A Writer in Residence
Former teacher, local poet pens ‘love songs’ for Dufur
Story and photo by Drew Myron
For Penelope Scambly Schott, writing is a playful effort. An award-winning poet with more than 20 published books, she has a simple method.
“Every morning I climb Dufur Hill,” she says. “I go to the top, find a poem and write it. Most of my poems start with a line or two coming into my head as I am walking. I repeat the line all the way down the hill. When I get home, I write it down and continue with the rest of the poem.”
The half-mile hike to the “D” on the hill, which is visible from Penelope’s home down the street, offers views of the farming community of 625 people nestled 13 miles south of The Dalles.
“It’s different every day: the sky, the wheat, the wildflowers,” Penelope says. “There’s a place where you can see the whole town, and I want to stretch out and put my arms around it. I’ve never been in love with a place before. It’s a little bit like falling in love.”
Penelope has published two books praising her adopted hometown: “Lovesong for Dufur” and “On Dufur Hill.”
“I believe that every person has a true landscape of the soul— be it beach, mountains, whatever—and that some of us are lucky enough to find that place,” she says. “I grew up in New York City as a free-range child but have never again felt so at home as I do here.”
Born and raised in New York City’s Upper West Side, Penelope’s creative mind was encouraged from a young age by her grandmother, with whom she would play “Poetry Club,” and her father, who entertained her with word puns.
“I was told that when I was little I use to sit in my crib and practice sentences,” Penelope says.
She married at 20 and soon had two small children. When the marriage fell apart, Penelope was a single mother struggling to survive. With a doctorate in late medieval English literature, she went to work as a teacher.
“I was a single mother with two kids, and I had to do something to feed them,” she says. “It was only when I started teaching that I discovered I actually liked it. I like figuring something out clearly enough to explain it, learning from my students, making an emotional connection with each student, hoping I am useful.”
Penelope taught college literature and creative writing courses for many years at a variety of schools, including Rutgers University.
5 years ago, she retired from teaching online courses.
As a poet, she has led writing workshops and given readings across the country, including at an annual workshop at the Balch Hotel in Dufur.
Penelope has received fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center, The Vermont Studio Center, and The Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.
In 2008, she was awarded the Oregon Book Award.
Penelope has written so many books she’s lost count.
“How many books?” she asks. “I really don’t know. ‘Many’ will have to do. Or 20 or more.”
Her latest, “Waving Fly Swatters at Angels,” will be published this summer.
“My poetry is easy to understand and sometimes a little bit humorous,” Penelope says.
But Oregon’s poet laureate emeritus, Paulann Petersen, sees deeper work.
“Penelope’s paeans for Dufur achieve the work of poetic alchemy,” she says.
Penelope’s life took a turn when she and her second husband, Eric Sweetman, moved from New Jersey to Oregon in 2001. The two have been married 36 years. Together they hosted “The White Dog Poetry Salon,” a reading series in their Portland home that featured acclaimed Oregon writers.
In 2010, they stumbled into Dufur by chance. Driving home from a rafting excursion in Maupin, they spotted Balch Hotel.
“I saw the sitting room and said, ‘What a great place to do a writing workshop!’” Penelope says.
Smitten, they looked around town and found a home.
“When my mother died, I inherited some money and thought the most healing thing I could do was to buy this house,” she says. “This became my writing retreat. Anyone can write and everyone should. It’s not some esoteric thing. It’s a way to understand yourself and your place in the world.”
Initially, Penelope spent weekends soaking up the sun and the small-town charm of Oregon’s dry side. Then the weekends grew longer and the pull to stay stronger. In 2020, she made Dufur her permanent home.
“I vote here now,” she says. “I’m on a committee at the school that gives out scholarships. I’m so invested here, I even bought a plot in the local cemetery.”
Now 80, Penelope says her poems have become shorter while her happiness has grown larger.
“I try to listen to bird songs at least as much as the news,” she says. “In one part of my head, I am approximately 7 years old. I can just slide into child mind. I can be utterly amazed by the obvious. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve let myself be that way.”
Playful wonder and deep appreciation fill Penelope’s days and her poems.
“I love Dufur, the people, the beauty, the small town,” she says. “It’s a place that makes me feel less despair.”
I crossed the border in the night
as if aboard a sleeper car.
No one woke me to check my papers.
Now as I begin to look around
I recognize my parents’ faces
but not my own. So soon, so soon
I have arrived. So unprovisioned.
—Penelope Scambly Schott from
“Waving Fly Swatters at Angels”
Trying to Show You
Up here the horizon makes a circle
with bumps for the mountains.
From Dufur Hill I can see my house,
two states, and parts of seven counties.
These high wheat fields are golden
even if it’s a cliché to say so.
I could use ochre or yellow madder
but really the wheat is intensely golden
and while I’m giving you color words
a red combine comes carving a pattern
through the high ripe wheat,
its red a red between brick and maroon.
Now the combine is headed right at me.
I want to snap a photo with my phone
but the sunlight is so damn brilliant
that I can’t see which symbol to press.
That’s why I have to write this down.
You, reader, aren’t up here with me
so no use shouting Look at this.
I wish I could show it to my dead father
but what good in wishing? Look, I’d say,
how wheat dust rises to float and settle
over headless stubble. Here’s my plan:
to share this town with everyone I love.
—Penelope Scambly Schott from “On Dufur Hill”
Penelope Scambly Schott leads the 2022 Dufur Poetry Workshop Thursday, September 29 and Friday, September 30. The cost is $250.