Culver picks Writers’ Workshop grad Swander to be poet laureate


From a country lifestyle of organic food and banjo music to receiving the esteemed title of Iowa poet laureate, Mary Swander has much to love about the state.

Gov. Chet Culver appointed the 1976 Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate as the state’s newest poet laureate on Wednesday.

“I was totally ecstatic, and very honored,” she said after hearing Culver’s announcement. “I was shocked. My mind started clicking in about projects I would like to do [as poet laureate].”

The poet laureate is responsible for reading poems at official state events when requested by the governor. Swander was one of three nominees presented to Culver.

“Mary Swander has had a long and distinguished career as an author and a teacher of poetry and other forms of literature,” Culver said in a statement. “In her new role as Iowa’s poet laureate, she will be a strong and passionate advocate for Iowa’s unique culture and the inspiration that poetry can offer.”

The Iowa native has spent most of her life in this state.

“I was born here, educated here, I’ve worked here. I’m happy at this part of my life to give something back to the state,” she said. “I’m really excited to do some service for the state.”
Swander, a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences and professor of English at Iowa State University, earned an M.F.A. from the Writers’ Workshop.

“I loved my time [at the UI.] It’s just incredibly stimulating to be with practicing writers,” she said. “You carry your peer group with you for the rest of your life.”

The young, eager Swander studied both poetry and fiction at the workshop. She said life consisted of constant reading, writing, and receiving feedback from her peers.

The students often conversed over poems at cafés and attended many readings by visiting writers, she said.

But she was not completely immersed in creative writing — she also attended numerous science classes, which guided her specific interests in writing.

“[The science courses] got me interested in writing about the natural world,” she said.

Swander has remained steadfast in her commitment to natural, healthy eating for many years. The banjo-player raises geese and goats, and she has cultivated a large organic garden for the past 30 years.

“I raise almost all my own food,” she said.

Aside from her written work, she also tries to dramatize her poems in a way that will appeal to a wide audience. Her newest project entails adapting her book of poetry, The Girls on the Roof, into a play with the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre.

This latest project is her favorite work to date, she said, but she has several exciting future plans as well, including touring a few other plays.

“Then it’s time to write some more poems,” she said and laughed.

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