Swander, poetry classes creating a tactile and audible show for Iowa Dept. for the Blind

AMES, Iowa -- On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the Iowa Department for the Blind will open an exhibit entitled "More than Words: A Tactile and Audible Poetry Experience." The exhibit will showcase work being crafted by two undergraduate poetry classes at Iowa State University, instructed by Iowa's poet laureate Mary Swander.

"The student's creations will transform their own poems into works of art they can hear or touch, making it more accessible to people with disabilities, such as blindness," said Shoshana Hebshi, communications specialist for the Iowa Department for the Blind.

The exhibit will open at 7 p.m. in the Iowa Department for the Blind's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 524 Fourth St., Des Moines, fourth floor.

According to Tracey Morsek, director of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the idea for the exhibit grew out of a visit from Swander during the "Author Reads" series in early October.

"The reception we received from Mary's visit was astonishing," Morsek said. "The words in a poem create a 'visual' component that augments its meaning. The enhanced experience created with poetry offers the personal enrichment that is essential to us at the Library for the Blind."

Tactile art important to the library

Morsek reports that tactile art is an important component of the library. It housed the installation of "Please Touch the Art," an exhibit by nationally renowned artist Ann Cunningham.

"These exhibits allow the blind or disabled to experience different art forms and they also serve as a way to broaden the horizon of the general public," Morsek said.

Swander says this exhibit also provides a valuable learning experience for her students.

"After meeting with the Library for the Blind in October, I was asked to create poetry that was accessible to the blind," Swander said. "This seemed like an interesting challenge that would be good for my undergraduate students."

Four staff members from the Iowa Department for the Blind -- two of whom are blind -- visited Swander's students to help them research and prepare their ideas for the exhibit. The visit was an enlightening experience for the students.

"I couldn't even tell that they were blind when they walked into the room. It really was invisible to me," said senior Adam Brandt, a history major at Iowa State.

"I was surprised how many misconceptions there are about the blind. I didn't know that only 18 percent of visually impaired people are classified as totally blind and that most can differentiate between light and dark," added senior Jesse Yousif, an animal ecology major.

Students team up on tactile poetry ideas

The students took what they learned from the visit and started crafting different concepts for their pieces. Working in small groups, they brainstormed ideas for poems and tactile objects that correlate with the words of the poetry.

One group's concept is focused on the fall season. When creating their poem, they considered the senses that are felt during this time of year. The students' preliminary sketches depicted a container that would hold symbols of fall, such as leaves or mittens, which the observer could touch while listening to the words of the poem.

Another group is creating a spinning object that would depict different stars and constellations with raised up pegs and bumps. Visitors would be able to interact with the item and feel the constellations represented in the poem.

The students carefully considered which tactile item would best suit their poetry.

"The object allows the observer to be a part of the experience while they listen to the words of the poem," said junior Kelsey Drey, an animal ecology major.

In addition to instructing the students, Swander will have a piece in the exhibit. A recording of her poetry collection, "The Girls on the Roof," will also be part of the display.

Swander says future plans may bring the exhibit to Iowa State and possibly take it on the road to other parts of Iowa.

"This exhibit is very mobile. I don't see a problem physically moving it around; we are working on finding additional venues," she said.

More information on Swander is at http://www.maryswander.com/, while the Iowa Department for the Blind is at www.IDBonline.org.