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Nance Van Winckel

negotiable instruments

Work For Food, his sign says, so we
put him in our truck & truck him
to the building, condemned, & give him
a sledgehammer & a ham-on-rye & ditto
the same unto ourselves whose butt tattoos
read Work Will Make Us Free & we three
fall upon the struts & joists, we beat back
& swing low, we dig out & haul ass
so rubble is again as it’s always been
the rule of the world, until he whom
we carried with us we may carry away
& refeed and high five & bid adieu so he
may turn his sign at last to the flipside
that tells us to Have a Blessed Day.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Summer 2010), p. 57

Nance Van Winkel

Nance Van Winckel’s fifth collection of poems is No Starling (U of Washington P). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. New poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, and Field. A new collection of poems is forthcoming. She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of an Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her primary interest lately is Poetry-Off-the-Page, and she has had “pho-toems” (photo-collage with text) in several juried art shows.

Her list of jobs comprise hospital aid, orderly, switchboard operator, diner waitress, cocktail waitress, public relations assistant, newspaper reporter, magazine editor, professor, manuscript consultant, poet, short story writer, and visual artist.


Interview with Nance van Winckel
(Interviewed by Robert Fuglei)

RF: Can you say a bit about the concrete inspiration for your poem “Negotiable Instruments”? Is it based on work experience of your own, or of someone you know? Or does it have another source entirely?

NVW: That poem really began, literally, with a sign. I was stopped at a stoplight and nearby a homeless man was panhandling. He held a sign that read, "Please, anything helps." If someone put some money in his cup, the man would turn the sign over, where the flip-side read, "Have a blessed day." Of course I've seen the "Will work for food" sign frequently, too, and that one made more sense to use in the poem. Another element set the poem in motion: the title. "Negotiable Instruments" is a term I learned about from a lawyer friend, and for at least a dozen years I'd been wanting to use that as a title for some poem.

As I worked on the poem I was thinking about the body itself as a commodity, a means of exchange, the physical "use" of one's body as a way, the only way, of getting by. Like so many U.S. cities, mine (Spokane, Washington) has a very large transient population. They live in tents. And along with many of my townsfolk, I have been active in trying to see that their tent-city does not keep getting moved, that blankets and coats are made available, etc. I have done hard physical labor (yes, fixing up an old house, among other things) and I had/have some sense of how tough it would be to have only that sort of work as a way to live.

RF: What's the worst job you've ever had, and did it feed into your creative work in any way?

NVW: I began working in a hospital at 14, a candy striper. (A certain agreement struck by my parents, my parole office, and me.) No one, least of all me, ever thought I'd stick with the hospital. By 16, I’d advanced to nurse’s aide. One of the first tasks I performed as an aide—my first afternoon on the orthopedic floor—was to close up all the patients’ doors. No one told me why, but I had an idea. When the doors were all closed, I helped an orderly roll a gurney with a corpse on it down the hall, past the closed doors, and into an elevator. On another day I bathed a five-year-old amputee's brand new surgical scar. I didn't flinch as I worked, but I did cry later in the restroom. He'd had frostbite that turned gangrenous. He lost his foot. A month later, his leg. He didn't make it. I helped wheel him down on the elevator. I'd ask to.

In college, I worked in a different hospital, and by then, one might say, I'd gained a certain “conditioning” to the morgue. The red Lower-Level-Basement (LLB) elevator button looms up in my mind’s eye. The LLB could only be accessed by a staff elevator to which one needed a key.

I had such a key.

I remember glancing at it as I'd tried to work on my freakin' paper during a break. The paper was about The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a.k.a. The Papyrus of Ani. It wasn’t so much the book itself that shook me, but the way during that time it became a sort of nucleus for my little world. Even now, if I so much as touch that book, here comes my whole life from 1973, when I was 21, writing a term paper, working in a large urban hospital, and falling a little in love with a co-worker. Turn any page and a memory flutters out like a pressed gingko leaf, the veins still crisp and clear. For the early Egyptians, the afterlife was quite the busy place, but then of course the dead had all the time in the world for cavorting, feasting, and conducting important business concerning dispensations for those left behind in the realm of the living. In that realm, a nascent alphabet was developing—letters as characters, figures, symbols. Clearly the letters’ first and most important task was to transcribe the underworld’s bidding, with such directives as “Not Letting the Heart-case be Taken from a Man,” “Lifting Up the Feet and Appearing on Earth,” and “Changing into a Divine Hawk.”

