Child, I will tell you every glorious thing I know:
We are made out of dirt and water. Someday your hands
will have freckles and lines. Many cherished people
have lived and died before you.
Oh, and child, one thing more:
this earth invents us and consorts with us willingly
only because we tell stories.
~ excerpted from “Flying East For My Grandson’s Birth” by Penelope Scambly Schott
from May the Generations Die in the Right Order, published by Main Street Rag
INTERVIEW WITH PENELOPE SCAMBLY SCHOTT
Portland, Oregon ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your poem, “Craigslist,” hits home for many. That universal tension of striving to achieve true financial independence without compromising one’s integrity. Do you feel this a different dance for women than it is for men? For artists? What have you given up for the sake of your art?
Penelope Scambly Schott: Sadly, my answer is that for many years it was the other way around. I gave up my art for the sake of my obligations. When I was in my first marriage, nothing I had to say was welcomed by my husband. When I was a young assistant professor, I diligently churned out research articles full of footnotes and scholarly profundities. Usually, the topics were disguises for my deeper interests. When I was invited to join the poets who were reciting and partying, I didn’t have a babysitter. And, of course, I didn’t have money.
My kids were eleven and eight when I finally went to a writers’ retreat. The big-name guru was A.R. Ammons – we were to call him Archie – and although he was charming and generous, he didn’t much care for my poem about my grandparents’ long marriage.
“You write that kind of thing for yourself,” he said.
Well, of course, I wrote it for myself. I was trying to figure out how a marriage might last. I didn’t know then that I would make a good third marriage.
Having been married and divorced twice,
I am trying to understand about marriage
for better or for worse, in sickness and in health:
my grandparents were married for sixty-five years.
Such gifting with humility,
such failure to humiliate;
I would like to be so loved,
I would like to be so loving.
The grandparents’ poem continues for many stanzas detailing their losses, her dementia, his loyalty.
My grandfather tucked her in bed like a baby
and sat up late alone with his dead.
It made a life. He dressed her up
for their sixty-fifth anniversary.
He brought the budding summer roses in
to make her smile. Fetching and tending,
he wore himself out. He only said,
“She would have done the same for me.”
Penelope Scambly Schott: That poem appeared in my first chapbook more than thirty years ago. Archie might like my current poetry better because I’m a less literal raconteur (is there such a word as raconteuse?) than I used to be. I recently taught a workshop called, “Child, Shaman, Sage: Widening the I (Eye) of the Poem,” where I urged participants to expand the context and perspective of their poems beyond the immediately personal. For example, one of my most recent poems arose from a visit with a neighbor who is a decorated World War II vet. The poem goes beyond him and me. It also contains a dog, Odysseus back in Ithaka, and a high school football game.
Penelope Scambly Schott: Maybe as we get older, everything reminds us of everything else.
Penelope Scambly Schott: So that’s a long, round-about answer to your question about “Craigslist,” one of the poems in my new book about prostitution. No, artists don’t usually make money. Yes, women tend to be poorer than men in every society I have ever known.
More women than you might think have turned to prostitution to survive; sometimes it’s called marriage.
As every working girl I’ve interviewed has told me, it’s always about money. I’ve bought and sold furniture on craigslist – why not sell sexual services? Maybe because of moral standards, or maybe because when I was poor, it just didn’t occur to me. In any case, now I’m too old to get a good price.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In, “Door at the End of the Hall,” you end with the lines:
“Every song on the radio is about love
but I’m about done.”
Has your relationship to love changed over the years? And if so, how have your poems reflected that?
Also, “Use Caution when Taking the Bull by the Horns,” ends with the haunting line:
“I have been hiding for fifty years.”
Can you tell us a bit about this? What have you been hiding from? How does writing poetry help with this?
