An Interview with Mary Swander

As a part of our on-going discourse on the arts and climate change, I was provided the opportunity to sit down with Mary Swander, Workshop graduate and former Iowa Poet Laureate. Swander’s story is an interesting one which has led her to living in a re-purposed single room school house in an Amish community outside of Kalona, IA where she grows or raises 90% of her own food. The issue of climate change has permeated through her work repeatedly, from her book of poetry, The Girls on the Roof to her collaborative work of drama Farmscape. In the comfort of her home, we sat down and got to talking poetry, environmentalism, and the poetic audience:

Jack Dugan: My first question is the big one, one that I’ve been personally grappling with: how can poetry play a role in the climate narrative; specifically bridging the gap between the science and the dialogue, given the disparity between the two?

Mary Swander: I think art is going to save us. It’s just so crazy, look at the politics. How did climate change, something that is going to wipe us all out in the not too distant future, become a Democrat/Republican thing? Al Gore first got out there, and said “we got to deal with climate change, this is the number one pressing issue that will ever come down the pipe.” Everyone thought he was crazy. Even Jesse Jackson. I had never heard of it either. It turned out to be prophetic. The politics are all messed up. Around the world, everyone recognizes the issue but us. We even have “climate deniers” here in the states, and that has us looking like idiots.

JD: Right, and that’s one of the goals of the project: How can we effectively reach out and talk to people that are denying the existence of something so present?

MS: Through the art, we have half a chance. We don’t have a chance anymore through the standard stuff, like op-eds. Now everyone gets their news from Facebook. We do not have good journalism anymore. But the arts are sneaky, more palatable. But a lot of people ask me, “isn’t it just preaching to the choir?” I think we have a better chance with the arts of getting out to the real populace of the world. With the arts you can dramatize, it’s not preachy, it becomes real. It’s something people engage emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. It hits on different wave lengths to humanity’s response. So, it’s really the way to go. Though, another question that comes up is: “aren’t you being didactic when writing about climate change in poetry?” Well, not if you do it right. You can be didactic about anything in a bad poem. But in a good poem, you could persuade through all the literary devices we use.

JD: And that brings up another question we’ve been discussing at our meetings, which is the effective use of humor when approaching something that is very heavy, daunting, all ‘doom-and-gloom’ to make it more palatable.

MS: That’s another reason why people don’t want to read about climate change, the classic reaction being “oh! That’s so depressing!” Well, it’ll be much more depressing when your grandchildren are dead, or washed out to the sea. Humor is a good way to break that protective barrier people put up.

JD: Another point made at our meetings is that essentially we’re past the window of humor and we need to be active and we need to be confrontational.

MS: That’s kind of a point where the ‘resistance’ movement is at. We’ve been out in the streets for the past two months. It’s time to introduce some legislation of our own, change some laws ourselves, line up some politicians who have a grip on climate change. It’s up to us. The literary arts have to step up.

JD: How can us as Iowan’s participate in the climate narrative through the arts; in terms of what can we learn from other people or what can we bring to the table? I think you did this effectively through The Girls on the Roof, where you used the Mississippi river as something that defines a community as much as it can destroy a community if you’re not engaging with it correctly.

MS: I mean here in Iowa we’re having a 500 year flood every five years. The first really big one was in ’93. I grew up in the Quad Cities and we had a flood every year. But nothing like when ’93 hit. Creeks turned into streams that turned into rivers. With situations like that, as Iowans, we have to document that, and respond to it in a way that brings people in to confront it. We have to get the word out, because even the experts have a hard time with that. We also have to address the complexity of it. If you take the ’93 flood, yeah we had rain for a solid year, but one of the problems with it is we’re 95% cultivated, which means all of the roots that once sucked up all the water are now gone. So it became much more dire here than it needed to be.I love reading narratives that are climate change narratives in a different way. I’m trying to work with Althea Sherman’s work a little bit. She was this remarkable ornithologist and she invented this chimney on her farm in 1880’s to allow Chimney swifts to nest. But when you read her work, it’s essentially a document on climate change. She describes her farm where there’s groves of timber and prairie stands of grasses. If you go to this place now, it’s all gone. Naturalists tend to document more than they think.

JD: I think it’s safe to say poetry has a rich tradition of naturalists engaging with the natural world, where natural imagery seems to have always been used as a vessel for the poetic mind. I guess my question to you is how should the poetic mind orient itself in the present moment with the issue of climate change or in that relationship?

MS: Its tricky because it’s got to be alluring in terms of poetry, but at the same time it can’t be obscure. We’re kind of in the obscurest era of poetry. It’s an interesting experiment, and any experiment in poetry is a valid thing to do. But if you want to address climate change in your poetry, you have to accessible and straightforward to your audience. Not romantic, you cannot romanticize. You have to do the opposite, you have to show people the ravages. I read the other day that we have maybe 40 years. It’s our responsibility to be accessible so people can relate.

JD: You taught a course at Iowa State University about environmentally inclined drama, which ended up producing Farmscape and culminated in multitudes of productions of the pay.

MS: I did! I went into class and said we’re going to collaborate on this project and its going to be about an environmental problem and you are going to tell me the problem. And we’re going to figure this out through interviewing people. We can’t go to the Amazon so we have to do it right here in Iowa. I sent them out the first week, and they came back with the issues of urban sprawl, nitrates in the rivers, soil erosion, all the aspects of climate change in Iowa. They quickly saw these are aspects of a changing farmscape.

JD: In the context of coaching your students about climate change, did you have shift your approach to teaching?

MS: Oh, it totally shifted my pedagogy! I was sick to death of ‘you write your story and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it,’ we weren’t getting anywhere with that. I wanted my students to do something bigger, bolder, more innovative. The workshop approach works to a degree, but we tried something new. We collaborated. There was no hostility or ‘one-upmanship.’ We initially had the one performance scheduled, and the students pulled it off. And the next day the phone was ringing, we got a grant to do three more shows. That turned into a dozen more shows.

JD: I guess there is a thirst for theater dealing with the subject. Theater is effective in bringing communities together in a single place to talk about such issues, but how can an individual writing poetry reach towards that?

MS: That’s the challenge, being able to explore climate change while being able to be clear about your vision. But really just having fun with it as a poet, trying to get it to work. But you also need an audience. One of my biggest problems with the poetry world today is that the audience is shrinking. Where now we’re almost just writing for other poets. And we’re pretty bright intelligent people, we don’t really need to educate each other on climate change. I want to connect with the farmer down the road who is going to vote in someone who is going to nix our climate agreements. It’s a matter of outreach, I think.

Take the poetry that was going on during the Vietnam war. It was kind of raggedy and uneven. We fell into those traps of being preachy, didactic, all of those things. Some of it was really good, some of it was really awful. We could go back to that, study it and find out what happened.

JD: I think the idea of outreach is a good question. We’re lucky enough to have a show at the end of the year, but how could the work resound after the fact? How do you maintain the audience after the fact?

MS: Well the good thing about being digital is you can reach a whole lot of people online. I would mind that as much as you could. Things can go viral and reach people you never could in the past.

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