Interview with Penelope Scambly Schott

I was fortunate to meet with Penelope Scambly Schott shortly after her most recent book, the historical narrative A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth (Turning Point Books) won the 2008 Oregon Book Award for poetry. Schott is widely published, and her credits include a novel, four chapbooks and six full-length books poetry. She’s also worked as a donut maker in a cider mill, a home health aide, an artist’s model, and a college professor. After talking baseball – she grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and as a girl used to stay up with her family to listen to games in Los Angeles – we launched into various ways her inquisitive spirit informs her work. Of course her inquisitive nature prompted Penelope to interview me at the onset. Part 2 of our interview will appear later in 2009.

(DJ): It’s a joy to have these conversations. I’m starting to see that I’m seeking as much as wanting to communicate answers to other people.

(PS): I did that for a while. I have in a folder in my filing cabinet called “Friendship Project”. I was trying to understand other people, partly to see if I was weird. Sometimes you look at the furniture in your head and you think, “Hmm, I wonder if anyone else is living with this?”

I went around and asked a whole lot of people two things. One, what do you think about when you’re not thinking about something else? Is there something you return to? And the other thing was, what connects you to your friends. People were completely dumbfounded by these questions. I never got good answers to what’s in your head.

(DJ): Really?

(PS): Well, what’s in your head?

(DJ): Well, as soon as you said that…

(PS): You did a snapshot of the moment…

(DJ): I think about baseball. I don’t know why I come back to this because I was a pitcher, but I see myself in the batter’s box, trying to drive the ball to right-center field. After about age 12, hitting wasn’t my strong point. Sometimes I work on it in my head. Sometimes I swing and miss. Sometimes I connect. It plays like a four-second loop. Swing, drive, start to run, head back…swing, drive, head back.

(PS): Once you hit it you know it’s going to go…

(DJ): Yes and no. I don’t know what happens to the ball. What I should really do is stay on the ball for a while.

As for what connects me to my friends…I just had an old friend out here, a guy I’ve known since I was eight. No matter how much you change, there’s always that thing that calls you back. These old friends who share the old town stories, I feel connected through a deeply embedded emotion like a rock holding water. The water is safe inside the rock. It’s still but it’s fluid, even with an encasement around it. The water doesn’t know anything outside of the rock. But it’s OK in there. It’s not missing anything. I’m over here chasing poets around. My friend’s in Philadelphia living his life. We’re held together by the water inside the rock.

(PS): That’s nice.

(DJ): So this inquisitiveness within you…between your historical and lyric books, how does does it affect and guide you down different paths, one toward research, the other toward self discovery?

(PS): Why should I answer? You gave a wonderful answer. (laughter)

I was a history major as an undergraduate. If I’d come along a little later, once history broadened out from wars and statistics and into peoples’ lives, I would have gone on in history. I look at everything in a kind of chronological way. When I’m looking out at the street here and I see what’s driving by, there’s this sort of film in my mind that runs the buildings backwards, changes cars to horse drawn and so forth. What I see doesn’t just exist as itself in the moment. It’s all in a process of change, as if everything is on a continuum. We’re all on this continuum.

I’m fascinated to take a story that has been squelched or lost and try to move backwards into understanding what it might really have been like. When I’m writing about somebody, my mind’s in a room that’s filled with the furniture of that era, the food of that era, the ambient sound of that era. That’s the kind of research I do until I feel I can hear the person.

(DJ): You delve in.

(PS): All three of my narrative books have bibliographies. I immerse myself in everything I can find. The book about Anne Hutchinson for instance…

(DJ): Congratulations by the way.

(PS): Thank you. I’m pleased for two reasons. One, I believe she deserves attention. And I’m pleased because it proves I’m now an Oregonian, after having come from elsewhere. (Laughter)

It was only when I started reading the transcripts of her trial that I felt I could hear her voice. And the word that I hate to use, because it sounds too “new agey,” is channeling. But I really felt that I knew her the way you would know a friend, and would be able to guess what the friend would think or say or do. My curiosity took me there.

In terms of standard lyric poetry…among other things, I’ve never been bored. If you look at anything, and you REALLY look at it, it gets very interesting. Sit here and look at these chairs. They were in someone’s house. Who knows what the deal was with these chairs? They all have lives. Sometimes, when I look at the world…it’s very interesting to me.

I’m a woman who’s getting on in age. You’re a young man. Isn’t it interesting that people are different ages? Different genders? I’m sitting here having this conversation with you. You’re younger than my son, but it’s the kind of conversation I may have with him. So every constellation of the moment astonishes me. If I had to use one word to describe my attitude in life, it would be “amazed.”

Look at these three trees (motions out the window). That one still has its leaves. That one has places with leaves. And that one on the corner, it has licorice fern growing on it. Right in town!

(DJ): Most people would just walk by.

(PS): Everything stops me dead in my tracks. That’s what happens. And…you know this as a writer, it’s a blessing and a curse.

I’m not going to go see the new James Bond movie. Even though it’s James Bond, and the violence is cartoonish of sorts, I really can’t stand it. It’s like I don’t have thick enough skin. When I was a kid, people used to tell me, “Well, you’re too sensitive!” And I think most writers are “too” sensitive – put “too” in quotes.

(DJ): I think you’re right. A lot of writers are “too” sensitive. And I mean that in a positive sense. It allows us to channel the emotion that’s out there, that people are walking underneath. And it makes me wonder – there are more and more writers and less and less readers…

(PS): We have to read each other.

(DJ): How do you feel about that? You’re going through life as you. You’re summoning whatever it is you’re summoning, which you then direct into your work. In the end you’re writing for yourself – we have to be writing for ourselves…

(PS): If I was on a desert island with paper and pencil I’d be alright. And I love language. I love words.

(DJ): Do you think about the masses or majority walking by? Whether these things you’ve pointed out go under their radar, and what does that say about their interest, their curiosity…

(PS): Well, I think there’s a tribe of us who do see those things. Those are the people I’m speaking to. A lot of people are so busy having stimulus come in at them, that are not the natural world. Going around with earbuds…or the television is always “at” them. It doesn’t leave quite enough room for your own thoughts to grow. I think that people who are out “being entertained” by something all the time – you need to see a movie a day, make sure to see your favorite shows, whatever it is – then what you are connecting with are the thoughts of the people who created those shows. And there’s a certain amount of stillness that you have carry within you to notice what’s in your immediate world as opposed to your media world.

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