Giving Voice to the Disenfranchised Poet Nancy Scott Discovers Her Own

Linda Arntzenius

Empathy for the displaced and the dispossessed — a noble tradition in art — is a prime mover for poet and Lawrenceville resident Nancy Scott.

"We were a family of givers. My parents were Jewish and I grew up during WW II. My parents owned and operated a retail department store, Ollswang's, in Elmhurst, Illinois. During and after the war they gave shelter to a number of Czech refugees. My brother was adopted as an infant in 1945. These are the elements of my background that play into my work, my legacy, so to speak — I lived among people who brought strangers into their lives and that planted a seed," she said.

Down to the Quick, a slim volume of 70 poems arranged in three sections, is Ms. Scott's debut book of poems. She writes about city streets, war veterans, her childhood, and years spent finding Section 8 housing for low-income families. Her poems stem from the early days of the civil rights and equal rights movements. Having lived through the period, her work is a clear-eyed recall of the tragedies of racism, poverty, and disease that still play daily in American lives.

There's something admirable about a woman who can look back on her life with such clear perspective and absence of self-pity. That's why reading these very accessible poems is so uplifting, sometimes in spite of the subject matter. "Down to the Quick reveals a sharp eyed poet's sensibility deftly applied to the social realities and cultural shocks of the second half of the American century, commented Sander Zulauf, editor of the Journal of New Jersey Poets.

Here are the voices of people who've come back from war — from WW I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq — with psychic damage. A great uncle killed at Argonne. Miami's first POW home from Korea. "Until I was working on the manuscript, I didn't realize I'd written so many poems about war, beginning with my great uncle in the First World War, whom I didn't know, up to Baghdad," she said. "My first contact with war was when I was a 13-year-old school girl writing to soldier pen-pals in Korea. The POW poem was one of the first poems I ever wrote."

Poets are accomplished pack rats, storing up words, phrases, observations, and anecdotes. Ms. Scott's keenly observed vignettes are drawn from wide-ranging experience of the world that encompasses Russian Jewish emigré Anatoly as he struggles to tell a joke and Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919, presenting a capsule of American life to which a large cross section of contemporary readers would relate.

Her poems are about inter-racial dating during the era of Jim Crow, being taken by her erudite black tutor to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, only to have concerned white policemen intrude on their conversation to ask, "Miss are you all right?"

Later, came parenting four kids, one of her own and three adopted, fostering dozens of others, living in New York, London, and ultimately Princeton as an academic spouse, life as a divorcee, social work, and negotiating the systems of HUD and Section 8.

A poem inspired by a balmy summer spent in an English vicarage takes on a whole new context when framed by its proximity to Porton Down, the military weapons facility nearby. Nothing is overstated, however. A young man whistles as he arrives to rent a room. An ambiguous shipbuilder — neither man nor woman — deftly ties intricate rigging knots for his/her popsicle models.

It would be misleading, however, to take from this that Ms. Scott is mere observer, scrutinizing her experiences and those who cross her path, or that her work is "issue-based." Far from it, she is as engaged as her poems are engaging. "Meeting Princess Grace," shares the story of a woman applying for a rental subsidy who habitually misses her appointments. The poems "Good Humor Man" and "Wedding in Fargo, 1960" elicit audible guffaws.

Mistress of the understated line, Ms. Scott brings her acute eye to bear on contemporary life: marriage, raising children, the marketing of women's eggs.

A wealth of experience is parlayed into poetry as, for example, in "Sometimes What We Miss," which allows readers to see the sensitivity masked by the "grotesque angle" of a palsied mother reaching to lift her perfect-limbed child.

Ms. Scott's decades of work as an advocate for foster and adoptive children, abused children, the homeless and the mentally ill, underpins poems such as "Whatever Happened to Ten Young Black Men from New Jersey;" "Adoption Match Party," for which each child is tagged with a colored ribbon and "numbered like a daily special;" and "The Shearling," in which she demands that her daughter return a stolen coat given to her by an abused teenage boyfriend.

