Shumaker, Peggy

views updated


Nationality: American. Born: La Mesa, California, 22 March 1952. Education: University of Arizona, Tucson, B.A. 1974, M.F.A. 1979. Career: Graduate assistant instructor, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1976–79; writer-in-residence, Arizona Commission on the Arts, 1979–85; faculty associate in creative writing, Arizona State University, 1983–85; visiting assistant professor in creative writing, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1985–86; director of creative writing, department of English, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, 1986–88; codirector of creative writing, department of English, 1988–99, head of department of English, 1991–93, associate professor and professor, 1993–99, and since 1999 professor emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Director, Old Dominion University Literary Festival, 1987–88; featured poet, Writers at Work Conference, Park City, Utah, 1989, Port Townsend Writers Conference, Washington, 1993, Artspeak, Wyoming Arts Council, 1995, and Quartz Mountain Oklahoma Art Institute, 1995; coordinator, Midnight Sun Writers Series, 1989–95, and Alaskan Poetry Festival, 1990; literary judge, WESTAF Western States Book Awards, 1995, Nimrod /Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, 1995, and National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, 1999; since 1994 member, Western Literature Presenting Network. Member, 1990, board of directors, vice president, 1991–92, president, 1992–93, and board adviser, 1993–94, Associated Writing Programs. Award: NEA Fellowship, 1989. Address: 100 Cushman Street, Suite 210, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701, U.S.A.



Esperanza's Hair. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1985.

The Circle of Totems. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.

Braided River (chapbook). Anchorage, Limner Press, 1993.

Wings Moist from the Other World. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.


Critical Study: "Inherently Restless" by Marjorie K. Cole, in American Book Review, 11 (6), January 1990.

*  *  *

Peggy Shumaker's poetry represents the period style that defines much of the work produced in university writing programs since the 1970s. She writes primarily in free verse, and her thematic concerns include coming to terms with survival in abusive relationships, personal emergence and identification in the larger context of contemporary feminism, correcting and clearing up the half-truths of the past—especially her own—and protesting environmental abuses, particularly in her adopted state of Alaska.

Born in La Mesa, California, Shumaker attended the University of Arizona and has directed the writing programs both at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and at the University of Alaska. Shumaker has also served as president of the Associated Writing Programs, the increasingly influential national service organization for creative writing programs and the students and teachers associated with them.

In the representative poem "Calvinism" Shumaker critically speculates on inherited faith and the mother-daughter relationship:

When the knob on my calf
reached the size of an egg,
my mother held a double-edged blade
in the blue-gas flame.
Look away when I lance it,
she did too, so the putrid spray
hit only her earlobe and the left lens
of her glasses...

Moving from unadorned (albeit gruesome) reportage to a forced revelation, Shumaker sees in her own discomfort the suffering and contamination of others:

   ...I misheard her, abscess,
and pictured instead, in my leg,
the bottomless hole
sinners fall into, evil ones
cast into my leg, and me
walking around with muscles full
of other folks' deceptions.

The poem continues with an account of the treatment of the speaker's ailment. This in turn sets up the wished-for, if unlikely, personal revelation at the poem's end. As the last gauze dressing that "tempted the poison out of the wound" is removed, the poet offers this declaration:

		...and I knew
about limbo, a dance involving a broomstick
and flesh bending back, and I knew about belief,
and the boiling oblivion.

The poem resonates if the reader can supply much substance among the thinnest of connections drawn between witchcraft and witch-hunts, a mother's home remedies, and the poet's boil. Arguably, this writing is as much personal anecdote as it is poetry, but it is also very representative of its time.

—Robert McDowell