Poet Nancy Scott’s experiences, both domestic and professional, have exposed her to worlds and people that most of us only read about — the Midwestern prairie, mixed-race adoption, foster children, and the homeless. Each of her poems, she says, “is sort of a spontaneous combustion” and each one conjures up a piece of her life experience, with its specific detail and emotional ballast. Her newly published book of poetry, “Down to the Quick,” might be called a biographical journey.
Attempting to characterize the thematic underpinning of the volume, Scott, a Lawrenceville resident since 1993, calls it “my take on how we make connections with people.” She says, “Knowing people is sort of an adventure for me. Each person is a kind of mini-universe. It’s exciting for me to know people who have had different experiences than I have and somehow to be able to relate to it and incorporate it into my life.”
Nancy Scott will read from her new book with two other members of the group the Delaware Valley Poets, on Monday, June 11, at Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. The readings will be followed by an open mike.
Scott grew up in a prairie town of 25,000 west of Chicago during the Second World War. Victory gardens were part of her childhood as was play in vacant basements, the foundations of homes never built because the materials went to the war effort.
Her grandfather, an immigrant from Russia at the turn of the century, had started out peddling wares from the back of a wagon. Eventually he made enough money to start a department store, which became the anchor store in Scott’s home town of Elmhurst.
Belonging to one of only four Jewish families in Elmhurst, Scott always thought of herself as a little different. “Even though my family was well off and integrated into the town,” she says, “we were still, in many ways, outsiders. I think that formed how I thought about myself.”
But her family was distinctive in other ways. “Growing up in Illinois during that period was a time when we were very much involved with what was going on in the world, even though it seemed so very, very far away,” she says. “I took it for granted but I think it was somewhat unique in that town.”
From that period a vivid image stands out, of a visit with her father to Chicago’s Skid Row. “I’d say to my father,” she says, “‘Let’s drive past there.’ I wanted to see all the people standing on the street with nowhere to go — it was fascinating because it was so awful.” Later she was to learn, through her work experiences with the homeless, that “there were real people out there with real lives that had gone astray.” Even in Princeton, where she lived later in her life, one of her poems contrasts the college rowers with a homeless man: On the road, arms awhirl,/a legless man, wheelchair-bound,/placard round his neck/ — I’m a homeless Vet.
Scott ran into her first bout of real discrimination when she applied to colleges. A good student in her high school of 2,000, she was unexpectedly wait-listed at all the schools she applied to. What she found out only later was that alumni scanned the list of students to be accepted, presumably for inappropriate ethnicities or religions. Sure enough, when her principal called to find out why she had not been accepted, he was told, “If her name hadn’t been Levinson, we’d have been happy to take her.”
“It was very shocking to me,” she says. Luckily with some last minute phone calling she was accepted at Brandeis University, nearly brand-new then, which was looking for students from outside the East Coast.
She stayed at Brandeis, however, for only two years. “Even though I was a good student,” she says, “I wasn’t a good thinker.” Looking back she figures she was probably just too young to take advantage of what Brandeis had to offer. She says, for example, she didn’t take courses by some incredible teachers because their classes were too early in the morning.
At Brandeis she also remembers a lot of peer pressure about only dating people who were Jewish. “I didn’t come from that kind of world,” she says, and when her father died, it seemed like a good excuse to move somewhere else, so she transferred to the University of Chicago.”
Another theme from her birth family that replayed itself during her marriage was the decision to adopt. Three families had banded together for private adoptions. Her adopted brother, younger than she by seven years, was the first child born and had been designated to go to another family. “They weren’t ready,” she says, “so they got Cousin Leon. Richard came to us by happenstance.”
She remembers the day her brother came home: “My father was overjoyed, I think because he always wanted a son,” she says. Then she reflects on the “awesome responsibility” of bringing an unrelated child into your family to raise and care for, “a child whose life is being decided at that moment.”
At the University of Chicago, Scott did secretarial work for Peter Blau, a renowned sociologist, who coincidentally had his own connections with her hometown, having come there as a refugee from Austria in 1942. While there he needed someone to sign for his fiance so he visited the four Jewish families in town and had actually met Scott as a small child.
After Scott graduated from the university in 1960, with a bachelor’s degree in art history, Blau invited her to come with him to Stanford to continue working with him. “I went to Stanford because I didn’t want to know what I wanted to do,” she says, but it wasn’t long before she married her husband, six weeks after she met him. He had just finished his doctorate and was one of Blau’s teaching assistants.
They moved to New York City, where they lived until 1966. She went to night school, where she got a degree in interior design. Musing about why she did this, she relates it back to her parents. “It was common in those days to hire interior designers for your home,” she recalls. “I never quite liked what my parents chose.” She was drawn to the creative possibilities of the field, and she thought that with this background, “I could do it the way I wanted to do it.”
