Wales Arts Review pays tribute to author and poet, Norman Schwenk who died this week.
“The death of an old man is not a tragedy”
Norman Schwenk (1935-2023) was a writer and teacher from Nebraska, USA who arrived in Cardiff, Wales in the mid-sixties via Stockholm, Sweden. We have been lucky to have him for so long. He was at the centre of a thriving creative writing department at Cardiff University developing and influencing a diverse group of many talents.
Schwenk was always interested in writers as real people and through this encouragement brought out the best in the students he taught and the colleagues he worked with.
He had a sense of humour to see through the halls of pretension that sometimes surround both the academy and university and a steel edge when defending rights, people and art but what really mattered to him was the work. His own and that of others he taught and encouraged. He has written and published both poetry and prose over a long creative career of over sixty years.
Schwenk was born in 1935 in Lincoln, Nebraska. A love of reading and writing poems infused his childhood and intending to work as a teacher, Schwenk took a B.A. degree at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and then enrolled as a postgraduate in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was made a teaching and research assistant in English. In 1960 he won a Fulbright Award from the U.S. State Department, and for the next five years he was a Fulbright Lecturer in English at Uppsala University in Sweden. He came to Wales in 1965, having been appointed lecturer in American Literature at Cardiff University by the writer and academic Gwyn Jones.
As a writer who understood why other writers needed both structures and opportunities, Schwenk was involved in the establishment of the Sherman Theatre and Chapter Art Centre in Cardiff. He always had a love of film and was a regular reviewer for Radio Wales. One of his favourite quotes “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” was from A Prairie Home Companion by Robert Altman. It resonated with his mid-western US upbringing.
When he arrived in Wales, Schwenk was already publishing poems widely in American magazines and began to publish in the Welsh magazines as well, although he did think there were too many elegies. An observation he ruefully reflected on with the publication of his selected poems in 2016 Love What is Mortal: ‘Now I am an old man, myself writing elegies’.
Love, sex and mortality were enduring themes for Schwenk including his fine collection The Black Goddess (1990) through to his selected poems in 2016. But he had a playful side as well which included a series of chapbooks of comic verse exploring popular forms including How To Pronounce Welsh Place Names, a collection of limericks.
Schwenk retired from full-time teaching in 2002 which gave him more time to concentrate on his own work. In 2004 he co-edited with Anne Cluysenaar, whom he had brought into the teaching staff at Cardiff, an anthology of poems about St Melangell, The Hare that Hides Within, which won an award as a Welsh Books Council poetry best-seller. In 2005 he published The More Deceived: Poems about Love and Lovers; in 2010 Cadillac Temple: Haiku Sequences; and in 2015, Book of Songs, a collection of song lyrics. He was working on a final collection at the time of his death.
Norman Schwenk is survived by his wife, the writer Deborah Kay Davies, and the children of his first marriage.