Penelope Schott

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Oyster River Pages: What is the first creative piece that made you cry?
Penelope Schott: I remember that when I was about four I cried regularly over the children’s book Ping. Ping was a bird who lived in “on a boat on the yellow waters of the Yangtze river which was his home.” Poor Ping got left behind on an island and bad things happened to him before he got safely back to the boat. My granddaddy used to read the book to me. I think he liked to watch me cry and then reassure me that it would turn out well. About ten years ago I got ahold of a copy and remembered all the pictures. I didn’t cry.

ORP: If you could tell your younger creative self anything, what would it be?
PS: That there’s time. That I wouldn’t always be working full time while raising kids. That I’m lucky to be a writer because I will always have a reason to get up in the morning.

ORP: What role does research play in your work?
PS: As an undergraduate I studied history, and among my many full-length poetry books, four are based on historical research. Penelope: The Story of the Half-Scalped Woman is about Penelope Stout in colonial New Jersey; A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth is about the Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson; The Pest Maiden: A Story of Lobotomy is about the woman who had the last lobotomy in this country; and Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore is about the history of prostitution including in the old West. I read everything I can about historical figures and I start writing only when I feel I can become those characters.

ORP: What are you doing to shape and inspire the next generation of artists?
PS: I believe everyone started as a poet but school ruined some of us. As a teacher and workshop leader I have always tried to take the “mystery” out of poetry. I resent those teachers who have turned poetry study into a riddle. “What is the hidden meaning of this poem?” I don’t want to tie the poem to a chair and beat the meaning out of it. (Billy Collins did that one so well!) I want the poem to mean something on the first reading. Sure, you can go back and deepen the meaning, but don’t elevate incomprehensibility.

ORP: What are you currently working on?
PS: I’m treating myself to a month of serious silliness. I am writing a series of short poems in the voice of my dog Sophia. In these poems, she is a great fan of Walt Whitman and she quotes him frequently. Here’s a snippet from the first poem:

I have the softest white fur.

I celebrate myself 

and sing myself.

In pentameter, no less:

Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.

I can smell field mice

scrabbling under the grass.

I can lick my own crotch.


Penelope Scambly Schott's most recent books are BAILING THE RIVER and SERPENT LOVE: A MOTHER-DAUGHTER EPIC. Forthcoming is HOUSE OF THE CARDAMOM SEED. Her poem can be found here.