I met poet Penelope Scambly Schott at the Columbia Center for the Arts’ annual Plein Air Writing Exhibition. Her work became some I looked forward to most. I learned that she lived in Portland but was spending a good deal of time in Dufur, a tiny town about 40 miles east of Hood River. She recently published a book of poetry dedicated to her half-time home.
Living a Local Life
By Penelope Scambly Schott
I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a local life.
As for me, I live two lives, one on a hill in Portland, Oregon, about four miles from the heart of downtown, and the other right next to the K-12 school in Dufur, Oregon, population 600, on the dry side of Mount Hood in a valley embraced by wheat fields. In Portland I go to theater and attend poetry readings; in Dufur I attend the threshing bee and go every Thursday evening to the knitting group at the school and community library.
Yes, I have had previous lives. I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan and spent my childhood at the Museum of Modern Art and Broadway shows. I spent 30 years outside Princeton, New Jersey, among the intellectually pretentious before I moved to Portland where I learned the word “spendy” for what is overpriced or ostentatious. Three years ago, in a conjunction of circumstances, I bought this small house in Dufur, and every week from Thursday to Saturday I come out here to write.
I am telling you a love story. When I started coming here, I had various other writing projects but I kept interrupting myself to wander about with my dog, Lily, and then go back to my house and write poems about Dufur. This spring Windfall Press–which is concerned with “poetry of place”–published my book Lovesong for Dufur. The collection opens with the meadowlark announcing Spring up on “D” Hill, runs through all the seasons, and ends with my buying a plot at the local cemetery and discovering that “I have never been happier.”
I recently gave a reading from my book at our local historic hotel, the Balch, which was built in 1907 from bricks made right here in Dufur. Samantha, the current hard-working owner, served fruit and cheese, and there was a cash bar but almost everyone drank the free water. My many Dufur friends, and some of their friends, came to hear me. As far as I know, nobody in that crowd had ever attended a poetry reading before. I have no idea what they were expecting. My publisher read a few poems from his own book and then introduced me to the waiting crowd that already knew me.
I began with the dedication to all my local friends. In my second poem, “How to Move to a Small Town,” I described a return trip to the local hardware store and read the line, “Let Molly the owner be there drinking coffee.” Well, everyone cracked up. I guess I was just about the only one in the room who didn’t know that Molly is usually drinking beer. I read about the grain elevators, the local sewage plant, the food bank, the nun with six cats–Sister Patricia was there and corrected me; she’s up to nine cats. I concluded with a poem:
Do You Want to Visit Dufur?
Is the world too much with you “late and soon”
as the poet Wordsworth complained?
Call the hotel. It’s the Balch. Or email them.
We’re quite modern:
up on “D” hill, we have many fancy antennas
between the cows.
The Balch boasts running water in every room.
And steam heat.
When the hotel opened in 1908, it had electricity
twelve hours a day–
at night when the Dufur sawmill wasn’t using it.
These good solid bricks
were made right near here on Mr. Balch’s ranch:
three stories of Italianate brick.
Salesmen who rode the Great Southern Railroad
set up their wares in the parlor
Witness this big black safe standing by the wall.
Don’t try to unlock it.
Rest assured. Whatever you want is safely there,
Though the knobs conform to fingers long dead,
you are still breathing.
See what Dufur can do for you.
It’s our town motto.
People loved it. They bought multiple copies of Lovesong for Dufur to give to their children who had moved out of town. It was a great evening. After signing a bunch of books, I went home and served Dufur sausage casserole to seven people. Now, that’s local.