Nancy Willard: Writer and Artist

Figurine reading a newspaper, with a box for a head.

Nancy Willard Papers. University of Michigan Special Collections Library

Among the author's papers housed in Special Collections are those of Nancy Willard (1936-2017). Nancy Willard (1936-2017) was born in Ann Arbor and is an alumnus of the University of Michigan, where she won both major and minor Hopwood Awards (1955, 1956, 1957, 1958) as a student.  Although best known as the winner of the 1982 Newbery Medal for her collection of children's poems,A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, Willard in fact wrote for a range of audiences and genres. Over the course of her career, she published dozens of books, including poetry, short stories, novels, essays, criticism, and both prose and poetry for children. She also received numerous other awards and fellowships, including the the Devins Memorial Award (1967), the O. Henry Award (1970), and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1977 & 1979).

Across her diverse body of work, Willard’s writing is characterized by dream-like free association and a mixture of sharp details and hazy backgrounds. Willard herself noted that she often re-purposed fragments of her dreams and drew connections between dreaming and writing. Following the narrative tradition of Alice in Wonderland, Willard’s Anatole stories recount the fantastical adventures of a character loosely inspired by Willard’s young son at the time of writing. One of the interesting aspects of authorial archives is the ability to see drafts (sometimes multiple drafts) and compare them to published versions. Below, you can see a draft with further revisions in pen and penceil, as well as the published version of a passage from Sailing to Cythera (1974).

Draft of a portion of Sailing to Cythera, showing an advertising jingle as "Van Houten's Cocoa/"A Perfect Beverage,/ combining Strength/ Purity and Solubility"
Draft of Sailing to Cythera. Nancy Willard Papers. University of Michigan Special Collections Library
Published page of Sailing to Cythera showing the advertising jingle from the draft with minor editions. First line now reads: Van Houten's cocoa, on the tables of the world. And an additional last line reads: Open here.
Corresponding passage from published version of Sailing to Cythera. Nancy Willard Papers. University of Michigan Special Collections Library

Willard’s Newbery Award winning A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1982) is a collection of poems drawn together on the premise (and premises) of an inn run by William Blake. The poems are drawn together loosely as part of a visit to the Inn, and in dreamlike fashion, characters and events re-appear throughout, as when “The King of Cats Sends a Postcard to His Wife” writes “Tell them I have come so far, brought by Blake’s celestial car,” refers back to the collection’s second poem, “Blake’s Wonderful Car Delivers Us Wonderfully Well.” 

On the left is the text of "The King of Cats..." and on the right is an illustration of a man and a cat eating at at cafe table
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1982) by Nancy Willard, published by New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. University of Michigan Special Collections Library
Text of the poem about William Blake's Wonderful Car, illustrated by a fantastical flying vehicle
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1982) by Nancy Willard, published by New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. University of Michigan Special Collections Library

In addition to the usual varieties of archival material - correspondence, manuscripts & drafts of creative works, copies of lectures and interviews, clippings, etc. - Willard’s collection also includes two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork, which she created as part of her writing process

Figurine with a mermaid tale and a sunflower head, lounging on top of a bookcase
Nancy Willard Papers. University of Michigan Special Collections Library
Two nearly-human sized figurines made of floursacks with animal heads, sit on top of tables in front of a window
Nancy Willard Papers. University of Michigan Special Collections Library

The same surreal, whimsical quality that appears in her work for children is also a key characteristic of Willard’s poetry for adults, if somewhat differently directed. This area of her work has repeatedly inspired the Brighton Press' book artists, who have produced several limited edition artists' books featuring Willard's poems, some of which also include photography by Willard’s husband Eric Lindbloom. A number of these are held in Special Collections and images of Poem Made of Water (1992) and When There Were Trees (1999) appear below.

Accordian book open and standing upright, displaying title page on the left-most panel, bare branches in brown and black in the middle, and the text of the poem on the right-most panels
When There Were Trees (1999) by Nancy Willard, published by Brighton Press.

From the colophon: "This book was conceived when Merilyn Britt read Nancy Willard's poem and began collecting color from tree material to dye Arches paper archivally. She designed the book and the typography, and dyed the cover silk. The images were created by Michele Burgess. She printed the forest of drypoints and the chine collé etching for the index, and painted the endpapers. The type was printed letterpress by Nelle Martin at Brighton Press. ... The binding was designed and constructed by Claudia Cohen. The poem was first published in Carpenter of the Sun, copyright 1974 ..."
Several separate pieces that make up this book (more like a set of folded cards) are laid out on a table. Most sections include part of a poem and an image.
Poem Made of Water (1992) by Nancy Willard, illustrations by Michele Burgess, published by Brighton Press. 

From the Colophon: 
7 folios, each with hand-painted outer sides, the inner sides containing text accompanied by 5 chine colle drypoints (pasted  in), issued in a clamshell box. "The poem ... was originally published in The Bread Loaf anthology of contemporary American poetry ... copyright 1985 ... The epigraph is an excerpt from the poem 'Guests,' copyright 1967 ..."-
 

 

 

1 Comment

Peggy Daub
on Aug. 28, 5:00pm

Great post. I love the poses struck by the mermaid and animal figures! Connections made between the Nancy Willard archive and how it shows the author's inspirations, to Brighton Press and how it took inspiration from Willard's work is brilliant.

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