Rural Life Promoter

Poet Laureate Mary Swander opens Kalona office for new podcasting venture


Mary Swander is busy.

As Iowa’s poet laureate approaches 70, she shows no signs of slowing down.

After years of running her multiple enterprises from an old Amish one-room schoolhouse where she lives near Sharon Center, Swander has opened an office in downtown Kalona where she plans to launch a weekly podcast.

That’s on top of her other jobs. Actually they are more labors of love than jobs. Artistic director of Swander Woman Productions, a theater troupe that performs dramas about food, farming and the wider rural environment. Executive director of AgArts, a nonprofit designed to imagine and promote healthy food systems through the arts.

“I’ve got a lot of balls in the air,” Swander said.

And she continues to write. Her latest book is a collection of essays on her interactions with her Amish neighbors, “Adeste Fideles in Chinese.” It was published by her longtime friend Tim Fay, who printed the book on an old letterpress at his home near Anamosa.

“They are basically interactions I have had with my neighbors,” Swander said.

It is those interactions that will be the subject of the podcasts she plans to produce in her downtown office.

“I think podcasts are real interesting for ideas right now,” Swander said.

She is moving into the space located next to the Raven’s Nest antique store. The signs went up last week.

A former attorney’s office, Swander inherited much of the furniture and is supplementing the basics with finds from online. A beautiful quilt covers a black, leather sofa. Wooden chairs and a simple wooden desk offer spaces to work.

The look is farmhouse chic.

On the way, though, is the technology she’ll use to produce the podcasts – four microphones on stands, four sets of headphones and a recording equalizer.

She continues to write and stage plays about agriculture. Last year, she did 60 performances of “Map of My Kingdom,” a play about the transition of farms from one generation to the next and the challenges and strife the transition can produce.

Another project is her Farm-to-fork-tales, where Swander helps people tell their own farm stories. Recent plays have looked at farming immigrants near Muscatine and families living on Century Farms.

And her AgArts company is matching artists with farmers where the artist moves onto the farm for a residency, capturing the lifestyle in art.

“It’s a real neat exchange for both of them,” Swander said.

All of these projects – including the upcoming podcasts – are Swander’s efforts to bridge the urban-rural divide.

Those efforts started in 2008 on the Iowa State campus where Swander was a professor. She saw that many of her students had no idea of life in a rural or farm community.

She challenged her students to produce a play based on interviews with a variety of people … “the fabric of what we know as the rural scene.”

The fruits of those seeds planted by her students a dozen years ago can be seen in the multitude of projects Swander has underway today, including the new office on B Avenue in Kalona.

In the future, she plans office hours, where people can stop by and tell their stories.

People will have an opportunity to check out the office and see samples of the projects underway in the new space on the weekend of April 24 and 25, during the Kalona Quilt Show.


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