By Stephen Carter
From Medicare’s point of view, Paul Swenson’s 100-day recovery from the life-threatening infection he contracted in August 2011 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 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.”
I knew Paul mostly through his poetry. Every time I met him—at a restaurant, at a conference, at his home—he invariably arrived with a sheaf of paper tucked 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’s 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 Paul and I were sitting in a restaurant or next to a hospital bed, our visits would always conclude with a benediction for which the subjects under consideration might include words, love, God, or (if we were lucky) proctology.
Really. How many people have an uncle like that?
Paul Swenson was part of a family gravity whose pull has shaped the direction of my life’s orbit. 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 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, feeling them forming new personae inside me. I pursued words through high school, college, and grad school, hoping that the Swenson part of me was robust enough to eventually guide me into my relatives’ 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 down my number. 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 enough that he had immediately gone to the work of finding my number so he could let me know as soon as possible.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so flattered in my entire 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 it a group of “writers” 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 partly to see what new writer Paul had invited, partly 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 was like being an eighth-grade violinist finding yourself playing at Carnegie Hall. Any skills you possess find a perfect place to fly. Any deficiencies resound in your ears—not because Simon Cowell is telling you how atrocious you are, but simply because you have a perfect place to listen. I always discovered a new dimension to my work at those gatherings.
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 so that they could support and nurture each other. You could say that he created a small Zion where many writers found community and inspiration.
He seemed to naturally generate a space of possibility around him. “Something amazing and unexpected may spring from you,” his presence seemed to say. “You might become a poet. You might fall in love. You might find a new genius inside you.
“You may find new life just where it seemed to end.”