A year ago, I came back home from the AWP conference in Chicago energized to create community for myself as a writer, and to provide a forum for others interested in the craft and practice of writing. Through the Writeliving blog I have been blessed to connect with many talented and inspirational writers. One of those has been Nance Van Winckel: fiction writer, poet, and visual artist. I hope you enjoy her insights into her creative life and I recommend that you check out her new poetry book Pacific Walkers.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
With poets, I’d say Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Plath, Berryman, and Tomas Transtromer. With fiction writers, I’d say Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Chekov, and my newest love—Proust. These are writers I know I can repeatedly return to and each time find something new to admire—both in what their works have to say AND in how they say it.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
About “process,” I wish I could say I had one. Each new writing project seems to demand a different manner of “making.” Possibly figuring out that new method of composition for each new project IS my process. I know I like, in poems, for the collections to be series, but how the poems will speak back and forth to each other—through what voices, from what tonalities and physical worlds—those issues I enjoy experimenting with. I probably keep only one out of every dozen separate poem drafts. I appreciate how a book project takes me into uncharted (for me) territory and requires me to learn what seems like a new kind of shaping. One of my first books of poem series, Beside Ourselves, came about largely through collage (of journal notes, a travel diary, and the fuzzy memories of a disastrous love affair), while this new book of linked stories, Boneland (due out in October), was an interesting experiment in trying to make a “family” of a cast of characters who’d populated some recent flash fictions and longer fictions. With both projects, I felt a certain stress that I wouldn’t be able to make each book coalesce; every time they threatened to implode I’d suddenly find a new little element that shed light on their commonalities.
How does writing both poetry and fiction impact the other genre?
I don’t find that the actual methods of making poems and making stories have much at all in common. In fact, in learning to write fiction, I found my first major hurdle was realizing that the organic process by which I’d always written poems was just not going to cut it. In fiction some small glimmer of a route—maybe not an ending, but some grip on characters and/or dramatic events—that sort of advance knowing was not going to hurt a story. Hell, it was going to help! Over the years as I’ve worked on stories, my poems may have become less narrative, or less primarily narrative. Fiction seems to have sucked some of that away. And no doubt my love of and frequent use of persona in poems may have helped me toward that full emersion into a character’s mind so crucial to stories.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Aside from trying to ride out the waves of grief over certain loved ones’ deaths—notably my younger sister and father, I think these last couple of years may have presented the biggest challenge. I wake up worrying over my 87-year-old-mother and 97-year-old stepfather, trying to track on all the parts of their lives I now attend to FOR them: their meals, meds, doctors’ appointments, bills, etc. Not ever having had children, I have never really been responsible FOR other people before. It was not easy to step into this role. Writing has always been on the front burner for me, and all else that made demands of me I pushed onto back burners. Now I’m learning to be another kind of person, someone with a modicum of patience who can step up, as it were. To do so I had to quit worrying that I might lose a story if I didn’t immediately sit down and write it. Now I trust that if I lose a poem or a story, probably another one will come along in its own good time. I remember something Grace Paley said: “I don’t have a career; I have a life.” I’m not sorry writing was on the front burner for me for fifty years, and I’m not sorry it can’t be right now.
Can you tell us anything about your new poetry book Pacific Walkers?
In my mid-20’s I was a newspaper reporter, and some of the narrative voice and dramatic situation of these poems incorporates that world, a journalist’s responsibilities to facts, as well as the constrictions of time (deadlines) and space (number of words).
People put up signs for their missing pets; milk cartons carry photographs of missing children. But what of those who are found (dead) but NOT missed? These unidentified bodies are the persona’s immediate “story.” Several of the poems quote information from the Spokane Medical Examiner’s website, detailing information on specific John and Jane Does. Does turning such stories as these into news-bites eventually create a numbing effect on most of us? How is it possible for a human being to go completely un-missed? The book questions how well facts can render the “truth” of these sad lives. It seems a strange irony too that the bodies have no names but the particular items found with the bodies do. Pacific Walkers, for instance, is the brand name of a pair of boots found on one of the John Does. America’s anonymous dead. For me, their status as unnamable makes them all the more haunting. And perhaps their ghostly presence in the world suggests the eventual anonymity of most of us. We may leave behind descendants and/or names on tombstones, but ultimately we too become unknown.
Incorporating some of my visual art (digital photo-collage), I have created a 1.5 minute film offering a glimpse into the book’s world.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
Lately I’ve been putting very spare poems on walls! I’m tagging back with my own little poetic bits of text among the graffiti and street art I find along my urban walks. But only digitally so. I have a new website devoted to this photo-collage work.
About the Author
Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review.
She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press.
She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson.