Interview with Penelope Schott Interview with Penelope Schott

I first met Penelope Schott in November of 2008, shortly after her collection, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, won the Oregon Book Award for poetry. Schott has two new collections out: a chapbook, Under Taos Mountain: The Terrible Quarrel of Magpie and Tia, (© 2009, Rain Mountain Press, winner of the 2009 Ronald Wardall Poetry Prize), and a full-length collection, Six Lips, (© 2009, Mayapple Press). Together, the two collections illustrate Schott’s range as a poet and storyteller — from the playfully dark interchange between the narrator and magpie in Under Taos Mountain, to the deep reflections and ghost-like images found in Six Lips. She’s constantly working, and leaves herself open and available to the world of poetry around her. We started our conversation on the topic of work, and eventually wove our way around to process.

PS: I really think I work too much. I would like to have my dog Lily be my guru and teach me to lie around and steal.

DJ: Have your written Lily poems?

PS: In her voice? No.

DJ: When you say “working too much,” is it a balance thing? Too much mental work? Because I know you’re a walker and a swimmer.

PS: I’ve always had too much to do, and have always been organized enough to get everything done. Going to graduate school while working while raising kids . . . I was just always doing everything at once.

DJ: Coming out with two books . . . was it accidental that they both came out?

PS: Yes. I would not have chosen that. I actually wrote Under Taos Mountain quite a while ago. It kept being a finalist in chapbook contests. It was always the one where they’d print the other guy but wish they could print me. Finally it just won one. The poems are from about four or five years ago.

DJ: And what about Six Lips?

PS: They’re since, May the Generations Die in the Right Order, probably in the last three years.

DJ: Then with regards to A is for Anne, were you writing any of these around the same time that you were going in and out of the Hutchinson persona?

PS: Rarely. When I start doing the historical narratives, it’s like writing a novel. As you can imagine, it’s totally engrossing.

Sometimes I feel funny being interviewed, because I feel everything I have to say I put into the poems.

DJ: Well, let me ask you the following, and maybe you can get an idea of where I’m coming from. Regarding the poem, “Heart Failure” — and I’ve seen a number of poems about your relationship with your mother — was there ever a point where the poem ended at the end of part one?

PS: Yes. They were two separate poems. I put them together.

DJ: What changed?

PS: I didn’t want to be as harsh a person as I sounded. That’s the honest answer. And if my sister ever read it and it ended at the end of part one, she would have never spoken to me again.

DJ: Is that a challenge for you, or a concern?

PS: As it happens in many families, my sister got along better with my mother, I got along better with my father. My mother died last April, and my sister is still in heavy mourning.

I talked to my sister this morning, and she just found out her son and his wife are having a baby girl. She said, “Mother would have been so happy.”

DJ: And that thought doesn’t cross your mind?

PS: The only time I think “my mother would have liked this” is when I go shopping. She loved to shop. I was always busy working and had no money. She would approve of me if I ever spent money.

DJ: I have two brothers. My mother used to say when we were kids that she was glad she had sons. Her relationship with my grandmother was always distant.

PS: I think there’s not enough separation between mothers and daughters. My mother was kind of anorexic, and also insufficiently separated from me. In her mind, I was obese.

DJ: Did she communicate that type of language to you?

PS: Absolutely. When I’d visit she’d come up and do the calipers, pinch my side, that sort of thing. I would say, “Gee, thanks Mom.”

DJ: Does your sister write?

PS: She’s a lawyer. We’re completely different.

DJ: Do you think being a poet helps you in the grieving process?

PS: I think people like you and me, because we’re attuned to different things, we’re just thinner skinned, and everything gets to us easier.

When something hits you, it hits you more intensely. When they start talking about torture on the radio, for instance, I have to turn the radio off.

Were you ever told as a child that you were over-sensitive?

DJ: Yes. I was told to stop being so sensitive, and to stop talking so much.

PS: When I was a little kid and started learning about history, I was overwhelmed about how much history there was. I thought about how it becomes harder and harder to know about the past because you keep getting further away from it.

My sister was never struck by history until she went to Israel. Suddenly it was in her face. I just think writers and people of the ilk are more imaginative. You can get into something completely. And writing is a way to deal with stuff.

I grew up having poetry read to me. My grandmother would sit on the porch and read poems to us, have us memorize different things. I started writing when I was very young, and for years wrote very skillful — albeit bad — imitations of other people.

DJ: I only read box scores. And I would read them over and over and over.

PS: And visualize the game?

DJ: Remember the game from the night before, or imagine the games I didn’t see.

PS: When I was a kid I thought baseball was a show. It was always on the radio. Like a serial.

I worried about how you could have the top-half of an inning before you could have the bottom-half. When you built blocks, you know, you’d start from the bottom and go up. Finally someone took me to the Polo Grounds and pointed it out on the scoreboard.

DJ: Going back to the books, there are instances when you come upon the topic of death from a place of starting over or rebirth, rather than a place of ending. Having watched what your mother went through, was there anything that spurred these types of thoughts or poems?

PS: My mother spent three years dying hard. She lived in New York. I flew from Portland to New York once a month. That was my life for three years.

Somebody asked me recently if my work has changed. I said, “I think so. I’ve raised my children, paid for my house and buried my parents.” Those are major life chores. Anything can happen now.

