Profiles: Peggy Shumaker

Soundings is pleased to announce that Rainier Writers Workshop’s faculty member Peggy Shumaker has been named the Alaska State Writer Laureate for 2011-2012.  Linda Martin (Class of 2011) reflects on what Shumaker means to her students, the state of Alaska, and the world of poetry.

Peggy Shumaker enters the UAA lecture room smiling.  She looks lovely in red, her hair curls casually, the number of people reaching in her direction prove her huggable. Her husband Joe Usibelli is at her side, lugging a box of books—Peggy’s latest, Gnawed Bones. “If language is bone, hard parts/of speech, what do skulls of pack rats/crushed into owl pellets/have to tell us?”  As Peggy takes her place at the podium, Joe distributes books through the audience.  “See what I’ve become?” he grumbles good-naturedly.

The audience applauds.  Peggy explains her plan for the reading.  The books, while she would love to just give them away, should be returned after the reading as she will not undercut the bookstore selling copies in the lobby.  Then she calls for requests from the audience, presenting each request in her luscious, caring voice: “High the Chatanika,/ high this year . . .”

The nurturing side of Peggy Shumaker, the way she mentors the whole person, indeed, whole audiences, might seem the opposite of professorial.  But her mentees, as she calls that group of us who have studied with her, can attest to her rigorous expectations, her cryptic critique of any superficial thinking, the clarity of her thought in response to our work.  I wrote a poem last year, knowing how little effort and substance was involved, and sent it to Peggy.  “This one’s okay,” Peggy wrote.  “It does what it does.  You probably don’t need to spend a lot of time on it.”  I got her point.  At the end of that November critique (I live in Alaska) she wrote, “Stay cozy.”

Peggy invests herself in words.  In 2008 she founded Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, to publish literature and fine art from Alaska.  She is widely published, widely traveled and a popular guest at writing conferences and festivals.  She received a National Endowment for the Arts in Poetry.  She holds advisory board positions for Red Hen Press and for the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes.  Now she is the Alaska State Writer Laureate, to the delight of her Alaska mentees among many others who honor her talent and her teaching gifts.

As Alaska Writer Laureate for 2011, Peggy’s plans include connecting Alaskan writers with readers—within the state and beyond.  She has proposed a “mileage bank” to facilitate travel, a university exchange for MFA students to get involved in community literary work, a state program for young writers, and a website that could serve as a directory of Alaskan writers.  She will continue and expand her teaching schedule within the state, traveling to the very far corners with her generous and gracious energy for literary arts.

Peggy Shumaker writes close to bone and heart, exposing the hard parts of her life to make poetry.  She would teach us all to do the same. “Let us speak/in our bones,” she writes.  “Let our bones quench/the thirst of history.”

Learn more about Peggy at