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Wishing Well


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:17 pm
On a quiet street in Poughkeepsie, near the fairy-tale turrets of Vassar, there lies an enchanted cottage. Inside, angels canoe over doorways, unicorns nestle on armchairs, and the bathroom sink is filled with stars. There’s even a spinning wheel tucked in one corner. It might be the kind that spins straw into gold, although one suspects that most of the alchemy in Nancy Willard’s house takes place on paper. With a wave of her pen, brooms dance, beds fly, and poems bristle like seagrass.

Willard’s writings include a brace of novels (Things Invisible to See and Sister Water), four collections of essays and stories, 11 volumes of poetry (most recently, In the Salt Marsh), and a covey of children’s books with such antic titles as Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, The Well-Mannered Balloon, The Marzipan Moon, and The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Food Cake. Willard’s 1981 A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers was the first book of poetry to garner a Newbery Medal. This month, Scholastic will publish her Florentine fable The Flying Bed, with award-winning paintings by John Thompson.

The indefatigable Willard also finds time to lecture at Vassar, as well as to fashion the whimsical artworks that fill nearly every inch of her home. (The remaining wall space is claimed by her husband, photographer Eric Lindbloom, whose black-and-white landscapes hang beside snapshots of their grown son, James.) Willard’s assemblages include numerous figures of angels, a collaged children’s stove titled “The Back Burner,” and an eclectic shrine made from the stump of an ancient apple tree.

“Whenever you bring a tree into the house, it looks much bigger,” Willard states, as if she’s had extensive experience. (Maybe she has.) Draped with twinkling lights, the hollow stump houses a sitting Confucius, a small wooden lute, a Unicorn Tapestry ornament, two velvet elves, a silk butterfly. There’s a hinged door with a natural bole for a doorknob; inside stands a perplexed-looking angel. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing in there,” Willard says. “But it fits her so perfectly.”

The dining room walls are robin’s egg blue, a tone that brings out Willard’s eyes. Unusually large and set low in her face, they’re the changeable blue-green of seawater, with a dreamy drift outward, as though she is looking both at and beyond you. She tends to lean backward while talking and forward while listening; it seems as if listening, for her, is the more active verb. Willard enjoys interviewing, and often sends students out to interrogate elderly relatives, with instructions to listen not only to what they say, but how they say it, their turns of phrase and unique tones of voice.

“I love to hear how people talk,” she muses, “both what they tell you and what they leave out. Anything that gets you to listen better is good practice for writing.”

For Willard, the narrative voice is the key to the kingdom. “I’m always interested in stories that sound like someone could have told them,” she says, citing Huckleberry Finn and the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hans Christian Andersen as examples. “It’s the illusion of a spoken style, but it’s very careful writing too.” Whatever she writes, the voice must come first. Her process allows for a good deal of hunting and gathering. “You dream over the material for a long time before setting anything down,” she says, “Just walk around with story inside your head.”

During this long mulling period, she sometimes makes notes, but never an outline. “God forbid,” Willard shudders. “You follow the story. You don’t try to make it follow your plan. When you finally have the whole thing in your head, ready to go, you sit down to work. You work steadily and that’s all you do.”

This method requires a great deal of trust, and may tempt self-doubt: Willard’s essay “Telling Time” chronicles a story that flatly refused to come forth and its unlikely muse, an elderly Holocaust survivor she met in a deli. The author remembers her father, a chemist, rising from the table where he’d sat pondering some insoluble problem, saying “I give up,” and heading upstairs. “Well, he hadn’t, of course—a man who’s given up does not go to bed with a flashlight, pad, and pen—but it was part of his ritual. He had to let go of it, literally to sleep on it, before the idea would come. I would hear him in the middle of the night, scratching away on his pad.”

