Mary Swander reaches back to her farming ancestry to reach all Iowans, with poems.
Iowa’s poet laureate is still very much Nellie Lynch’s granddaughter.
Mary Swander, named by Gov. Chet Culver as poet laureate in February, revels in talking about her homesteading family and rural life in western Iowa. That begins with Nellie Lynch. In fact, Nellie would tell stories of growing up in Carroll County when Native Americans mixed easily with newly arrived Europeans.
Swander, 58, spent many youthful summers with her grandmother, who lived on April Street in Manning, Iowa, and oversaw a family farm three miles northeast of town.
“One summer she taught me how to slaughter chickens and drive a car,” Swander said. “It was a good thing we were in the cornfield because I was so bad. We made soap. It was incredible.”
In the hours before Swander’s birth at St. Anthony Hospital in Carroll, her parents, Jack and Rita Swander, were concerned that a doctor wouldn’t make it on time. Not to worry, with Nellie as grandmother. She was on the ready to deliver the baby. After all, Swander notes, this was a woman who could pull calves, upholster a sofa, play the piano and do just about anything else — even bake her own wedding cake.
Eventually the doctor arrived, delivering Mary — and robbing an eventual Iowa poet laureate of another great Nellie Lynch anecdote.
Today, Swander, who splits time between a quiet Ames neighborhood and an old Amish schoolhouse in the Kalona area, is a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University, where she has been on the faculty for 22 years.
Swander believes her mission as poet laureate, a role she will have for at least two years, is similar to that of an educator at a state university: to make learning and culture accessible to as many Iowans as possible.
Though in the popular consciousness, poetry is often viewed as eccentric or elite, all contemporary Iowans can find a place for it, Swander said.
She recounts getting a phone call from a former student who joined the military after college, flying jets over Kosovo in the late 1990s. As the planes released bombs, “all I could think about was your class,” he told Swander. The student said he had returned to Iowa and started a used-car business, hiring immigrants from the region he’d helped to bomb.
“We don’t all turn into great published poets,” Swander said. “We certainly don’t make much money. The value of poetry is to allow one to look at one’s own life and the humanity in front of it.”
For her part, Swander has authored several well-regarded books, including her 1995 memoir, “Out of This World,” and several collections of poetry, notably “Driving the Body Back.” Her most recent publication is a book of poetry “The Girls on the Roof,” a Mississippi flood narrative. In 1993, The New York Times published a retrospective she authored on Iowa’s floods. Currently, her play, “Farmscape,” a docudrama about rural life, is touring the Midwest.
Swander has published poems, essays, short stories and articles in such places as The Nation, National Gardening Magazine, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Poetry magazine.
Before being named the state’s poet laureate, she’d received many honors including an Iowa Author Award, Carl Sandburg Literary Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Swander spent some of her grade-school years in Manning full-time before her father, a Purdue University-educated engineer, landed a job in eastern Iowa and relocated the family. She graduated from Davenport Central High School in 1969 and then attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in linguistics.
When her mother became ill in the early 1970s Swander returned to finish her senior year of college at the University of Iowa. She then received her Master’s degree from the internationally acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop at the U of I.
Created in 2000, the Iowa poet laureate position is largely honorary. “There’s no money or anything with it, so it’s not like being lieutenant governor,” Swander joked.
Swander intends to use her office as a platform to promote writing and culture in Iowa. She’s already launched a Web site for writers with Iowa connections, www.iowalit.com.
Much of her own writing is informed by the western Iowa of her youth. “I’m very imprinted with the landscape,” she said. “I just love the openness.”
And she intends to extend programs to western Iowa. “People write off western Iowa as not a very cultural place,” Swander said. “That’s crazy.”