Iowa's poet laureate looks to feed mind, soul and community

GTNS photo by David Hotle

Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander visited the Washington Public Library Saturday to help aspiring poets inthe community hone their art.
GTNS photo by David Hotle Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander visited the Washington Public Library Saturday to help aspiring poets inthe community hone their art.

Mary Swander was a child when she was first exposed to the words of people such as Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and other classics.

Her mother, Rita Lynch-Swander, spent many hours reading to her children. With no children niche to choose from, she chose plenty of classic literature to read aloud. While Swander didn’t understand the beautiful language that went into her favorite book, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the pen name for English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the words themselves spoke to her.

“I didn’t know what it meant — no one knows what it means,” she said. “It was just so much fun.”

With the seed planted, Swander became a voracious reader. As she got older, she began reading everything she could find. She also adopted her family’s love of music, finding herself appreciating the lyrical aspect of poetry, and poetry set to music. Swander, the poet laureate of Iowa since 2009, visited the Washington Public Library Saturday to hold a poetry workshop. As she helped the aspiring poets she recalled some of her early struggles to become a writer. As a college student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she recalls that creative writing wasn’t taught in college. The only classes on writing she could find dealt with writing essays on literature. After finishing her required coursework and entering her junior year, she decided it was time for her to become a writer. She spoke with her guidance counselor and asked where the writing classes were. The counselor acted as if she was out of her mind.

“No school offered it at university level,” she said.

The counselor found one class opened to aspiring writers, which was poetry. The catch was Swander had to submit a manuscript of work to get into the class. The other catch is that the manuscript, containing 10 poems, was due first thing the next morning. Staying up all night, she wrote 10 poems, While they were strong enough to gain her admission to the class, she recalls with a laugh that the teacher (Roland Flint who was the poet laureate of Maryland for many years) asked the students on the first day to vote for the worst poem submitted.

“Guess who won,” Swander laughed.

By the end of the semester, Swander was publishing some of her work in literary magazines. She continued on to the writers’ workshop in Iowa City.

Swander explained the long history of poetry. Many things that exist now, she said. rose from poetry. She hearkened back to the day when people got their news listening to a performer who traveled from town to town singing the news. Plays rose from poetry. Short stories and novels are actually a relatively new concept, she said.

Since becoming the poet laureate, Swander has traveled to all 99 counties in the state teaching the importance of poetry. Her joy is seeing people getting together, as they did at the Washington library, and helping each other to craft their art.

“I want people to enjoy the literary arts in general and poetry in particular,” she said. “In our American society it is devalued because people think it doesn’t make money, but it feeds the soul, it feeds the mind, and it feeds the community.”

Swander said she is currently collecting stories from people regarding food and farming. More information on the project can be found on her website at