For the past 30 years, Mary Swander has risen at 6 every morning in her one-room farmhouse in Kalona, Iowa – a town known for being one of the largest Amish communities west of the Mississippi.
She, herself, is not Amish, or a farmer, however – although she does raise ducks and geese and a large organic vegetable garden from which she grows her own food.
Swander, who recently turned 66, is the Poet Laureate of Iowa, and her 40-year writing career is currently at a peak.
The multiple award winner for the literary arts has written the memoirs, “The Desert Pilgrim,” and “Out of This World,” as well as several books of poetry, a musical, “Dear Iowa,” and the plays, “Vang,” a drama about recent immigrant farmers and “Map of My Kingdom,” which tackles the issue of farmland ownership transfer. Both plays will be presented on November 13 at the Change Food Festival, which will be held at New York University in NYC.
There’s a reason why much of Swander’s art focuses on food systems. It was food which was the cause of her debilitating illnesses she has battled for most of her life.
“I became very chemically sensitive, and I ended up in a special hospital in Chicago,” recalls the writer. “They tested me on foods one at a time, and it took me months to come up with 12 foods which I should not eat. I had all sorts of symptoms. The worst ones were blacking out, horrible stomach pains – a whole variety of things. From that hospital, they told me to eat only organic food. They didn’t know if it was the hormones in the food, or pesticides that I was reacting to.”
It was after a severe sickness in 1983, at age 33, when she made her life-changing decision to move to Amish country, which is characterized by the “old-fashioned” life amidst horse and buggies and sprawling farmland.
“I could only eat organic food, and it was really hard to find at that time, so I started going to the Amish to buy it from them,” says Swander. “I got to know the area and the people, and one day I drove by an old schoolhouse and it had a ‘for sale’ sign. I thought how great that would be for somebody, and that somebody turned out to be me.”
After her new diet cured her, Swander became very busy teaching English for more than 35 years at eight different colleges and universities. She spent the most time teaching at Iowa State University, where she became a “distinguished professor.” Eventually, she left teaching to become executive director of AgArts – an organization she founded, which began as a small group at ISU in 2008, and grew into a national non-profit organized through collectives throughout the U.S.
“I was appointed poet laureate in 2009, and then in 2011, two more years, and then two more years,” says the Iowa-native, about her governor-appointed position which typically lasts two years. “The idea is to promote the literary arts around the state of Iowa.”
During her seven year tenure so far, Swander has traveled to all 99 counties of her state to host readings and workshops in nursing homes, colleges, prisons, elementary schools, book clubs, rotaries, women’s clubs.
“Every day, I look at my calendar and look at where I’m supposed to go,” says Swander. “People contact me. I did a couple of projects for the Department of the Blind and the School for the Deaf. I’m really interested in helping people with disabilities because of my experiences.”
Being a writer was an idea conceived in Swander’s mind as a kid, but she actually started writing at 21 and has stayed with it ever since.
“Some days I don’t like it, because it feels like work,” she says laughing. “But I love literature, and I love to read…I have a lot of influences from Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ to Elizabeth Bishop – a huge range of people. I started out in poetry – in which I wrote four books, but I’ve written non-fiction, plays and journalism.”
Swander received her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and she also became a certified and licensed practitioner of therapeutic massage.
“I think for any artist, the biggest challenge is carving out time to do your art, but then you have to pay the bills at the same time,” says the writer, explaining how she started a massage therapy business at one point to supplement her income. “There’s a million different ways to arrange your life to do that so you have to find the way that works for you.”
Nothing makes her more proud however, she says, than when she has a new book come out.
“I’m always happy to write the next book, or perform the next play, or get the next idea for the next book,” says Swander, who also likes to educate the American public simultaneously. “We’ve got a huge horrible problem going on…Corporate America is taking over organic food…Too many preservatives, dyes and chemicals. It’s just not really healthy, and it’s all subsidized by big agriculture.”
What advice would she give her younger self?
“I would tell my younger self to just relax more and realize you’re on a journey. You have to put effort into things, but there are forces out there bigger than you are, so you might as well go with the flow.”