An Interview with Nancy Scott
I’d like to start by asking you to discuss how you came to write Running Down Broken Cement. I get the sense that this collection was a long time coming. The question is maybe why did now seem to be the right time to bring the collection together? Did this have anything to do with where we are as a society? It seems to me that we (as a society) are in a place where poetry that attends to social issues is essential.
Yes, RDBC was a long time coming to fruition. It probably had its early murmurings as far back as 1966 when I first moved to Princeton.
In 1970, I inherited an organization that was seeking homes for “hard-to-place” children, that is, kids who were considered unadoptable and lingered in foster care because they were either black, disabled, or sibling groups. We advocated for permanent homes for these kids and for changing adoption laws which tended to screen out rather than screen in potential parents. We also provided adoption support groups. With one biological child, my husband and I adopted three more children, all bi-racial. My husband walked out in the early 1980s and the day after the divorce became final, he moved to California, leaving me with four kids, the youngest was five, no job and, as it turned out, no help from family or friends. And yes, I had to sit my two teenage boys down and give them “the talk.” Racial problems were just as potent, though less reported, in the 1980s.
I got my first full-time job as an intake worker in a child abuse and neglect response unit in NJ State government. This is where I acquired a real understanding of what goes on out of sight. I had inhuman energy in those days, not only was I working full-time in a high stress job, but I became a foster parent for the State, took in mostly teenagers, ran the Mercer County Foster Parents Association, and was active in politics. After a few years, I went to work for another State program, which provided rental assistance to homeless families. I had a yearly caseload of about 600 clients, which included single adults, families, veterans, others with drug and mental health problems, disabilities, AIDS, and criminal histories. I passed up promotions so I could continue to do field work, which lasted for sixteen years. Workers in this field are a pretty tightly-knit group. I found that friends and family outside of work had no interest in the details of what I did. They were just grateful that somebody else was taking care of it.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, while I was still working, I decided to find a way to memorialize what I had heard and experienced first-hand. Poetry seemed like the way to go because I wanted that “quick take.” We live in a sound byte world. I thought perhaps I might get readers’ attention if I didn’t drone on.
Most of the poems [in RDBC] have been published and republished over the years. Some, like “Mama’s Closet,” have won prizes. A few years ago, I decided to gather all the poems together into a book. I had done another book with Main Street Rag, so I went back to Scott Douglass with this manuscript, then I got sidetracked with yet another book, which turned out to be a blessing because it allowed me to continue writing more poems (I think all these poems have become part of my DNA), like “Finding Ruth,” “Shamika and the Rental Voucher,” and “The House with Blue Shutters on Lattimore Street”—all written and slipped into the manuscript after I had signed a contract.
Of course, I’ve been selective about whose stories to tell. There were many who abused the system in the most egregious ways and others whose stories were too unsettling to tell.
What are your thoughts on the role of poetry as a form of activism?
Writing these poems was a form of personal catharsis for me. For the most part, I am preaching to the choir. I don’t believe that poetry really has the clout to change minds in any way that would lead to constructive outcomes. I think most people act out of economic and political necessity. That is not to say it is a waste of time for poets to engage in activism. I just think it will not get us anywhere in this political climate, will not nudge those in power in a different direction. Reviewers have commented that I say too much; I don’t give the reader breathing room to fill in the blanks. I think they are right, but, if I had done that, then for some readers, I might as well have written a poem in a foreign language because they would have no way to translate it in a meaningful way. It’s not like writing a poem about a flower. Everyone has had some experience with a flower.
I do admire writers who put their hearts and souls into their work. I just don’t think there are new markets for these books. I was first drawn to Martin Espada’s anthology, Poetry like Bread, and to some of his own poems, which have provided a prototype for many of mine. Carolyn Forché edited an anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, which became a primer for me. I also admire Yehuda Amichai’s work. I have just completed a prose manuscript about the Korean War and post-traumatic stress, which mirrors what is going on today with returning vets, and has been well-documented back to the Civil War.
Your poems have an inviting/approachable narrative quality. Because they are often so narrative I found myself taken aback (in a good way) as a reader when little poetic turns of phrase were slipped in. For example, “among tossed pairs” in Mama’s Closet, “lipstick her name” in Behind the Shadows, and “heart went ballistic” in Eighteenth Birthday. Approaching a poem with a narrative structure, I’m curious if you sometimes have lines in mind at the outset that you hope to include or if your process leans generally toward discovery writing?
