Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Performing flood poetry

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 21, 2009)

Eight years ago, when Iowa poet laureate Mary Swander began working on her newest book of poetry, "The Girls on the Roof," the Kalona native thought enough time had passed since the flood of 1993 that she could start writing about the irony and humor she saw amid the tragedy.

"I had done a whole bunch of journalism," Swander said. "I wrote piece after piece. I toured the sites. I interviewed person after person. I sloshed around in houses. I rode in helicopters. I went out on the flat boats."

Because Swander thought her journalistic accounts had stripped too much of the human interest from the stories she was trying to tell, she decided to pull together her left-over material and craft it into a story of her own. Eventually, she had a tale in which two women, Maggie and Pearl, are trapped on the roof of Crazy Eddy's café as the swollen Mississippi surrounds them. Then it turns out these women are mother and daughter. Then it turns out they've both been sleeping with the same man. Then they see that man's body come floating down the river.

The result soon became a long poetic narrative -- similar to Swander's earlier book, "Driving the Body Back" -- that almost leaps off the page. It's not enough to read "The Girls on the Roof" silently and individually. The poem begs to be read aloud, staged, set to music or otherwise dramatically performed. (West Liberty's world-famous Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, for example, is producing an adult puppet show adaptation of the poem.)

"Who says poetry can't be funny," Swander said of her work. "Chaucer is hilarious. The people in 'Canterbury Tales' are bawdy and racy in their relations with each other."

Viewing the 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer as both mentor and model, Swander made "The Girls on the Roof" into what she calls a sometimes bawdy and racy "poetic novella." She also pulls in Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," a little bit of Shakespeare and a whole lot of Mark Twain as she tells the story of these trapped Midwestern characters who dream of riding the floodwaters down to New Orleans to start a new life full of adventure and culture.

In the process of writing what she calls "her slowest book," Swander hit a snag when Hurricane Katrina hit the real New Orleans in 2005. Rather than change the name of the characters' dream city, Swander decided the devastation in New Orleans added a new layer of significance to her poem.

"It shows how the landscape is constantly changing and people constantly adapting," Swander said. "It added another whole current."

Then -- after Swander had all but completed the book and was sending it out to publishers -- Iowa's flood of 2008 added yet another unexpected current to the story of Maggie and Pearl on that roof.

"You read the poem with a lot more irony now," Swander said.

If readers have any trouble understanding the irony when reading the poem on their own, the always energetic Swander will make the humor as she reads from "The Girls on the Roof" at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City and 7 p.m. Thursday at the Kalona Public Library.

The Prairie Lights reading will be streamed live on and will be broadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday on KRUI 89.7-FM.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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