Apr/May 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Penelope Scambly Schott

Review by Diane Lockward

Insightful, sure-footed, possessed of an unerring ear for the music of language, Schott summons deft images from the natural world as she confronts the great themes of literature: death, love and the human experience, its duplicity and grace; this is the work of a poet writing in full stride. Praise be.

Penelope Scambly Schott is the author of a novel, six previous poetry books, and five chapbooks. Her poetry books include three historical verse narratives, one of which received the Oregon Book Award for Poetry, as well as three lyric collections. She has received four fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Vermont Studio Center, and The Wurlitzer Foundation. Her recent book of poetry Six Lips was published by Mayapple Press in January of 2010. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


DL     Several years ago you moved from New Jersey to Oregon. You write about that move in "My Hard East Coast Heart: The Wife's Story," which ends with these lines: "I had packed up my heart / in bubble wrap and trucked it / mountain ranges away." How has that move affected your life as a poet? How has it affected your poetry?

PS     Moving to Oregon required that I become a new person. For years the center of my life had been a large oak tree at the intersection of four soybean fields uphill from home. I almost believed someone had buried my umbilical cord under that tree. Even as I packed up my life and watched the moving van carry it away, I felt the oak pulling me back.

Within less than a year I belonged to this new territory. I hiked the Columbia Gorge. My poems filled up with moss and salmon and rough-skinned newts. The physical world had become bigger and more wild. Anything could happen.

DL     Over the years your work seems to have comfortably shifted back and forth between lyrical and narrative. This new collection strikes me as more surreal than your previous work. To what do you attribute this new direction and your versatility?

PS     The historical narratives are a way of reaching back to other women. I was a history major and still enjoy hunting up period details. Once I have done enough research, the process feels like writing from personal experience.

The surreal elements may be the result of now having more physical and mental territory for alternate realities. My kids are grown, so I no longer have to be the full-time grown-up. I never go looking for odd images; they arrive as solidly as a bookcase or a bear.

DL     Many of the poems in this collection have elements of the bizarre. For example, soup gets salted "with the dust of colored chalk," a baby is born with antennae, and a woman weaves "a broom out of violets." Where do these ideas and images flow from? What's the creative process you use to access such material?

PS     Remember those pictures where if you let your eyes go out of focus, suddenly the apparently abstract pictures became fish or dinosaurs? I think I've learned to let my brain go just slightly out of focus. It's not a process of searching so much as allowing.

DL     Although the poems have a surreal quality, they are also very lyrical, very melodic. That was one of the qualities that first struck me. I hear the poems on the page, and I want to read them aloud. This short prose poem is a good example:

There is one thing that is close and one thing that is far

and that one thing is the sky stretching above sight as I breathe
fragments of sky into my throat as we kiss at the curb as the brush
edges of your mustache prickle my open lips as we press so close
that this goodbye kiss will fly east with me across the whole broad
continent more present than the cracked badlands or square fields
or winking rivers between tiny trees, and how our kiss, like starlight,
is the one thing that is close and the one thing that is far

How do you achieve the music in your work? At what point in the drafting or revising does it enter the poem?

PS     I'm an old-fashioned poet. I grew up on the poetry my grandmother liked, all highly metrical. For years I marked out the stresses of my poems, and I remain aware of iambs, troches, and all the rest of those treasures. As I write, I talk out loud and make deliberately rhythmical choices.

DL     Let's take a look at "Snakes," a poem that seems to me representative of the collection:

The hopes of snakes are mostly horizontal,
twisty in grassland and wise beyond their skins.

Snakes dream under rocks until sunlight splotches
the June meadow, yellow and blue, and clouds

cast hot shadows. In this meadow I stand dreaming
of the man at the bank, how he lured me into the vault
where I wept for the lack of money. Always my children
were busy outgrowing their shoes. Always my children

drank all the milk. Ate all the biscuits. The snakes
are sunning their ripples in slow streaks. The snakes

are ribbons splayed in the pages of my oId cookbook.
Its spine is cracked, its pages stained with butter.

I love to caress the scales of snakes. They feel
like expensive leather. Almost as good as paying

my whole electric bill at once.

Here you create a kind of super reality. There is a woman speaker, she has children, she has a cookbook, she pays her bills. All realistic elements. But we also find those creepy snakes slithering throughout the poem. Can you explain their function in the poem?

