How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

“[…]water drops
and fresh lettuce –

So I could paint its portrait.
My slug was lovely on canvas.”

And she lets it go unharmed, saying

[…] I want to believe
that my slug

might remember me with patience
if not worship.”

Like the slug, the book’s speaker suffers cruelty at the hands of others: an indifferent mother and an abusive husband.  The road to forgiveness is hard.  In “The river is named a name nobody know,” she writes

High in an ice cavern over that river
waits a wolf whose name is Forgiveness.

The wolf still wonders, Will she come back?
But I grow white and have turned my back.

She does return to that wolf eventually, but one gets the sense that this is not a linear journey. In “Summer Solstice,” the last poem of the book, she writes

Why did I believe the tall blond men
who claimed no one could love me?

May this late light caress them too.

Cronehood and its gifts feature strongly in this book. The gift of hindsight allows the speaker to place old experiences in context, softening the tragedies  of decades past. Schott’s poems connect us viscerally to the past while offering a glimpse of experience revised as it is remembered:

Suppose […]
[…] it was never that one man
who mattered, it was always
the high green headland,

the headland’s gouged
and rocky face

(“From Cascade Head Above the Oregon Coast”)

Book cover for "How I Became an Historian" by Penelope Scambly Scott
How I Became an Historian, poems by Penelope Scambly Schott

I caught up with Schott via email to discuss the book’s development, gender politics, and her current writing practice.

This is your fifth collection of poetry. How has your poetry changed over the course of your career?

I grew up in the era of forms and metrics.  My first published poem was a sonnet.  Although I am less rigid these days, the ghosts of form and meter inform much of my writing.  I’ll write in stanzas or tap out beats in a line.  The last several years I’ve tended toward couplets for the tight, aphoristic stanza break or wrap-up.  Both my first chapbook and my first full-length contained mostly poems about family.  Now my work is as likely to include the Milky Way or Istanbul – or slugs.  Also I play with tone more, being snappy and serious in the same poem.  Hey, what I wrote in my 20’s can’t avoid being different from what I am writing in my 70’s.  If you count a novel, a chapbook I co-authored with my friend Kathryn Stripling Byer, and a narrative told in emails I co-authored with my dog, this is actually my 18th book.  I don’t want to bore myself.

I’m interested to hear from the poet’s mouth the impetus for this book, your thinking around the order of the poems, and the meanings or themes of the different sections. Did you have an overarching trajectory, or was it more of an intuitive process for you?

As always, the impulse for this book was partly that I had written a bunch of poems since my previous book and although many had been in journals, in some crazy way I find it’s helpful to get poems published as a book because it gets them neatly out of my way.  I can move on to some new tone or subject or just the feeling of moving on.

Many years and books ago my poet friend Kay taught me to lay all the finished poems on the floor and proceed to make stacks.  I’m sure there are other ways, but here’s what works for me.  I try to start without any opinion as to what the book is “about.”  I just intuitively group poems, being careful not to group solely by subject.  For example, How I Became an Historian has three poems about slugs, none in the same section.  (After all, how many slug poems can a reader take at one time?) Instead I want the poems to be having a conversation with each other.  This, but on the other hand, that. Or this, and furthermore that. I suppose I arrange partly by tone and viewpoint.  Mainly I try to not think too much at this point.  Except in my verse narratives, I aim for two, three, or four piles which might become sections.

Then I re-read the piles and feel for a theme.  In pile one for this current book I ran across “Perspective” which describes a childhood car ride and my worry that the past keeps getting farther away. That’s when I started thinking the book might be about awareness and how we see time.  “Pestering the Slug” which became the first poem deals with the problem of evil, an ever present part of history, and “God Becomes a Hairdresser” concludes the section by asking “So has His work made this world any better?  Beats me.”  At that point, I knew where I was going with the collection.  Inevitably the book ended with poems about a woman writing poems in wartime Afghanistan, my young grandson, the future, and forgiving those who ever hurt me.

The poems in this book come from a very feminine perspective. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

How can you ask?  Yes, I’m a feminist.  I’ve written book-length narrative poems about strong women.  Yes, I want to strengthen our daughters. Yes, I think it’s one of the most important issues of all time. Yes, human society has to change. Yes, I think a lot of men are just plain nuts, even the ones I love. Years ago when I asked my kind, gentle, intellectual husband why he wouldn’t stop and get directions, he told me, “Because then someone will have one up on me.” Give me a break.  At least he now has his GPS.  My son is a loving, competent 50% parent who can cook but he still needs to be right. I asked my grandson, age 14, whether he’d rather be happy or right.  He answered, “Right.”  We have a way to go.

Your bio says you run a notorious workshop in Oregon. What makes it notorious?

Oh, that “notorious” is sort of a joke.  It is unusual because I teach it in a tiny town in the parlor of the historic Balch Hotel with a view of wheat fields and the east side of snowy Mount Hood, and each year we explore a different highly specific topic.  Last year we did “Surprise.” This year we are doing “The Riff and/or the Lyric,” an exploration of how the conversational poem can have the poetic impact of music or beauty.  The intimate workshop has devoted fans and a bit of a reputation in the Northwest.

What does your writing practice look like today?

Dufur, Oregon where I teach the poetry workshop is my escape and my muse.  (One of my chapbooks is called Lovesong for Dufur.) I have a little house here and I run away from Portland every Thursday morning to come out here and write.  It’s a small town (population: 604) with a lot of sky, and when I climb up Dufur Hill and see five mountains and across the Columbia River, the world and the words flow into my head.  The dog and I walk up the hill and then I come back and write everything down.  I can revise in Portland, but mostly I write in Dufur.  Also I belong to a prompt-group, a critique group, an on-line critique group, and a group back in New Jersey where I lived before moving to Oregon in 2001.  As a way to give back, my husband and I run the White Dog Poetry Salon in Portland where over the years we have hosted about 100 readers.

Do you have any words of wisdom for poets creating — or submitting — their first book-length manuscripts?

Yes, don’t feel you have to get all your poems into that first book.  Once you discover your theme (the floor method, again), leave out the poems that don’t want to be there.  You can use them in your next book.

How can people find you?

I’m easy to find.  I have a website or you can just email me at penelopeschott at Comcast. If you want to mail me something, my address is:

Penelope Scambly Schott
507 NW Skyline Crest Road
Portland, Oregon 97229

And if you happen to be in Dufur when I’m here, ask at the town hall or the post office.  Mine is the lavender house with green trim right next to the school.  There’s only one school, pre-K through 12. Or just knock.  The white dog will answer.

Photo Credit: David Short via Flickr, CC 2.0

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