Penelope Scambly Schott: When I wrote “Every song on the radio is about love/ but I’m about done,” I didn’t really mean I’m done with love. I mean I’m done with crazy, painful, unrealistic love. Instead, I have this deep feeling of global love, for my husband, my kids, my grandson, my sister, my friends, the strangers on the airplane with me, the boys in JV football trying so hard to be tough under their shoulder pads. I want to call everyone “Sweetie.” I love the quail who cavort down the street in lines and even the slugs in my garden. I am charmed by their little stalks. (Clearly, I’m not a devoted gardener.) I used to be afraid that people wouldn’t love me back, that I had to hide who I really am, and then I figured out that I wasn’t any worse than most people and that I was well-intentioned, and, except for using up resources, I was more helpful than harmful in the world. What a relief. I used to write for survival and now I write for understanding and celebration.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was it like winning the Oregon Book Award for Poetry? I imagine very surreal?
Penelope Scambly Schott: A few years back when I won the Oregon Book Award for my verse biography, A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, I was surprised and pleased, almost as much for rebellious Anne Hutchinson as for myself. I like strong women and am aiming to be one when I grow up. Also, since I will never be more than slightly famous, it was a token of “you’re good enough.” After a whole childhood of failing to please, I had finally pleased someone.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is unique about the literary community in Portland? Who are some of your favorite Portland poets currently on the scene?
Penelope Scambly Schott: There’s a special blessing to being a poet in Portland and in the state of Oregon. We have a remarkable literary community here. I lived back east for many years where the poets are competitive and envious of each other. Here we are more mutually supportive. I could name a few dozen excellent poets among us. I’ve had the pleasure of having many of them come read at the White Dog Salon in our house. As I wrote late one night on Facebook, “I used to want to be a sea otter, but now I know the best thing to be is an Oregon poet.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you recall the moment you decided you wanted to be a poet? Was there one poet or poem in particular that inspired you? What gifts has poetry given to you? And how can we make poetry more a part of daily life?
Penelope Scambly Schott: I grew up on Victorian poetry read aloud by my grandmother on the summer porch, and any sentence in iambic pentameter still stops me in my tracks. My dad loved words, and we played with puns and sounds throughout my childhood. It never occurred to me not to write poems. They seemed as matter-of-fact and daily as socks and shoes. When I am with non-poets, I always try to demystify poetry and bring it along as one of life’s satisfactions and treats. Since we all use words every day, using those words in a poem doesn’t need to seem hoity-toity or inaccessible. Even as we become a visual, screen-oriented culture, we still need to hear the sound of well-chosen words. Listen to any small child learning to talk. I’ve been told that when I was a baby I sat in my crib repeating words and sentences. It is the human condition to be in love with language.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are you able to see yourself as a “successful poet”?
Penelope Scambly Schott: I guess I would be considered a “somewhat successful” poet. I’ve published a bunch of books and some people I don’t know have read my work. After all, even Billy Collins and Mary Oliver aren’t on the cover of People magazine. Mostly I’m grateful that when something in the world affects me emotionally, I have a way of catching it on a sheet of paper. Once in a while, someone will write to me that a poem of mine has been helpful or comforting, and that’s a good feeling too.
If you were to ask me for advice on how to be a poet, I’d probably say two things: read a lot of poetry and get a dog. When you walk with a dog you are not alone. You have company but not interruption. The words come to you and put themselves together. All you have to do is listen and remember until you get home.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are you working on now?
Penelope Scambly Schott: I’m not sure what my dog and I will write next but I know we will keep writing. Here’s a recent poem the dog and I wrote on a late-night walk in the small central Oregon town of Dufur where I spend half of every week:
Maybe you discovered this poem in a dry cave
and now as you examine the yellowing paper
you are puzzling over the black scratch marks.
They could be hard to decipher like Linear B.
Maybe to you the O’s look like small ponds
and the T’s like the handles of antique daggers.
What sort of language do you speak? What if
your throat and mouth don’t resemble ours?
It will have been such a long time. You might
be a child of whales who staggered ashore
from an acid sea. At night do you study stars?
Once when my father was old and left the city,
he asked me, What is that white line in the sky?
