In Memory of Nigel Jenkins

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Nigel Jenkins was a much-loved and internationally renowned writer. It is with deep sadness – felt and expressed both by those who knew him personally and those who did not – that 2014 has played witness to his passing.

Born in 1949 in Gorseinon, near Swansea, Nigel Jenkins studied Literature and Film at the University of Essex, after first embarking upon stints as a newspaper reporter in England and, briefly, as a circus-hand in America. However in 1976 Jenkins returned home to the country of his birth, where he promptly set about learning Welsh.

Once settled in Swansea Jenkins remained there, both writing and teaching, for the rest of his life. He gained renown as a performance poet, notable for his deep bass voice and good humour. And up till January this year, when he passed away aged 64 from pancreatic cancer, Jenkins also taught at Swansea University, where he acted as the director of the Creative Writing programme.

Beyond the borders of the classroom, Jenkins also inspired students and aspiring writers with his own work; work which addressed political issues largely from a left-wing, Nationalist angle, and often with a satirical bent.

Jenkins’ interest in Wales and issues of Welsh identity was also evident in the projects he supported; among them, the Welsh Writer’s Trust, and the Welsh Union of Writers, for which he acted as the first Secretary. Jenkins also co-edited the Academi’s Encyclopaedia of Wales.

The list of published works Jenkins leaves behind him, as both an editor and writer, is impressively varied, featuring poetry, prose, travel fiction, criticism, and even two plays, both chronicling the lives of two other great Welshmen; Strike a Light!, about Dr William Price, the pioneer of cremation, and Waldo’s Witness, about the Welsh-language pacifist poet Waldo Williams.

Yet, despite his prolific list of publications, Jenkins never sheltered behind the page, or the teacher’s desk. He was an active figure in his community, promoting the written word wherever he could. He contributed to television documentaries, toured with blues and poetry bands, and composed site-specific poetry for his hometown.

Now Jenkins’ poetry can be found engraved in stone, steel, and glass throughout the streets of Swansea. One installation on Christina St, which retrospectively seems to speak poignantly for Jenkins’ life, reads: ‘‘Came for a day – setlo ar fwy’n fodlon’ (stayed to live contentedly)’.

Throughout his lifetime Jenkins received great critical acclaim, and several notable awards, including the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Award in 1998, and the Wales Book of the Year Prize in 1995, for his travel book Gwalia in Khasia. Jenkins also drew attention and notoriety for producing the first ever book of haiku poetry from a Welsh publisher, and for his translations of modern Welsh poetry, which have appeared in publications all over the globe. Indeed, Jenkins has been translated into numerous languages and reprinted in just as many countries.

In kind, his passing has been mourned and his life celebrated by many. His funeral, which took place in St Mary’s Church, Pennard, was simultaneously broadcast in the nearby community hall, where hundreds of mourners had gathered. Jenkins was then buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s, joining the company of esteemed poets Vernon Watkins and Harri Webb.

Jenkins leaves behind his wife Delyth Evans and their two daughters, Branwen and Angharad, an impressive and versatile body of work, and a legacy in the minds of his readers and students that will not be diminished by his passing.

He was a master of his form, into which he showed great insight, as can be seen in his poem ‘Where Poems Came From’ (please see the link below to experience Jenkins reading the poem himself) in which Jenkins claims his poems came ‘behind my back/they talked to me/though I heard no words/their coming was not to do with words/It was in the laughter of dogs/way across the snow’.

Not only did Jenkins teach Creative Writing to his own students, his poetry is still used as exemplar work in Creative Writing programmes across Wales. Reading it, it is clear to see why.

Another poem by Jenkins, in a similar vein, asserts that poetry should not be ‘fog and tricks/but accuracy and magic’. In his lifetime, and in his writing, Jenkins both articulated this ideal and lived it; setting a standard for young writers all across Wales to aspire to, and be inspired by.

He brought poetry to life, in a network of classrooms and streets mapped out across Wales. His work and life will be recalled in the legacy of these words; words for which now we can only thank him, and use to remember him by.

*Photo Credit: Wales Arts Review

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