Wounds of Language

Tucson native Peggy Shumaker gets motivation from the landscape

Peggy Shumaker is a serial monogamist with numerous geographic love affairs.

She grew up in Tucson, spending decades here before getting in the car one day and driving solo up to Alaska. That was 20 years ago. In the last decade, she began visiting the big island of Hawaii for extended stays, upwards of months each year. She still returns often to the Southwest to visit family, always finding her way back to Fairbanks.

"I'm susceptible to landscape. A large part of what is spiritual comes through the land. I love paying attention to it, infusing it in my dream world and ultimately, always, in my writing," says the poet by phone from somewhere on the big island this winter.

She qualifies, "To be outside the literary centers is good. I'd be a different writer if I'd stayed in the desert or in just one landscape only to find what's resonant there."

Shumaker didn't know a soul in Fairbanks when she was invited to begin her teaching career at the University of Alaska in 1985. She'd earned her MFA in creative writing at the UA. She taught in unconventional classrooms with students including prison inmates, deaf adults, teen parents, gang members, the young and the old.

Her books of poems include Underground Rivers, along with Wings Moist From the Other World and Esperanza's Hair. Her nonfiction prose has been published in anthologies and journals, and a new book of lyrical nonfiction is due out this year. Until she retired from academic teaching, she was chair of the English department and director of the MFA creative writing program at the University of Alaska. Now she spends her time teaching in the low-residency Rainier Writing Workshop.

Shumaker was wholly unprepared for that first geographic dyslexia. She possessed no closed-toed shoes, no winter coat.

"The darkness is beautiful and maybe more daunting than the cold. But the vastness made me feel right at home, like the desert, where I'd lived nearly my entire life."

And she was surprised at the landscape's effect on her writing.

"The poems came so fast. I was suspicious of the pace. But I wrote almost an entire book in that first year. In a way, it was an archetypal story: a stranger comes to town, or maybe it was more akin to a young woman leaves her village."

Shumaker's newest book of poems blazes. In fact, it's called Blaze. Blaze is a collaboration between Shumaker and the painter Kesler Woodward, who also spent a long stretch living in Alaska, but now lives in Washington. The two professors danced around the idea of working on a text-image project for years.

Their book is stunning at every turn. It blazes with a quietness and an intimacy and, oddly, an exultation.

The paintings were done in response to the death of one of Woodward's students, who was killed by a drunk driver. All are close-ups. Small frames zoom in on a tree trunk ragged with peeling bark. They have a gnashed, visceral feel as if violence had intruded upon this natural world. There's grief in these brush strokes.

But there's not just one event of grief inside these paintings and within Shumaker's poetry that alternate by pages.

"Realize that last summer, 5 million acres of Alaska burned. There was a huge pall of smoke in the air. So that whole stanza in 'Blaze' came out of grief, both mine for the forest and Kesler's for his student.

"But there are intentional wounds: the image of a blaze on a tree; the metaphor of direction, of where we're going; but also the wound of language," says Shumaker about both her words and Woodward's images.

Shumaker's poetry is stark, like the landscape. The poems she offers are short, spare, precise--a gem, polished. Two pieces bookend the manuscript. "Blazes" launches the words into the images.

Wounds we inflict / on white bark of a birch / to show those who follow / which way / we passed. Cut deep enough / to show us / maybe the way home.

The title poem, "Blaze," toward the end of the book, again reminds of wounds: Blue blaze-- / beyond any map. / More than one life- / time's gash, white bark / barked, love's deep / continent not yet / surveyed. One breath, / two. Fresh snow in the air, / not fallen.

"A line break for me is the length of a breath, the length of an idea, the length of an interrupted idea," says Shumaker.

"Each line as a unit needs a reason to exist. Realize that letters, lines, stanzas--these are the poet's tools. It's all so potent. There's a position of power at the end of the line as well as at the beginning."

Not knowing what a poem is about is not a lack, explains Shumaker. At first glance, her poems illustrate moments in time in the natural world. Delve closer, and they reveal the intimacy of two lives, perhaps after something has cut between them.

"I had a critic from the city say once that what I write is exotica. 'But wait, it's where I live, the desert, the vastness!' I exclaimed. It seemed unfair to dismiss my writing as such."

Shumaker says her greatest hope is that the reader will get some inkling of her perceptions, but that's not always controllable.

Nor is where and how a book is conceived. Five years ago, Shumaker and her husband were plowed down on a bike path by a young man on a speeding ATV. Just Breathe Normally, her first book of lyrical nonfiction, was born after a span where she could not write or even read:

"Writing through trauma has led me to examine issues of mortality, genealogy and how we treat each other as humans."

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