ISU's Swander stays active in continuing role as Iowa poet laureate

AMES, Iowa -- Gov. Terry Branstad reappointed Mary Swander to a second term as Iowa Poet Laureate last summer and the Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of English hasn't slowed down since. Swander has toured the state giving talks, readings, keynotes, workshops, performances and panels since first being named poet laureate by former Gov. Chet Culver in 2009.

As poet laureate, Swander has collaborated with the State Historical Society, Terrace Hill and colleges and universities to bring international writers to the state. She's worked with the Iowa Arts Council on Poetry Out Loud contests and camps. She's also developed a website for anyone in the state to post creative writing and receive peer feedback at http://www.iowalit.com.

And Swander's got big plans in the role over the next two years, too.

"I'm jazzed about it [the reappointment]. I had a great run the first two years and now I'm getting the chance to complete some of these projects that I started during that time," said Swander, an award-winning author and poet. "That's the thing, it [being named poet laureate] kind of drops from the heavens and you don't have the time to think, 'Oh what will I do?' You just have to get out there and go.

"And the one thing people have said is that they're glad I'll go to small places," she continued. "I love going to small towns."

Exporting Iowa's culture through Farmscape

In addition to her travel as poet laureate, Swander continues to export Iowa's culture through "Farmscape: Documenting the Changing Rural Environment" -- a play about the plight of the contemporary Iowa farmer which started as a class project for her Writing About Environmental Issues class in 2008. The play, based on interviews with Iowa farmers, has now been performed across the country.

Swander reports that there's going to be a book published later this year on Farmscape (Ice Cube Press; North Liberty, Iowa). It will include the play and short essays by people first involved in the show -- including original ISU student authors, Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow Fred Kirschenmann, and some farmers who served as original cast members when the play debuted.

And Swander has authored a new play based on the experiences her Iowa State blind sculpture class students had during a 2010 visit to the Iowa Department for the Blind. The visit included a simulated experience of being visually impaired.

Swander is working with Matt Foss, an acting and theatre history lecturer at Iowa State, to debut the production on campus this fall. She anticipates it will become another touring show, like Farmscape.

"Matt wants to go into rehearsal in August and then tour the show over the 2013 academic year," Swander said. "And in that, we hope to really hone in on the disability aspect of it. We're going to blindfold the audience members and bring them into the theater with the ushers -- teaching them how to use canes. And Matt's got some really good ideas on how to use projections to show various aspects of blindness -- like vision out of a cataract. And we'll hopefully have some real discussions after that with the audience."

But in the meantime, Swander's discussions will continue to be with Iowans across the state in her role as poet laureate.

More information on Swander is at http://www.maryswander.com/. Additional information about Humanities Iowa and The Iowa Poet Laureate is available at http://www.uiowa.edu/~humiowa/poets.html.

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