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.

Akash Bhaldero Interview

My interview with Akash took place back towards the tail end of March. Akash is a senator with the UI Student government, a member of Eco-Friends Community, as well as a former CNP Fellow. When Akash and I sat down to discuss all things climate related we started off at the intersection between self-care and climate change. In regards to self-care, whether it was through yoga, meditation or a plethora other forms that people take in order to care for themselves. He compared the difficulties of self care and climate change to ailments that could prevent people from living healthy lives. When I asked him to elaborate Akash said, “Even when people may acknowledge the problem they may not usually look for a sustainable solution and many times it could be because they may not even be aware of them.”

He went on to say that one of the ways to change people’s opinions would be to begin to initiate the conversation. By that he goes on to say that appropriating the message in a way which does succumb to thoughts of “Doom and Gloom” will ultimately help in getting across the tone of what the climate and sustainability movement can be all about. “Make it a people’s movement” Akash says with excitement, “Part of the question of the environmental movement will be how can we get people who are not normally a part of this into the equation.” This branched off another question which has become one of the focal points of my project, how can we empower and bring in new people into the sustainability movement?

We go onto discuss topics which have been brought up at the current iteration of the CNP. Things such as infrastructure, green spaces, planting trees, transforming urban ecology, walkability and other topics were brought up as of as part of the patchwork of solutions which can influence the direction of a city’s carbon footprint. As we drew to a close on discussing various solutions, we came to a mutual understanding that the implementation of all these solutions comes down to educating and finding creative ways for people to appreciate and value various solutions that have been postulated, implemented and reinvented.

Alejandro’s interview

I interviewed Jeffrey Recker, a student here at the University of Iowa. He gave me a better insight an understanding on the life of a college student, but also if environmental conditions such as global warming, food waste, plastic waste, etc have an impact on his life. As a student it’s sometime’s easy to say “why doesn’t the University change this or that to minimize the carbon foot print he have, or how can they make things more sustainable”, Jeff helped me understand why it is hard for this changes to happen. Jeff gave me a better understanding as to how average students see and react to climate change, we went into detail as to how he chooses what food to eat, if he is aware of what he eats, the possible impact an “ecodistrict” or green building can have on campus. I have recorded the interview for future use and might consider a second interview as a follow up with more questions about how do average college students think and deal with some of the questions we all have regarding climate change and possible “solutions”.

Second Interview

I interviewed Scott Spak, a Professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Department. His research and teaching focus on understanding how urban human and environmental systems respond to changes in technology, policy, land use, and society.  He had astute insight on regenerative cities, specifically on energy, economic, health, and happiness in cities, and I learned a lot.  He went into detail on how air pollution, lack of green space, and urban heat island effects can significantly affect the well-being of city-dwellers and that renewable energy use in cities is absolutely do-able.  However, in order for a full regenerative model to work, cities would need to re-evaluate the economic expectations (specifically a 7% GDP growth) they have for their cities. I recorded the interview for future use. I would definitely recommend anyone else to talk to him.  I will most likely be using him for my project.

Mac’s Project Outline

Theme: Social implications of climate change tying into your local community

General Storyline: A live skit on climate change skepticism reminiscent of interviews featured on Charlie Rose, 60 minutes or Weekend Update from Saturday Night Live. This interview will be accompanied by information from an online and printed zine complied by myself which will feature poetry, art, interviews and short stories from local artists and will also feature what Iowans can do in order to help repair and protect our climate for future generations.

Main Characters: A popular TV host who often sensationalizes false facts invites a local climate activist on to their show to challenge the activists’ views and becomes intent on denying the realities of climate change with the claims that much of it is not real. The climate activist is armed with credible facts and knowledge of how citizens can help to push sustainable options into the forefront of national conversation and action and embarrasses the TV host.

Interviews/Research: Akash Bhalerao (Senator at UISG), John Englebrecht (Director at Public Space One), Online Sources.

Arts Medium: Live skit featuring an actor or actress and myself accompanied with a print zine that people will be able to take home with them.





Dawson Davenport Project Outline

My cartoon is a story about these two kids, who walk through the woods in early February. they are use to the weather and weather conditions being wintry. They are use to seeing winter plant life, and animal life. But when they go on their journey they are surprised by how much things look different. The plant life is different, and the animals are acting different. The two children dont understand why, yet they seek out to find the answer.

This cartoon will be a short 10-15 min story. It will be in the Meskwaki Language. This cartoon will educate young native people about climate change, and also be a way to connect with young native people about climate change. It will utilize Meskwaki Language and teachings to share that message and also would require a dialogue with Meskwaki Community Members, and the Meskwaki Language Program.

Maggie’s Initial Project Outline

Theme: Living regeneratively, in practice. The Little Creek Camp serves as an example of an alternative way of living.

General Storyline: I will explore the different aspects of the camp, such as housing, waste, energy, water, and food cultivation. I would like to explore how indigenous teachings influence the treatment of the land. I might do a “day in the life” at camp, talking to different people.

