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Iowa Poet Laureate to visit Iowa City

BY LAURA WILLIS | NOVEMBER 12, 2010 7:20 AM

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On warm summer days, Mary Swander can be found near her old Amish schoolhouse, tending to her organic garden. By growing 90 percent of her own food and being active in Iowa State University's sustainable-agriculture movement, the author and professor has gained a hands-on connection with her surrounding environment.

This passion for nature's triumphs and tragedies can often be found in Swander's award-winning poetry. Yet beneath the environmental themes, readers get a glimpse into the author's previous work endeavors.

"Its what you seek out in terms of material and how you keep experimenting with your work, how you make it your career, and what slant you take on that that makes a huge difference," she said.
The Iowa Writers' Workshop alumna will read from her narrative poem The Girls on the Roof at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Coralville Public Library, 1401 Fifth St.

The story was based on Swander's journalistic work during the Iowa floods of 1993. Touring the Midwest, the writer interviewed numerous flood victims, covering a variety of topics ranging from climate change to gardening in flooded fields.

She is not unfamiliar with natural disasters. Growing up in Davenport and later working in Ames, she, too, was a victim of floods in those areas.

"Here is a professor who has put herself out there and has shown her difficult experiences and how she has overcome those difficult experiences," said former student Laura Sweeney.

After reporting, Swander was left with personal accounts from flood victims, and she decided to use the material she collected in a more poetic fashion. The result was "The Girls on the Roof," which helped her earn the title of Iowa's 2009 Poet Laureate.

In "The Girls on the Roof," the Mississippi River floods the small town of Pompeii, leaving a mother and daughter stranded on the roof of a café for three days. The two soon discover that they have been having an affair with the same man, and the poem takes readers through the journey of these two characters while also sharing the stories of other town residents.

The piece was later adapted to the stage through the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre. The production, which incorporates music and puppetry with Swander's narration, has toured at various public libraries around Iowa.

By seeing her work performed in front of an audience, she notices instant reactions to her written words.

"It's really a kick. You can get immediate feedback," she said. "When you write a book you don't know if anyone is reading it. In a play, people are responding to it in the flesh."

When she isn't writing, Swander teaches English at Iowa State University. She confesses that while she is a professor, she strongly believes that true education comes after graduation.

"Sometimes I forget that as a professor that this is just a launching pad," she said, "You see your students and hope that you gave some little capsule of information to help that."

After earning her M.F.A. in creative writing, she earned extra money by working diverse jobs. During this time, she had a massage practice, helped manage a motel, and even worked as a hypnotist. But most importantly, she kept writing.

"The great writers I know got their first book rejected and hung it up on the wall," she said, "The big part is persistence and discipline."


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