Those whose stories she shares include Carl with retinitis pigmentosa, Cissie, 88, with an oxygen tube in her nose, Amir who fled Kabul to avoid helping with executions, and Miami's first POW, a man who fears to eat because he remembers the worms in his intestines.

Ms. Scott's poems journey from Alang, India, to Tuscany, to a Chinese restaurant in San Franciso where the tray is spinning pork dumplings, stuffed mushroom & and "something fried and leggy" when she is meeting her ex-husband for their son's wedding.

She juxtaposes rotting cargo with salvaged temple bells, a roach-infested welfare motel with the scent of jasmine.

"Nancy Scott's poems help us understand her vision of her own life and those we, as well-heeled suburbanites, often fail to see," said fellow poet Lois Marie Harrod, introducing Ms. Scott to an audience in the Princeton Public Library last week.

Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in many literary journals, including Witness, Slant, and the Journal of New Jersey Poets. She has recently served as the managing editor of the new volume of US 1 Worksheets. She has taught in the continuing studies program of Mercer County Community College and for the Princeton YWCA.

Three Part Perspective

Epigraphs by Yehudi Amichai set the tone, prefacing the book's three sections: "Down to the Quick," "Boot Camp," and "Feeling My Way With a Fork." The first section about the poet's family life paves the way for the second, drawnfrom her work with DYFSS and Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, with the third part a synthesis of the other two.

Discussing the experiences that inform the poems in an interview last week, Ms. Scott said: "My Section 8 supervisor said, 'Nancy, this isn't a job for you, this is a calling.' And it's true I turned down every promotion I was ever offered because I wanted to work directly with clients. I knew how the system worked and I knew how to get them what they wanted or needed."

"Burn out is common in this kind of work, where it wasn't uncommon to have 400 clients a year to find homes for, so you have to know when to get out. I retired in 2004, and after a stint with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), I began focusing on writing. "The stories that I came across were so compelling that I just had to tell them, plain and simple. When you work with DYFSS, it's imperative to stand back from the work in order to help people. That stepping back allows one to view the scene. It gives you the perspective necessary to allow them to tell their own story."

While poetry has formed an outlet for the myriad stories she heard, she didn't come to it by a direct route. She started writing poetry around 1996 after working on a children's book for which she was unable to find a publisher. Seeing Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, a book similar to her own but written as a poetic narrative, she signed up to take a poetry writing class with Jean Hollander at the YWCA of Princeton and to attend the New Jersey Writers Conference, where she would go on to win prizes for poetry. A Ragdale residency allowed her to become reacquainted with her early years in the Chicago area, she said.

With a Dash of Art

Ms. Scott described the process of producing her first book as both exciting and a little bit scary. After searching for a publisher, Ms. Scott's manuscript caught the attention of Plain View Press, a 30-year-old literary publishing house located in Austin, Texas, that solicits and selects work from artists and activists "grappling with the major issues of our time — peace, justice, the environment, education and gender."

Researching art for the cover was time-consuming but ultimately rewarding, she said. The cover art by Kurt Stoeckel and Martin Whitney came from a community-based art project at the San Francisco deYoung Museum. "Kurt is known for silhouettes and large pieces and when I saw the work — outlines that were filled in by ordinary people, kids and teens, working in vibrant colors, I contacted him," said Ms. Scott.

"After reading the manuscript of my book, he donated the artwork for the cover. I was delighted." The artwork evokes multiple elements of the urban landscape with elements of graffiti, names, symbols, and children's images. It has a tenderness and an edginess that fits Ms. Scott's collection.

Down to the Quick, Poems by Nancy Scott (Plain View Press, 2007) is available from Amazon.com for $14.95 or it can be ordered directly from Ms. Scott, by e-mail to nscott29@aol.com.

Ms. Scott will be reading from her book on Saturday, April 7, from noon to 2 p.m., at Classic Used and Rare Bookstore, 117 S. Warren St., Trenton; and on Sunday, May 20, from 1:30 p.m., at the West Caldwell Library. She will be attending a book signing on Friday, May 4, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Doylestown Book Store, Doylestown, Pa.

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