DJ: Is that a topic, death, that’s become more immediate for you now?

PS: I have time to think, catch my breath.

My mother had a live-in aide. She couldn’t take care of herself. Whenever I would come, the aide would take a vacation.

It was hard work and a hard death. At the end they gave her morphine, but they weren’t allowed to do it so I had to give it to her.

DJ: Are there certain parts of it you don’t care to access in the realm of writing? A compartmentalization where certain things are memory, and that’s where they’ll stay?

PS: I worked for five years as a home health aide. When it became necessary, I could be quite clinical.

My sister couldn’t deal with anything about my mother’s body. At one point, I was licensed to do that stuff. In a sense, there was something I could do in the room, whether it was wash her, give her medicine, or whatever.

DJ: Were you able to approach it from a place where you said, “This is a body, this isn’t my mother, it’s just a body”?

PS: When I worked as a home health aide, whomever I was taking care of, I had to love them for the time I was with them. Although I had tremendous resentments and grudges against my mother, I felt that I could love her at least as much as I could love a stranger.

DJ: Did that possibly open up more compassion?

PS: It was generalized compassion. And my sister, in a way, is having specific grief, where for me, the only way I could be nice to her was to generalize.

But there was one point where I think I’d just come back from my mother’s, and I had to go back sooner than in a month. I was lying in bed with my husband, and I was just shaken by the whole thing. I said to him, “If she lives another six-months, I’m going to die.” I felt like a plane I’d be on would fall out of the sky . . . something was going to happen. I couldn’t keep doing it. And eventually she died.

I have a poem that’s going to be in my next book that quotes her as saying, “If I ever die.” That was her attitude. If. She was a character-and-a-half. She died with a perfect manicure, of course. Absolutely perfect.

DJ: My grandmother, when she was dying, would ask my mother how her lipstick looked. It’s interesting what we hold onto at the end.

PS: All women are vain. And also, when you go back to that generation, women were seen more as objects than they are now. They spent more time on their looks than on their educations.

DJ: So your writing of Under Taos Mountain started before your mother began dying?

PS: It started with a residency through the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. When I arrived I had some sort of minor tooth issue. I’d recently had a root canal. It eventually turned out that I had an infection deep in my jawbone. I didn’t get it taken care of until I got home. In Taos, everyone was treating it like a toothache.

I was in pretty severe pain, and I managed to get some Vicodin. I was sort of just living on the Vicodin. I’m not a real druggy person, but I needed the Vicadin to the point where I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I needed more.

There I am with this throbbing pain in something of a Vicodin cloud, and outside the casita I was in, there sat a three-trunked Aspen in the front yard, opposite where you’d put a writing desk. And the tree was full of magpies.

I don’t know if it was because of the Vicodin, or because the magpies were slightly weird, but I felt like they had an attitude about me. I would say that’s total paranoia, except other people have told me they’ve had this happen with magpies as well.

I had gone to work on something else, which I brought with me and did some work on. I was also working on the Hutchinson book, but I kept getting interrupted by the magpies. I’d have to stop and write a magpie poem. I wrote them all during my first six weeks.

DJ: So you were already in a place where you were transmuting, almost . . . connecting with the Hutchinson consciousness and allowing other voices to come in.

PS: That’s true. I was channeling Anne.

DJ: Perhaps the magpies saw an open channel.

PS: I like that theory.

DJ: And when you came home with this book of conversational magpie poems, what was your crafting process?

PS: The book was basically done. I sequenced them mostly in the order I wrote them — I swapped a couple here and there, because it seemed to flow better that way. I condensed a couple of them, especially where the conversation seemed repetitive. I didn’t write any new ones.

DJ: No “unused magpie poems” lying around anywhere?

PS: I think I threw one or two away. It was just a very strange experience. I sort of felt like Poe with the raven.

DJ: Did you think at any point you might have been going crazy?

PS: No more so than usual. Is that a good answer?

DJ: That’s a great answer.

PS: I think most writers are manic depressive. As we get older we learn how to manage it. If you get too depressive, you do something to get yourself under control.

DJ: Tell me about the voice you use when you read these poems aloud.

PS: Magpie has more authority than I do. Outside the casita, Magpie knew it all.

DJ: And she knows she knew it all.

PS : Magpie was mean.

DJ: What about the idea of Magpie as muse?

PS: I hate to blow your analogy, but almost everything I write is quite literal. I was writing to the magpie.

DJ: So when you write of rebirth, which shows up often, is that aligned with your beliefs?

PS: I was raised as a strict atheist. I’ve been very faithful.

The way I write . . . I guess there’s something about keeping keeping yourself half-asleep so you can access things.

DJ: It doesn’t sound like something you can “try to do” as much as it sounds like something that is.

PS: You can arrange your life if you want. I know all these people who say, “I go to the gym first thing in the morning.” I would never do that, because it’s such precious time. To some extent, you can make it possible to access certain things.

DJ: There’s also the idea of simply being available to seeing things.

PS: Taking Lily out first thing every morning works for both of us. I usually find myself reciting lines on the way home so as not to forget them.

When I get home, I grab my yellow pad and a pen, and jot down the stuff I thought about when I was walking, and try to get out everything I had in my head so that, even if I have to make calls or grade papers, I’ll have it when I sit down later.