Nance Van Winckel on How Her Poetry and Photography Blend Together

The Spokane-area artist talks about her visual poetry and her poetic visuals, disoriented narrators and fear of abstractions. Van Winckel is one of several Northwest writers unveiling new works at Bedtime Stories Spokane Sept. 28.

  • September 21, 2012
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

In advance of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories Spokane (Sept. 28) and Bedtime Stories Seattle (Oct. 12) galas, Spark magazine is conducting 5 Questions interviews with each of the talented Northwest authors featured at this year’s events. Today: Nance Van Winckel Previously: Shann Ray, Kathleen Flenniken, Jess Walter and Jim Lynch.

Check back during the next few weeks for interviews with Kim Barnes, Charles Johnson, Kevin O’Brien, Nancy Pearl and Amy Wheeler.

Nance Van Winkel

Nance Van Winkel

As a poet, Nance Van Winckel is a heck of a photographer — or else it’s the other way around.

One can of course revel in the imagistic power of her many acclaimed poems (“… The battered, graffitied railcars that uncouple / and move out into the studded green lightning”), or get wrapped up in the visual mystery of her short stories (“… a swarthy handsome man in long robes, his hands raised over a chaos of business deals interrupted, high finance gone awry”). But the Spokane-area artist seems not content with words on a page, metered or otherwise. Lately she’s married words to photographs in a form she calls “photoems,” digitally remixing found images with new text.


What: Bedtime Stories Spokane 2012

Where: The Skyline Ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, 303 W. North River Drive, Spokane [Directions]

When: Friday, Sept. 28
What: Bedtime Stories Seattle 2012

Where: The Spanish Ballroom at The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, 411 University St., Seattle [Directions]

When: Friday, Oct. 12

Note: Individual tickets are still on sale for both the Spokane and Seattle event.

For information on becoming a sponsor or purchasing a table for either event, contact Kari Dasher at (206) 682-1770 x103 or

Van Winckel, a Virginia native now teaching at Eastern Washington University, began accumulating prestigious awards for her poetry soon after her debut collection, Bad Girl, With Hawk, in 1988. Since then she’s received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and the Washington State Governor’s Award. Her poem “You People” from 2007’s collection No Starling earned her the Pushcart Prize in poetry, and the Friends of Literature Award from Poetry Magazine.

Honors recognizing Van Winckel’s short-story writing (collected in Limited Lifetime Warranty, Quake, and the Washington-specific Curtain Creek Farm) have come in from the Washington State Literary Trust, the Paterson Fiction Prize and the Poetry Society of America.

Van Winckel reads September 28 at Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary gala.


Beside Ourselves

Humanities Washington: Outside of epics, one doesn’t always think of poetry as having a “setting,” but your collection Beside Ourselves takes place in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. What was it about this setting that captured your imagination?”

Nance Van Winckel: I was staying in the American Embassy in Prague; this was while Czechoslovakia was still a communist country, though just then transitioning into self-rule. There was an assumption that all embassy rooms, even residences, were bugged. I had never experienced such a lack of freedom before, and it gave me a new appreciation for the luck of my life. My lucky life. The political upheaval was chaotic and later when I was working on poems about a love affair gone crazy, the poems kept wanting to attach themselves to the Prague setting. I didn’t really know why that was; I just went with that direction. Later, as I revised and reworked those poems, I began to understand how the poems had understood this connection — of the wild and abandoned, of the sudden jolt of freedom, of a whole new vista of world and emotion opening.

HW: Your story “Head Case” seems to enjoy the slow revelation of its setting – we don’t know who is speaking or where she is until very late in the narrative. Is a story sometimes more fruitful when the reader is kept a little in the dark?

Van Winckel: Hmm … As a reader, I am not that keen on being kept in the dark — especially if it feels deliberate. So I definitely don’t aim for this as a writer either. But in this short-short, I was in rather a strange point of view character. She’s just been in the Banda Aceh tsunami, and been hit on the head. She has amnesia. She is trying to recall who she is and where she’s from. I wanted to create for the reader a similar sense of her disorientation. (That’d be my term, I guess!) As she gradually “comes to,” she may be coming into a whole new sense of her self as well.

Say Pepsi Please

“Say Pepsi Please,” forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review.

HW: Arranging a photoem, does the image present itself as a worthy subject while it’s in the lens, or do you only find the poetic aspect of that image once you process and edit your photos?

Van Winckel: Actually I am usually “looking” for images to present themselves when I go out shooting with my camera. For instance, I have quite a few photoems set in Butte, Montana. I go there deliberately for the wonderful facades, Butte’s walls, which I think of as my “canvases.” Then I select and work on images (walls) that I like first of all as images, for shape and texture, color, design, etc. Then I alter the walls as a kind of “conversation” I’m having with it. Here’s an example (right), and more may be seen at

HW: What was the last poem you read – not your own – that made you want to give up writing poetry because it felt like the best had already happened?

Van Winckel: Last week I read (for maybe the thirtieth time) Norman Dubie’s “Elegies for the Ocher Deer on the Walls at Lascaux.” It’s a long poem that moves across large spans of time. He combines the meditative voice of the mind with such active dramatic “events,” and I so admire this interplay between what’s happening and the often seemingly disparate life of the mind.

HW: What is the most important rule of poetry to learn and observe … before breaking it?

Van Winckel: I would say Ezra Pound’s dictum of “Go In Fear of Abstractions.” Yes, definitely, just as you say: “Learn and obey,” and then break the rule.

2 thoughts on “Nance Van Winckel on How Her Poetry and Photography Blend Together”

  1. Sharon says:

    What is the main theme of Head Case?

  2. Hi, Sharon: Here’s a link to the story itself, which I meant to include with this article. Maybe that will help answer your question. -jr

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