Willard grew up in Michigan, summering at a lakeside town where the main occupations were gravel mining and gossip. Another essay, “The Well-Tempered Falsehood,” describes a childhood game she played with her sister. One would describe a place as vividly as possible to the other, adding texture until the listener said, “Stop, I’m there.” Once, 10-year-old Nancy decided to conjure up Paradise, borrowing details from the church they attended—brass angels, stained glass, a stray whiff of peppermint. Without warning, her sister burst into tears and cried out, “I’m there!” From that moment on, Nancy knew what she wanted to do. Her mother encouraged her, helping her run off a local newspaper (circulation: 25) on a hectograph press.

Six decades and 50 books later, she’s still telling stories. “Stories find the writer. They’re out there,” claims Willard, who reflexively downplays her own role in making things happen. Ask her when she made the apple-stump shrine, and she’ll tell you the velvet figures were crafted by Lena Dun. Ask where she gets her ideas for children’s books, and she’ll list those suggested by others. The Flying Bed, for example, came about because John Thompson, an art professor at Syracuse University, was heading for Florence on a sabbatical. Willard’s editor asked her if she could come up with a story set there, so that he could sketch on location.

Willard leapt at the chance. She’d spent time in Florence while Lindbloom shot his book Angels on the Arno. “Walking through the city left a powerful impression on me,” she recalls. “I was glad to revisit those memories for a story.”
The Flying Bed is a wish tale about a poor baker, a magical bed, and the pitfalls of greed. Thompson spent five years on its sumptuously detailed paintings, in which a carved four-poster soars over rooftops and rivers; even before publication, he won a Best Illustration of the Year medal from the Society of Illustrators. “There’s a sort of surrealism—it’s more than accurate, it’s as if he sees more than we do,” Willard marvels.

She thinks of a picture book manuscript as a poem. “It’s made to be read aloud, it has meter and rhythm. In a poem, you have stanza breaks and line breaks. In a picture book, it’s the page turn.” Though Willard delivers her text in conventional form, she often makes mock-up dummies for personal use, with a section of text on each folded page. She reads these aloud (“usually very softly, so as not to alarm others in the house”), stressing the need to hear every word as a bedtime listener will, not just the sense, but the sounds.

She writes poems for adults in much the same way. Willard’s poems are lyrical and precise, without a jot of pretension; they’re written, to borrow a phrase from the late Randall Jarrell, “in plain American which dogs and cats can read.” In the Salt Marsh explores two different places where water meets land, the shores of Cape Cod and the banks of the Hudson. In these liminal landscapes, she finds the miraculous wrapped in the everyday. A bird crashes into a window; the poet is left with a small feathered body, the husk of a life.

There’s room for sly humor in Willard’s poems too. One series spins metaphysical riffs from sports headlines, many of which—”Buffalo Crawls Out of Cellar,” “Saints Lose Back,” “Giants Anxious for Skins”—seem created expressly for some watchful poet to mine for double entendres.

How does one imagination take so many forms, like a genie inside a brass lamp? In The Nancy Willard Reader: Selected Poetry & Prose (Middlebury College Press, 1991), Willard fields a question from a reader who wants to know if the author of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn is the same person as the novelist who wrote Things Invisible to See. If so, asks the reader, why do you work in such different genres?

Willard responds, “Each work chooses its own form, and I try to follow that lead—story, poem, novel, or essay. I hope the connections between them are clear. They all come from the same well, a metaphor I don’t take lightly.” Willard’s story well seems to tap into some underground river—or perhaps it’s the stream full of blind fish that bisects the floor of a Midwestern family’s backyard museum in Sister Water. Her response to the reader continues, “When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I heard plenty of stories about folks coming into the world and going out of it and maybe coming back once in a while to keep an eye on us, the living. Call them guardians, ancestors, spirits; they glistened before us in a web of words: Their stories were the gifts they handed down to us. Behind their gifts lay questions: What will you give to those who come after? Who do you want to be? Why, the village storyteller, of course.”
Wish granted. The village applauds.

  • Jennifer May
  • Jennifer May

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