-and-Earth House:

"Heaven" By Mary Swander from ChiefFallingLeaf on Vimeo.


Jennifer @ said...

What a delight to see the name Mary Swander in my reader this morning. Thank you for featuring Mary.

I am a graduate of Iowa State University, and one of my regrets is never enrolling in a class of Professor Swander.

Thank you for featuring an Iowa gem, Maureen.

Louise Gallagher said...

When I first read her quote, Iowa is a great place to write, I actually read, Love is a great place to write -- and I thought...

wow! How profound and true.

LOL - either way, her writing is beautiful.

I'm learning so much and appreciating so much more through your poet laureate sharings!

Cassandra Frear said...

I've been to Ames. Spent 6 months in the midwest. Lovely people. Salt of the earth. Swander captures it well.

This is really, really good writing here.It buffets and blesses at the same time, like the storms she describes.

S. Etole said...

Her writing invites one to spend awhile ... listening and seeing.

Your Sunday thought was a keeper!

Anonymous said...

I'm an Iowa girl-- how fun to read about her today. Her words seem to capture the Iowa spirit in a way I can only dream of doing myself. :)