Maybe you have traveled beyond the farthest
edge of the Milky Way galaxy and finally come
back home to tell me all about it. I’m listening.
I will keep listening. Write your poems and I’ll have the joy of listening to you.
1. I am at least 18 years old.
Lilliana works at a Starbucks.
Customers admire her smile.
Sometimes she winks for tips
but she still can’t make her rent.
She has dropped her art class
because it conflicts with her job.
Barista, Artiste, College Girl,
Lilliana rides two city buses
to get to the community college.
Monday on her way to class
she gave a dollar to the lady
pushing a shopping cart of rags.
2. I understand “women seeking men” may include adult content.
The shopping cart lady’s quilt
lies bunched in the alley, yellow
and stained. Lilliana remembers
daisies and Queen Anne’s lace
and how she and her little sister
lay crowned with daisy chains.
Lilliana was never an innocent:
even as a child she understood
how daisies could smell like pee.
She doesn’t dare ask her parents
for one more handout or loans
because her parents already think
she’s a fuck-up. The last time,
they made her sign a typed letter
promising to pay them every month
and even their no-strings handouts
come with advice. Maybe she is
a fuck-up. Maybe she’s just fucked.
4. By clicking on the links below, I release craigslist from any liability that may arise from my use of this site.
She can’t believe how easy it is.
Why doesn’t everyone do it?
One little ad and the men jump.
craigslist>personals>women seeking men
Bright, attractive college girl who
can’t afford to show you a good time.
I think I have it: what you need.
They get the hint. It’s like a date.
They both pretend. They are polite
and amazingly clean. It’s hard work
playing Girlfriend. Some so shy,
so awkward, clumsy moves or none.
Others normal, even good-looking.
5. It’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests.
And always these crisp new bills.
Do they go to the ATM before
or after they shower and shave?
Last night’s guy had big red hands
that reeked of shoe polish. Her tits
still hurt. Does the guy milk cows?
6. Choosing safer sex for you and your partner greatly reduces the risk of contracting STDs including HIV B you can get answers to your safer sex questions, courtesy of staff members at the SF city clinic.
To celebrate paying the rent,
She skips her shift at Starbucks
and types up her term paper:
Women and Social Welfare.
Her parents do their weekly call:
Lilliana dear, what do you want
for your birthday? A retirement plan.
A gift certificate for Victoria’s Secret.
A can of mace. Books, she tells them.
Barista, Student, Good Daughter.
She posts a new ad on craigslist
and waits. She can’t bathe enough.
Penelope Scambly Schott
Novelist and the author of several books of poetry, Schott was awarded four New Jersey arts fellowships before moving to Oregon where her verse biography, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, received an Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Schott’s poems have appeared in such publications as The American Poetry Review (APR), Georgia Review, and Nimrod: International Journal of Prose and Poetry.
Penelope has enjoyed fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.
When not writing poetry, Schott has sold cosmetics at Macy’s in Herald Square, made whole wheat doughnuts at Scrumpy’s cider mill, taken care of old people as a certified home health aide, written scripts for software on career guidance, posed as an artist’s model, and – as punishment for her Ph.D. in Late Medieval English literature – spent years teaching college literature and creative writing courses.
Penelope lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon where they host a series of poetry readings called The White Dog Salon. She and the white dog also spend part of each week in the small wheat-growing town of Dufur, where she teaches an annual poetry workshop. From her Dufur house, Penelope can see the east side of Mount Hood, the high school football scoreboard, and the Milky Way.
In 2013, she published two books: Lovesong for Dufur, which she read at the old Balch hotel in Dufur and sold to all the locals who want their grown kids to move back, and a study of prostitution, Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore, for which the author admits having had trouble getting readings.
Connect with Schott on Facebook.
Byong-Ho Kim (1946-2019)
Born and educated in South Korea, Kim made his home in Los Angeles, California, where he lived for over thirty years.
His photographs danced like poetry throughout several of my interviews.
To view more of his work, please visit his website.