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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