Mary Swander holds a story cloth, illustrating the narrative of one of the families in her new play, “Vang.” The Hmong use such story cloths because they do not have a written language. The presentation at the Carroll Public Library from the Carroll County native and Iowa’s poet laureate was sponsored by Humanities Iowa.
Mary Swander holds a story cloth, illustrating the narrative of one of the families in her new play, “Vang.” The Hmong use such story cloths because they do not have a written language. The presentation at the Carroll Public Library from the Carroll County native and Iowa’s poet laureate was sponsored by Humanities Iowa.
January 6, 2014



In the early 1970s, Carroll County native Mary Swander was tasked with driving her grandmother's body back from eastern Iowa to Carroll County for her funeral and burial.

Describing the decade as "a little more primitive," Swander recalled that her grandmother's body had basically been wrapped in a blanket and tied to a cot that she shoved in the back of the station-wagon, packing it in with cases of whiskey. Her godmother, Eileen Stone of Carroll, appeared "as all godmothers should," passing the time with the deathbed stories of Swander's "other crazy Irish relatives."

"As a writer, you think, 'Oh, wow! This is a crazy, difficult, strange experience - but great material,'" said Swander. "This is just like Chaucer and 'Canterbury Tales,' telling stories along the way and they're on this pilgrimage. I thought, 'I have to write this up - if Chaucer can do it, so can Swander.'"

Though it took about 10 years, Swander did compile her memories of that pilgrimage in "Driving the Body Back," one of her more well-known works, and one of three pieces she read from in a workshop at the Carroll Public Library in late December. Swander also read excerpts from "Out of this World," a memoir of her time spent living in a one-room schoolhouse in an Amish community, and her most recent work "Vang," which follows four immigrant families as they adjust and farm in Iowa.

All of the works focused on a group of immigrants - from Swander's own Irish ancestors to current Hmong, Sudanese, Mexican and Dutch immigrants to a historically persecuted religious sect that no longer exists in Europe.

"I've always been interested in different cultures and things people in different cultures bring to us in language and knowledge," Swander said. "Things, customs, folklore, literature, music that goes on in one country then gets imported to another country and change just slightly."

Swander sprinkled several examples of this phenomenon throughout her presentation, opening the evening with a harmonica piece. Titled "Soldier's Joy," the song originated as one of sailors in Ireland, before traversing the Atlantic Ocean with starving immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine. Decades later, the song morphed, and is now remembered as a tune from the American Civil War, the "soldier's joy" - morphine - the only painkiller available.

Another cultural import the Irish brought to the U.S. was the tradition of poitín, a home brew, and the forerunner to the Prohibition Era staple, Templeton Rye Whiskey. For a time, the poitín was the only thing the Irish could sell without paying taxes to the British.

In light of such cultural heritage, Swander said, she has to laugh at proponents of English-only language laws. A mere two or three generations ago, Carroll County's own residents often spoke three languages - their native Irish and German, as well as English.

"How soon we forget," she said.

Interested in poetry that can be dramatized, Swander shared her delight in the life of her play, which has been a full eight-person play, a one-woman show, an entry at speech competitions, and a three-person production that toured in Ireland.

In contrast with a culture that so often forgets its heritage is that of a community of religious refugees that reflects their shared history in their clothing and customs, making them instantly recognizable.

"The Amish didn't look weird in the days they arrived," Swander explained.

But they did not change with the times. Rejected for their position as pacifists, they to this day refuse to wear mustaches or buttons, looks favored by the military generals of the day. Songs are sung incredibly slowly, described by Swander as more "chant-like" than music. This tempo harkens back to the European Inquisition, in which soldiers jeered the individuals by dancing to the songs they sung on their way to burn at the stake. By slowing the music, they slowed death, and robbed the soldiers of a beat by which to march, Swander explained.

Appointed Iowa's poet laureate by Gov. Chet Culver in 2009, Swander has visited all of Iowa's 99 counties.

"The greatest thing to me are the libraries in this state," said Swander, who has seen a range from tiny and flooded-out, to large, grand and beautiful. "The library system is fantastic, we have these wonderful librarians who create these programs, work their tails off to bring you great literature and media."

Swander's work throughout the years has included projects with the deaf and blind. However, the majority of her work falls into an agricultural drama niche. Her play "Vang" in particular is receiving wider play, with shows are also lined up in Missouri and Minneapolis. Library director Kelly Fischbach hopes to bring the play to Carroll as well.

"It's fascinating that such a magnificent person came from Manning, Iowa," said Rob Peters, who attended the library event. "She challenges us to think beyond our lives and is great at making applicable fine artistic things in our own environment."

Most recently, Swander founded an agricultural arts foundation, drawing from her original agricultural drama "Farmscape," which has been performed at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in New York and for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and other members of his department. The goal of Ag Arts is to find the intersection of the two disciplines.

"It was amazing the shakers and movers of major museums and film companies and musicians, theater companies, foundations, all came together for a meeting on how to make Ag Arts a national organization," Swander said of the recent trip to New York. "You never know where your poet laureate is going to end up next, so stay tuned."