Rediscovered Stories: Nance Van Winckel Discusses Her Inspiration and the Process of Creating Visual Poems

A Q&A by Leslie Lindenauer

Your pieces published in Poor Yorick come from a series of digital photo-collage pieces taken from a current project entitled The Book of No Ledge. Can you talk about your artistic statement in this series?

NVW: In my dialogue with this encyclopedia (circa 1947), I attempt to marry a bit of poetry with the know-it-all simplifier of the universe voice. Besides altering the text, I often add other graphic bits and refine to my own purposes all that had been in the vast before.


PY: Where did you first encounter the encyclopedia that serves as the scaffolding for this work?

NVW: I found the thirteen-volume set in a garage sale and purchased them all for five dollars. I had paged through them and liked all the black-and-white line drawings. I knew immediately these would be interesting to colorize and revamp.


PY: Were you first attracted to and inspired by the words or engravings in the encyclopedia entries? Or did you begin by seeking out certain entries?

NVW: Both the words and the line drawings. I have in mind a project that may be an eBook, an altered version of the encyclopedia, using just the art pages. Often as I reworked the visual elements—colorizing, resizing, eliminating much of the extra text—I’d be writing (to the side of my monitor) some possible text to substitute. Sometimes I would incorporate small bits of poems from earlier published books of my poetry.


PY: Was there something about the 1947 encyclopedia in particular that inspired the work? As a historian, I am always inclined to understand the text in its context; do you think that a post-war encyclopedia might have something in particular to offer you as an artist that other works in the same genre but from different periods did not?

NVW: My impetus with the original text itself had more to do with the tone. It is so completely cock-sure of itself. The knowledge is stripped down here to such basic facts and delivered with this unfaltering reportorial voice. I wanted to allow into my altered version more of The Mystery, the unknown, so much that fuels what I understand as a foundation for poetry: a domain of Not Knowing, the unfathomable. I wanted to juxtapose this to the “usual” voice of assurance.


PY: I’m thinking of encyclopedias published in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, including Diderot’s Encyclopédie. The Encyclopédie was grounded in enlightenment ideas about the supremacy of human reason in the construction of knowledge. It also emphasized human agency and intellectual authority in a way that the church and the monarchy found threatening. Is there something about the way knowledge was constructed in the 1947 encyclopedia that revealed to you elements of American culture?

NVW: Yes, the prevailing era’s notion of Americana was certainly an idea I was playing with—the culture of my parents (that 1947 generation) and many of the rules and conditioning my parents and teachers bought into: gender roles, the greatness of capitalism, American superiority in the world, the planet as human property, etc. I wanted to speak back to such conditioning in my version of The Book of No Ledge. This is what I mean about that “vast before,” but my responses into the vastness no doubt fall like tiny pebbles into the ocean.


To view more of Nance Van Winckel’s work, please visit her website at