Peggy Shumaker was born in La Mesa, California, but she grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Both her undergraduate degree (B.A. in English) and her M.F.A. in creative writing were earned at the University of Arizona. Before moving to Alaska, she was writer-in-residence for the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She is Professor emerita and former chair of the English Department and Director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Among her several collections of poetry are The Circle of Totems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), Wings Moist from the Other World (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), Underground Rivers (Red Hen Press, 2002), Gnawed Bones (Red Hen Press, 2010), and, most recently, Toucan Nest: Poems of Costa Rica (Red Hen Press, 2013). Additionally, she has also published a memoir in lyric fragments, Just Breathe Normally (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) and a book length collaboration with artist Kesler Woodward, Blaze (Red Hen Press, 2005). In 2008, she founded Boreal Books to publish literature and fine art from Alaska. She has served as poet laureate of Alaska (2010-2012) and as President of the Board of Directors of the Associated Writing Programs. Persimmon Tree, a literary journal written by women over 60, recently announced that Shumaker will be taking over from Wendy Barker as poetry editor of the journal. She was chosen for a Fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, as the Rasmuson Foundation's Distinguished Artist for 2014, and as the Artsmith Artist of the Year 2014.
In an interview about Just Breathe Normally with Alberto Rios, she said, "We find our ways to transform—we transform what we cannot make better. And we transform it into art if we are lucky. We transform it into something tolerable if we are not so lucky." In another interview about Toucan Nest, she said, "When we pay mindful attention, the world amazes."
This week's featured poem is "Kus-sun-ar" from Gnawed Bones (Red Hen Press, 2010). The poem alludes to her recovery after a near fatal accident.
For an injured friend,
he brings salmon fillets, fish
he caught dipnetting all night at Chitina.
Needle-nose pliers nipped out
all the invisible bones.
Growing up at fish camp, he'd sneeze.
Elders said, "Kus-sun-ar."
Otter. They invoked otter's name
to wish him close
to one who lives in more than one world.
Shaman helper, on land, in water.
He tells me otters live inside women, curled up
just above the stomach,
and this feels true. I feel my otters,
My hurt body can't rest yet,
it was so close to the other world.
I am an otter, skinned in the round,
my pelt pulled off in one piece.
Stitched into a kit bag,
I feel the shaman
feeding me salmon,
placing his healing
into my emptiness.
Writing prompt for the week: Think of a phrase or saying you heard as a child. Write a poem incorporating the phrase but also include a description of another scene that somehow resonates with the saying. You might even consider moving back and forth between the saying and the resonant scene or scenes.