I know the story, so it’s a matter of translating it into a poem. Obviously, I know more than I can or want to put into a poem, so it’s a matter of selecting, reinforcing what I want the reader to understand about the life of this particular person and how it informs how we think about poverty and survival. I think I could have worked harder incorporating more lyricism into the poems, but the poems came out like this, and forcing lyricism for its own sake didn’t really interest me.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process for you? Do you have writing habits?
I do not keep a journal and rarely make notes about a potential subject of a poem. I figure if it is important enough to write about, it will find a way to creep into my consciousness. Occasionally, I will follow a prompt that catches my attention.
I have no routine for writing. I never have. There is no time of day or night that is “better.” I do spend time thinking about how I might want to frame a certain poem. This could happen anywhere, anytime—driving in the car, washing dishes, listening to a really boring lecture. I can spend several hours at a time drafting and revising a poem that, most likely, will also go through many more revisions.
When I do get settled into writing, time evaporates. All my energy is focused on those words, those lines. If I do look at a clock, I am frequently amazed at how much time has passed. I get a rush when a poem starts to come together. Of course, until I am satisfied with a poem, which could be much later, the revising part is a grind.
At what point do you decide to abandon a poem/project?
I rarely abandon a poem completely. I have a graveyard on my backup drive of unrealized poems that may remain untouched for a long time. When I’m looking for a topic, I might review them for inspiration and occasionally tinker with them, maybe extract a line or two and use that in another poem. I try to keep hard copies of every poem; but, with no filing system that has become a futile effort.
I am a prolific writer, except lately. Some poems come quickly and are almost done once I click Save, but others taunt me and never get finished. I write about a lot of topics, with the exception of nature poems. I’m drawn to people and place, social justice, war and its aftermath, travel, humor, memoir, employment, politics, and, most recently, reimagined fairy tales. I frequently immerse myself in a topic I want to write about. I must have read or reread a hundred fairy tales from different authors, different countries, in order to create my own versions for this new book, “The Owl Prince,” for which I also did the cover image in acrylic.
In what way does your personal life affect your writing? Do you wish this was somehow different?
After I retired and had to reinvent a schedule, I did more writing than I have time for today. If I try something new, I tend to throw myself into it. In 2004, I took over the editorship of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative in NJ. I had no experience and at that time had only a few poems published. I eventually revamped the journal, making it all poetry, put it on a positive fiscal course, and took it from a small staple stitch journal to a 160-page perfect bond regional journal, while cultivating a community of writers across this country and beyond. Between 2007 and 2014, I had seven books published by five different Indie publishers. An eighth book is coming out this year from Aldrich Press. Then in 2010, I got interested in creating collages. That took off and now I exhibit in numerous juried shows every year. I am constantly juggling demands from the poetry and the art, and somehow manage time for a small editing business and for my ten-year-old granddaughter, Leah, whom I often write about.
What are your plans for the future of U.S.1? Why continue as a print journal? Why continue to take “snail mail” submissions only? What are your general thoughts on the state of the publishing industry?
I used to say that I believe the future of poetry journals will be online. That future has arrived. We live in a tech savvy world and many journals online are really first-rate. As for U.S.1 Worksheets, it is strictly a volunteer effort. The subject of giving up the print journal in favor of an online edition has been brought up multiple times, but members of the Cooperative have opted to remain a print journal. We still only accept “snail” mail submissions, mainly because we have always done it that way. The rotating editors who make selections want hard copies to work from and we can’t find anyone who wants the responsibility of accepting and downloading more than twelve hundred poems that arrive each year. The organization has been around since 1973, the longest running cooperative of its kind in the States, and some of the original members still bring work to our critique sessions. We looked around the room recently and realized that most of us are in our sixties and seventies, which may account for why we are reluctant to give up the feel of a real book in our hands when we read poetry.
By Mark Danowsky
Nancy's books are available to purchase at a discounted rate from her website ( http://nancyscott.net ) and at http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/?s=nancy+scott+running+down+broken+cement
Her new books of poetry include:
Running Down Broken Cement (Main Street Rag)
and Midwestern Memories (Aldrich Press)
(battles at home and abroad)
For more information, contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org