From Medicare’s point of view, Paul Swenson’s 100-day recovery from the life-threatening infection that laid him low in August was probably money ill spent since he passed away only a few months after his release from care. But for me, it was a great time. I knew where Paul was living and I knew that he wasn’t going anywhere. So I visited him at least once a week during his stay at the Highland Care Center.
During one of my first visits, when Paul was still very tired and sick, I started talking about aging. I’ve done some fun things during my life, but now being at the ripe old age of 36, I wondered aloud if my interesting days were behind me.
“Actually, the most interesting things in my life happened after I turned forty,” Paul said.
I pressed him for some examples.
“Well, I started writing poetry,” he said.
I knew, this, of course, having reviewed his book, Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake: And Other Poems, for Sunstone. Indeed, I knew Paul mostly through his poetry. Every time I met with him—at a restaurant, at a conference, at his home—he inevitably arrived with a sheaf of paper tucked away in his bag. And before we parted, he would ask if I wanted to hear some poems.
In a P.G. Wodehouse novel, such a query would portend verse in which “rabbits were the gnomes in attendance to the Fairy Queen and … the stars … God’s daisy chain.” In Douglas Adams’ galaxy, I would have to gnaw my own leg off to survive the reading. Fortunately for me, I come from a line of Swensons in whom poetry is as endemic as good looks.
So whether sitting over a finished meal or next to a hospital bed, our visits would always conclude with a kind of benediction, the subjects under consideration ranging from cityscapes, to love, to God, to proctology.
Really; how many people have an uncle like that?
Paul Swenson was part of a family gravity that has pulled my life’s orbit in its particular direction. Growing up, I saw him at family reunions, talking intently with my other aunts and uncles. I knew that he was a writer and that he ran a magazine. And every now and then, the poetry of his sister May and his brother Roy would pop into my small world. Swensons, it seemed, were made of words.
I had sometimes wondered if I was as well. In sixth grade I wrote a spoof of “Twas the Night Before Christmas:” a piece so funny that I couldn’t read it to my writing class without cracking up. I also became a dedicated drama freak, memorizing the words of playwrights and feeling them forming new personae inside me. I pursued words in high school, college, and grad school, hoping that the part me that came from the Swensons would be enough to eventually guide me into their company.
One day, while I was living in Alaska, Paul called me on the telephone. We had met only a few times before, and I was amazed that he had been able to track my number down. I was also a little concerned because he seemed to be having a hard time speaking. It turned out that he was trying to talk through his tears. Something I had recently published had moved him and he had immediately gone through the work to find my number so he could let me know as soon as possible.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so flattered in my life.
Though I had only been talking with Paul for about fifteen minutes at the care center that day, I could tell that he was losing energy, but my curiosity pushed me to ask for one more example.
“Well, I found out that I have a knack for getting people together,” he said. This was absolutely true. Paul was the coordinator of a writers group in Salt Lake that met regularly for at least the past twenty years—though calling those events “writers” groups isn’t precisely accurate since musicians and even dancers sometimes came to perform.
The spirit of those evenings was unique to my experience. I went partially to see what new writer Paul had invited, partially to enjoy the poetic spaces the hosts had created in their homes, and partly to read some small piece I had written.
The experience of reading to that group is hard to explain. The closest I can come is to say it was like being an eighth-grade violinist finding yourself playing at Carnegie Hall. Any skills you posses find a perfect place to fly. Any deficiencies resound in your ears, not because Simon Cowell is telling you how bad you stink, but simply because you have a perfect place to listen to yourself. I always discovered a new dimension to my work at those events.
This resonant space existed not just because Paul himself was a consummate writer and editor, or even because he had gathered such an erudite group around him, but because he seemed to naturally create a space of possibility. “Something amazing and unexpected can happen here,” his presence seemed to say. “You might fall in love. You might become a poet. You might find a new genius inside you.”
“The middle might become a beginning.”
As Sara Burlingame wrote, “When you met Paul, it was not a solo experience; he wanted to know you so that he could introduce you, so he could seal you to this expanding body of poets, artists, and humanists that he had been collecting over his lifetime.”
A sealer. That’s exactly what Paul was. He bound writers to their potential; and then bound those writers to other writers, and they supported and nurtured one another. We were fortunate to have such a man among us.