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Van Winckel, Nance


Nationality: American. Born: Roanoke, Virginia, 24 October 1951. Education: University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 1970–73, B.A. 1973; Eastern Washington University, Cheney, 1974–75; University of Denver, Colorado, 1975–76, M.A. 1976. Family: Married Robert Fredrik Nelson in 1985. Career: Instructor of English, Marymount College, Salina, Kansas, 1976–79; assistant professor of English, Lake Forest College, Illinois, 1979–90. Since 1990 professor of English, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, and since 1999 fiction instructor, Vermont College. Journalist, The Milwaukee Journal, 1974; associate editor, The Denver Quarterly, 1976; president, Associated Kansas Writing Programs, 1978; associate editor, The Ark River Review, 1979–81. Editor, 1990–96, Willow Springs, and since 1993 associate editor, Eastern Washington University Press. Awards: National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1981; Illinois Arts Council Literary fellowships, 1983, 1985, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts literary fellowship, 1989; Society of Midland Authors First Book award, 1989, for Bad Girl, with Hawk; Poetry Society of America Gordon Barber award, 1989; Northwest Institute grant (for literary research), 1991, 1993, 1994; Paterson fiction prize, 1998, for Quake; Washington State Governor's award for literature, 1999, for After a Spell. Address: 12506 South Gardner, Cheney, Washington 99004, U.S.A.



The 24 Doors. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Bieler Press, 1985.

Bad Girl, with Hawk. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

The Dirt. Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press, 1994.

After a Spell. Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press, 1997.

Short Stories

Limited Lifetime Warranty. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Quake. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Curtain Creek Farm. New York, Persea Books, 2000.


Critical Study: By Thomas Palakeel, in North Dakota Quarterly, 62(2), spring 1995.

*  *  *

In the introductory epigraphs to Bad Girl, with Hawk (1988) and The Dirt (1994) Nance Van Winckel quotes, respectively, Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke, two poets from whom she has learned a great deal. Her poems often have a ruminative, lyrical quality one might associate with Rilke and, as with Stevens, a rigorous attention to the melodic possibilities of the line. She tends to use narrative to focus on single events rather than as exposition for extended stories.

Bad Girl, with Hawk, though less unified than The Dirt, contains many strong poems. "Holding Together," for example, demonstrates Van Winckel's skill at working pleasurable sounds into her lines. More subtle than in Stevens, the simple diction and near conversational manner of this poem actually enfold a rich rhythmic and sonic texture:

And in the pond our old friend the fish—
whose tail fin long ago snapped off—
he treads water, watches
for opportunities. And when they come,
cautionless, he envelopes them
with the long horizon of his body.

Although Van Winckel often uses a midlength free verse line, as in the above, she also writes adeptly in other forms, from shorter-lined free verse poems to blank verse.

Bad Girl, with Hawk contains a variety of poems, including brief lyrics and narratives as well as several pieces that possess a mythical quality, including "Basket with Blue Ox," "She Who Hunts," and "All He Asks," which are some of the strongest in the book. Thematically the book ranges from poems remembering childhood ("But I shrug off the red sweater /she's knit around me. It's not in me /to keep my shoulders always warm") to a shrewd consideration of culture in "Outdoor Movie," in which Moses splits the sea in front of "the black shining bubbles /of Hudsons and DeSotos," and a compelling description of the natural world ("Outside, a confusion of chickory /and cornflowers blow sunlight /to pieces). Such variation clearly shows the versatility of Van Winckel's talent, but the book does not cohere as tightly as a completely successful collection should.

In Bad Girl, with Hawk, as in her later work, Van Winckel writes poems of fairly short length. "Lost in Riverview Trailer Court," a poem of fourteen irregular stanzas on three pages, is the book's longest. This brevity is connected to the lyrical-narrative style in which she writes. The difficulty of maintaining the intensity of the lyrical moment and the fact that Van Winckel is not interested in relying too heavily on narrative, perhaps reserving such attention for her short stories, make for shorter poems.

Van Winckel's second collection, The Dirt, is an outstanding, tightly organized book. It achieves its synthesis through tying together poems that deal with themes of memory, loss, desire, and hope. The music of the lines is richer, more ambitious than in the first collection, as is Van Winckel's use of syntax to propel the lines in interesting ways. The poem "Nicholas by the River" is a good example of these two qualities:

Two heaps of clothes by an old stump,
and Nicholas neck-deep in that water
too cold for our own good. Shimmering
when he said he wasn't sure but thought
maybe it was a man he wanted,
though I was what he had
under his hands in that blue current—
darker and rougher in the middle
over the deep spots.

Sometimes, as in the above, the poems rely on brief narrated events. At other times Van Winckel combines narrative with a more lyrical, meditative voice, as at the end of "Levitation":

		We could never
have dreamed such a pure departure
from the foolishness of our lives,
nor the dark expanse our lungs took in,
or the strange strength that came rushing
from nowhere into our hands.

The collection After a Spell was published in 1997. This book continues Van Winckel's work with a midlength free verse line, but the narrative compulsion that played such a strong role in her earlier poems has diminished. More specifically, although the poems in the book utilize narrative, they are less linear, more disjunctive. It sometimes seems as if we have interrupted a series of events and caught only a glimpse of things. Consider, for example, these lines from "Cockadoodledo (Woman Selling Dogs in the Village)":

In this town everyone sleeps late.
A tireless wind
in the night-wear, and how tardily
their fields are sown.
Once a man's language and mine
intersected across 17 words. No three
made a sentence.

Other poems in the book are more traditionally narrative, and still others make myths out of the narrators' pasts. In all of these cases, however, the tales Van Winckel's narrators tell—or allow us to enter in media res—are engaging and illustrative of her vivid imagination.

Van Winckel is a versatile and talented writer. The strong voices that compel her poems, coupled with her studious attention to craft, have served to elevate her work and establish her as a significant American poet.

—Tod Marshall

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