Ironically, though, today she lives with a lot of that furniture she grew up with, and the only time she used what she learned was once, last year, to teach a course at Mercer County Community College on the history of furniture and decorative accessories.
Later, settled into Princeton as a faculty wife in the late 1960s, she and her husband wanted to have more children, and they decided to adopt. In those days, they knew that because they were of different religions, it would be difficult to adopt a white child.
During this time Scott began supervising a statewide effort to recruit homes for minority and disabled children and sibling groups in cooperation with the State Bureau of Children’s Services and private adoption agencies. She recalls some confusion among the adopting families. “Some of us wanted children very dark-skinned, different from ourselves; some wanted children with lighter skin.” But she concludes, “we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, and three or four years later the black social workers objected to these interracial adoptions, saying they were unfair to the children.”
When her children were at Princeton High School the town was really trying to grapple with racial issues. But the same issues are still present. “It is something the town has never come to grips with,” she says. “There has always been an unequal division in the town, and I’m not sure it ever will change. Princeton is what it is.” But she believes that people do make efforts in Princeton, some successful and some not.
In the mid-1970s, Scott served on the Mercer County Mental Health Board, which was dealing with the homelessness that often followed deinstitutionalization of mental patients. As a consultant to the State Division of Mental Health and Hospitals, she did a comprehensive study that successfully proved the lack of sufficient rental housing.
Scott also served on the Child Placement Review Board, “in search of paper children,” she says, meaning that “the state didn’t know how many foster children they had and where they were.” The goal was for the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) to be accountable to the courts about where the children were being housed and what the plan was for each of them.
After separating from her husband, she worked for a time as an intake worker for DYFS. At the same time, she was doing free public relations for nonprofit groups like the Girl Scouts, the YWCA, and Little League, when someone approached her to be on a task force to help recruit foster homes. She felt she needed to learn more about foster care first and went to foster care training; she also became a foster parent herself. “I was one of the few people who was a DYFS worker and a foster parent,” she says. “I got to work all day there and take home kids left in the waiting room at 5 o’clock.”
One of Scott’s poems, “Adoption Match Party,” offers up the specter of the vulnerabilities of unwanted children, tagged as for a rummage sale with colored ribbons: “Hey, someone calls his name./Stomach muscles clench, reasons bubble/in his brain. He’s thirteen, has asthma/and a temper which got him arrested./A bald man picked him once, then returned him/like a Kani shirt that didn’t fit.
Scott did foster care for seven years, taking in about two dozen children, some for a few days or a few months, and one teenager for years: “Our house was always filled,” she remembers. “We had grad students who were boarders, and we had foster kids.” And, of course, she had her own four children.
When Scott had an opportunity to leave the “endless work” of DYFS and move to the Department of Community Affairs’ Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, she took it, and she stayed for 20 years. She felt that adequate housing could resolve some DYFS issues of child abuse that resulted from families having to double up. But even with the state support for this work in the form of housing vouchers, waiting lists remain very large.
The job was very people-intensive. Scott had to develop relationships with landlords, do a lot of negotiation, handle building inspections, and try to get her clients to be responsible tenants. For Scott, the work was very meaningful and in fact reminded her of those people on Skid Row who had fascinated her as a kid. “I met all those people who, years ago, I had seen on a street corner,” she says, “but I was in a position where I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Scott retired from the state in 2004 but stayed involved with the people she had served for so long, doing six months with VISTA and then six at Homefront, working with the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.
In a sense, Scott’s poetry has brought together the different strands of her life. It started, she says, when “I got it in my head that I wanted to write a children’s picture book.” She took some courses at the YWCA and did a draft but couldn’t place the story, which went back to her experiences growing up in Elmhurst. “World War II is not sexy anymore,” she says.
Then she encountered Karen Hesse’s “Out of the Dustbowl,” written in narrative poetry, and she thought maybe the editors would look at her story reworked in a different format. She took courses with Jean Hollander, a poet, teacher, and director of the Writers’ Conference at the College of New Jersey, and at Rutgers to learn to write poetry. Today she is actively involved in the 35-year-old US1 Poets’ Cooperative (not related to U.S.1 newspaper), regularly attending its Tuesday night critique group and now serving as managing editor of the 51st volume of the group’s journal, “US1 Worksheets.”
When she sits down to write a poem, she does not have a specific subject in mind; rather, each poem “is sort of a spontaneous combustion.” Yet her book, “Down to the Quick,” has an autobiographical feel, giving the reader insight into the range of people and experiences Scott has encountered in her life, both personal and professional. “I wanted to write about something that wasn’t traditionally written about,” she says. “The Beats wrote street poetry, and this is a little different take on it.”
Delaware Valley Poets, Monday, June 11, 8 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Nancy Scott, author of “Down to the Quick.” Open mic follows. Free. 609-716-1570 or www.delawarevalleypoets.com