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Iowa’s poet laureate lauds Iowa’s land and people

ISU professor to serve term as state’s symbolic leader of poetry

February 20, 2009
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer

It should come as no surprise that Gov. Chet Culver asked Mary Sander Tuesday night to become the state's new poet laureate.

Swander, a professor in creating writing at Iowa State University, will serve a two-year term as the state's symbolic leader of poetry.

Swander received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and is a graduate of the world-renowned Iowa Writer's Workshop master of fine arts program at the University of Iowa. The Iowa Writer's Workshop has touted faculty of no less distinction than Dylan Thomas and Kurt Vonnegut. Thomas is often mentioned in the same breath as T.S. Eliot as among the greatest poets writing in the English language during the 20 century. Vonnegut shattered conventions of the novel and opened the door to a wave of experimental writing in the 1960s that continues today.

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Mary Swander

Swander, officially appointed Wednesday morning, was handed the laurel of Robert Dana who was appointed in 2004 and again in 2006. Her official duties will include presenting poems at official Iowa public events.

She has published a number of books of poetry and memoirs and is currently working on another book of poetry.

Responding to the governor's request required a whirlwind of activity on Swander's part. Gov. Culver asked her to be poet laureate 5:30 p.m. Tuesday night and she had to be in Des Moines 8:30 the next morning.

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"Iowa is a good place to write. We actually, in our weird way, support writers. We've always had a writing tradition here. Lots of times, it's turned into writers in exile, and that's the tradition in the Midwest: that you start out here and then you move away, and you write about thinking back. But I saw that as an early writer, and wanted to make a different kind of commitment to staying here and seeing what the issues were. You never know what's going to happen to 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. There are certain issues you can't address if you only live in a place a year and then you move, or five years, and that's basically what we do in our culture these days. I actually have a unique perspective having been here probably 40 of my 50 years."

-Mary Swander on writing in Iowa

"It was quite a shock," Swander said. She met with dignitaries throughout the day which culminated with a press conference 5 p.m. Wednesday. "It's been a whirl," she said.

Swander is Iowa born and bred. She was born in Carroll and the Iowa landscape is a staple of her work. Most of the 11 books she has published are set in Iowa.

Probably her most famous book is "Driving the Body Back" (Alfred Knopf, 1986), a story of Irish homesteaders in Iowa.

Her most recent book soon to be published is "The Girls on the Roof" (Turning Point Press, 2009), a narrative of the 1993 flood in Iowa. While stranded on a roof for three days during the flood, a mother and daughter reveal that they've had an affair with the same man.

Swander is also co-author of "Land of the Fragile Giants," a collection of nonfiction and art work on the Loess Hills produced in collaboration with Cornelia Mutel (University of Iowa Press, 1994).

In these uncertain times, Swander encourages people around the state to write about their own individual landscape.

"Our state is the most altered landscape in the United States," Swander said. As for poetry, said Swander, "It can be for political action. It can also nurture the soul."

Working through The Patient Voices Project, sponsored by a foundation of the Johnson and Johnson company, Swander encourages people with physical and developmental disabilities to express themselves through their poetry. Anyone with an interest in the project may contact Swander at (>.

She also wants to set up a Web site in which people can post their work. She's looking for the gamut of poetry, anything from children's to cowboy poetry. "I'm interested in really all aspects of society," she said.



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