PS     I remember where that poem started. I was hiking on a high plateau where rattlesnakes sun themselves among wild flowers. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with how much easier my life is now than it was in those years when I was a single mother with barely enough money for basics. I really did cry at the bank and this sleazy guy started coming onto me. I am so glad to be past all that.

DL     I am intrigued by your use of numbers. Your title contains a number. Then there are poems about numbers and several poems written in numbered sections. Part II of the book consists of one long poem, "Counting the Body." That poem is broken into 10 sections. Each section focuses on one number, beginning with 1 and ending with 10.

While this poem has elements of the surreal, it is also a very structured and orderly poem. Could you comment on this fusion and tell us how the poem came into existence?

PS     What can I say? I'm an orderly person! When I swim, I automatically count my strokes. Back when I was about 7, someone gave me a roll of adding machine tape and I wrote out numbers starting with 1 until at many thousands I came to the end of the roll.

As for the poem about body parts, I really have always wanted a tail and never more than one. From there I thought about having two vaginas. It might be like the old Noel Coward play where two men share the same woman because they really want each other. Three ears? That would be good too.

DL     I noticed several related motifs—death, rebirth, reinvention. Here's a poem that brings these three ideas together:

My Obituary

will be Chapter One in my second life.
As for the funeral, I don't plan to attend.

And now my life starts to get interesting.
First I get born on a mountain summit.

The glacier stamps my right foot blue.
I wear the mark for this whole next life.

I learn how to dance inside a crevasse
where I mate with a mountain goat.

I spell out my words in yellow lichen
while my kids grow long white fur.

This frozen life, I can promise you,
is the wisest of lives I have chosen.

For a last life, I will hatch in a lake.
My name may be Polliwog, Duffel

of Mysteries. Or Smoothed Rock.
Biography makes for honest work.

That last line—"Biography makes for honest work"—makes me wonder if your use of the surreal is a strategy for masking and / or transforming autobiographical information. Was that your intention?

PS     The surreal isn't any kind of a strategy. It's just how the world comes to me these days. I've raised my kids, paid for my house, buried my parents, and now I'm free. I don't mean to mask anything; I mean to make everything more true.

DL     The collection also contains a number of poems about marriage. Let's take a look at "Marriage Manual":

Begin slowly: unzip my boots. Run your fingertips
over my ankle. Now lift your face; a last streak of sunset
is cracking the clouds. See those golden treetops?

No, I told you, don't mess with the breasts.

Pull off my boots. Roll down my socks and ball them together.
Now tell me something you remember out of childhood,
a playground story or a grade school teacher's name.

Please, not the crotch either. Not yet.

Run your thumb under my arch. Yes.
Whisper to me about music or your first dog. I am almost ready
to smell your neck, to unbutton your shirt. I love your earlobes

and the curve of your bottom lip. Now kiss me slowly
and just this softly. All around us, the clouds are flaming.

This poem, in which the speaker delivers instructions to her partner, strikes me as very sexy, though the speaker instructs her partner not to touch the sexual parts of her body. The stop and go pace, the alternating do's and don'ts, the step-by-step disrobing make this poem quite erotic. How deliberate were these strategies?

PS     Not very. I guess this is a confessional poem: I described how I really like to be romanced.

DL     The image that closes "Marriage Manual" is breath-taking. Please comment on that image.

PS     We live on a west-facing hill and get great sunsets. I can't write, "The earth moved," can I? But the sky does flame.

DL     I'm always intrigued by how poets go about organizing a substantial number of poems into a single cohesive collection. You've done that very well in Six Lips. Tell us how you arrived at the structural plan you ended up with.

PS     There were several organizational principles. This is a book of the body aging and transforming. I knew that the long poem "Counting the Body" would be the center section. Then there was the ongoing process of my mother's long decline, and I ran that through sections one and three.

As the years go by, I find the most ordinary things completely astonishing. How odd that some of us are male and others female. How odd that living creatures come in so many guises. I wanted to emphasize amazement.

DL     Of course, I was drawn to your book by its lovely and unique cover. Tell us about the cover design. For example, what role did you play in the selection of the artwork and why this particular piece?

PS     The cover is a small encaustic by a wonderful artist named Melinda Fellini who happens to be a neighbor and also in my women's hiking group. Although I did paint a few of my previous covers, all my attempts at drawing six lips verged on pornography, so I went to Melinda and begged. Her original is less brown than the cover and with a magical line of violet between the mouth lips.


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