Turning the key and stepping into the elevator, I'd feel my pulse start thudding—half in dread and half in some endorphin rush. I knew when those doors opened, and at the end of a long frigid hallway, there’d be covert kisses—in varying degrees of passion and urgency (mostly mine) or of adventure and amusement (mostly his).

At that hospital, my job was the switchboard—a monstrosity I'm sure is sadly rusting in a junkyard somewhere. If a Code Blue were called, I was the person who’d calmly repeat a room number, all the while popping phone cords in and out as real medical folks picked up their phones to find out who and where. And often, after 9 p.m., when calls weren't allowed into patient rooms, I wrote the paper. Accessorized with to-die-for bling, dead Egyptians strolled about luxuriously furnished tombs.

I was seven weeks into spring semester of my junior year, a pre-med major. I expected I’d go to medical school. But plans change. Minds change. Lives alter. Motorcycles crash. A boy named Calvin, a dairy farm kid from my hometown, was admitted to the hospital. At the switchboard I saw his name and after my shift I went up to his room. If I hadn’t known the doctor, I wouldn’t have been allowed in. The doctor touched my elbow. “He’s bad off,” he said.

He’d cracked his skull and his head was being glued, literally, back together. Over each ear, clamps pressed in. Red sutures beside black ones. Burned legs that had to soak four times a day in a putrid-smelling antibiotic. Thick purple scabs on a black and blue shoulder. I rubbed salve on them. This was something my hands knew how to do. Always after 11 p.m. when I was done at the switchboard. Those first few days he drifted in and out of consciousness. I remember his mother sobbing in my arms outside his room.

I watched Calvin come back—a little. The clamps came off. With his jaw wired, it hurt him to talk. So I talked. I blathered on about the Egyptians and then about the guy who worked “downstairs in a lab.” I told Calvin I knew I was nuts to be so taken with someone who clearly didn’t care one iota for me. As the days passed I saw—by barely discernable increments—something was draining away from Calvin. I knew his mother sensed it too. He stared past me, past her. The doctor wanted to do yet another skin graft on the other side of his face. He looked past the doctor. “Maybe next week,” he'd answered.

But by next week he was gone. I rode down with him. An aide and an orderly came too. I used my key. The orderly pushed the button. The elevator shook, the gurney rattled, and as we all stood silently listening to our loud descent, suddenly I just wasn't sure anymore that Calvin was dead. Really dead. I remember sliding the sheet from his forehead and touching him. That cold shock. My heart racing. And even at that moment I couldn’t stop myself from anticipating the flash of a handsome guy's green eyes after the elevator opened. I wanted that door to open. And I prayed it wouldn’t. My friend should not be going out there, especially since he wasn’t dead. Only yesterday I’d held the ridiculous twisty straw inside a Coke can down to his lips. I'd told him how some animal-headed gods stayed gods for as long as their language held sway.

What does this have to do with poetry?

Everything. My mind was wading across the Nile, but the rest of me was up to my eyeballs in human. A menial among menials. With them. Like them. What came to Calvin was coming to me. One can't help knowing this at such a moment, nor help knowing one is still alive. I was throbbing, sad, confused, dazzled by love, frazzled by grief. Would it be a cute guy or Cerberus out there when the elevator doors parted? Everything felt bollixed up together, a knot.

This sort of knot is one I know. I try to be—I want to be—within such knots when I write.

For me physical work often seems to sit at a sort of situational center or dramatic undergridding for poems and stories. The last book of poems, No Starling, dealt fairly straight on with all I just described here. My first book of linked stories was a sort of coming-of-age book about a young woman who grows up to be a veterinarian. I spent seven years raising sheep—trimming hooves, docking tails, using a tool called "the emasculator." To catch one of my lambs, what worked best for me was to corner it in the barn and then to heave myself upon it. In my stories, the young woman does the same. She uses the tools I knew the names of and how they felt in my hands. I think the most important memory lives inside the body as part of it. I have dug a hole for a stillborn lamb. When I write I aim to access what the body knows. It's always way more than the mind does.