Main Characters: The land, the camp, the creek, the camp inhabitants and visitors

Interviews/Research: Christine Nobiss (Indigenous Iowa, Little Creek Camp creation), Robert Frazier (camp life and respectful presence), Jo Schneider (sustainable midwestern agriculture), and hopefully our very own Dawson Davenport on Indigenous Iowa and the Camp.

Arts Medium: Video seems like the obvious option for this project, but obvious isn’t always best. I am still looking into audio-only formats like podcasts.

Charles Truong Project Outline

Theme: How society’s dependency on coal/fossil fuels detrimentally affects us and the things around us.

General Storyline: I will be representing the harm that humanity, other creatures, and the environment all suffer from as a result of mankind’s inaction towards our increasingly unstable use of fossil fuels. I have been dancing for eight years, and will be using dance as a means to to understand the pain that the environment must endure as a result of corporate ignorance.

Main Characters: Me

Interviews/Research: I plan to interview three people with specific areas of expertise: dance, hip hop, and renewable energy. I have interviewed Rebekah Kowal, Department Chair and Associate Professor at the University of Iowa’s Dance Department, on how dance works as a catalyst for social change. I am scheduling an interview with renown author Jeff Chang to learn about the history of hip hop and how the culture’s elements are relevant in the world of art today. Finally, I am contacting the Iowa Energy Center to set up a potential meeting with one of their representatives in order to discuss the harmful effects of fossil fuels.

Arts Medium: Combination of b-boying (breakdancing) and modern dance


Jack Project Outline

Deforestation is typically portrayed in the light of the logging industry, either legal or illegal, stripping hinterland of its natural hardwood. This can directly correlate with notions of the regenerative city, with attempts at restoring canopy in either the urban setting or within the vicinity of the city being a core mission of regenerative initiative.

Though, I’ve found this a topic potentially too vague or large in scope to tackle with a poetic narrative, so I’ve decided to focus on a quieter, though just as devastating culprit of deforestation: the Emerald Ash Borer.

The Emerald Ash Borer’s presence in North America is a direct result of human activity, and thus its effect on the natural environment is indisputably human caused. It also presents a complex case of nature consuming itself, in a sense. I think this could be a powerful metaphor for the plight of climate narrative: where the act of deforestation (in the sense of removing the afflicted ash trees) is an act of climate “resilience,” if not regeneration. The Ash Borer is also an issue especially pertinent to the Midwest.

On a conceptual level, I would like the poem to unfold into three parts: addressing the life cycle of the Emerald Ash Borer, the Ash tree, and that of human interaction with canopy. Rather than packaging these three sentiments neatly into each their own part, I would like to thread all three sentiments into each of the three parts, as every issue concerning climate change is seemingly endlessly tangled into on another.

As far as form, the poem will likely be free verse and without meter. I’ve found that I have the most success in this approach. Rhyme (not forced, only as a means of maintaining music) will likely be present, along with all the usual suspects (metaphor, simile, paradox, assonance, alliteration). I would like to keep the poem accessible as well, as some examples of poetry can be as foreign and confusing as the scientific language we are trying to which we are trying to build bridges.

Erica’s First Project Outline

Theme: Water use by industry/agriculture, ways of restoration in a regenerative city

Setting the Scene: Iowa and Cedar River

Characters: A younger and older member of the water society, and a younger and older member of our industrialized society (the older members will act as mentors to the younger)

Story: For my project I want to personify the water itself. I want the water to became so human that it has it’s own society within itself that has allowed it to function for thousands of years. For example, the young water drops come from the sky, and once they are old enough they will begin to move through the earth until they are reach their second stage of life, and fall from the sky again. The older water drops watch over the younger water drops, but one young water drop begins to notice changes within their society. That not everyone is able to do the job they were assigned as members begin to go missing, fall ill, or move onto their second stage of life before they are ready. The younger water drop discovers these changes are not a consequence of their own society’s doing, but rather from a society living outside of there’s that is more powerful and dominant. This outside society begins to wreak havoc on the water society, but ignores these impacts and continues to create turmoil. The young character from the water society begins to reach out to the other society attempting to figure out how they can work together to allow both societies to exist. The water character doesn’t have much luck at first, but due to its passion and perseverance it is finally heard by a character of the industrial society when these issues began to impact our their own way of life. The young member of the industrial society and the water society in the end find common ground, enabling them to persuade these large industries to change their ways as the societies begin to work together, benefiting each other.

Art Medium: I think this story would be most effective in a children’s book format that allows for me to create illustrations for these dramatic scenes. I also had the idea of creating an older looking book that was found years into the future that tells this story of water and man working together.

Interviews: First I will be meeting with my Hydrogeology Professor to get a better history on  the Iowa River, and get some insight on regenerative systems he has seen implemented in the field. I also hope to speak to someone working in the agricultural industry to understand their perspective on the issue of water contamination and any personal stories they have experienced. I also hope to meet with someone that was at Standing Rock to understand the spirit and life they believe the land and water to possess so I can better personify my water characters.