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Donald Junkins, poet who led UMass Amherst creative writing program, dies at 89

Mr. Junkins, on the deck of the family home on Swan's Island, Maine. Permission: His son Dan Junkins provided verbal permission for free use of the family photo.

Donald Junkins was studying at Boston University’s School of Theology in the 1950s, treading along his older brother’s path into the ministry, when he took a poetry seminar taught by Robert Lowell.

The class was a revelation, as were his teacher, classmates, and the poets who visited — among them W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, W.D. Snodgrass, and Allen Tate.

“Anne Sexton was in our class and often the bright center in our discussions,” Mr. Junkins recalled in a 2011 interview with Brad McDuffie.

Trading a future in the pulpit for a career at the front of a classroom, and switching from penning sermons to composing poems, Mr. Junkins devoted his life to literature, including teaching for three decades at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


A former longtime director of the university’s creative writing program, Mr. Junkins was 89 when he died of congestive heart failure Thursday in Irvine, Calif.

He had moved there a year and a half ago with his wife, Kaimei Zheng, after living near Amherst for decades in South Deerfield, Sunderland, and West Deerfield.

A writer who drew often from his sense of place in his family and the region in which he lived, Mr. Junkins published more than 20 books — mostly poetry, along with translations and a pair of novels.

“I’m interested in the way the universe reveals itself to me, not in a grandly philosophical or theological way, but in my own town and my neighbors’ backyards, whether those backyards are literally New England or not,” he said of his writing in a 1986 speech to the UMass Phi Beta Kappa Society.

And yet, Mr. Junkins acknowledged that traces of his theological aspirations and studies might still be present.

“One friend, now gone, once said that I am writing in my poems a spiritual autobiography, a statement from which I certainly do not shrink,” he told McDuffie.


Of a poem in Mr. Junkins’s 1970 collection “And Sandpipers, She Said,” the poet Fanny Howe wrote in a Globe review that “what is most exciting is the sensuality of image, returning the reader to childhood, the first time: words like plum, sand, and dark sound fresh and strange set apart in the poem.”

Mr. Junkins, she said, “has this ability to restore one’s senses, contact with nature, and we should be grateful to him for that.”

In 1984, the Globe’s Christina Robb praised his collection “The Agamenticus Poems,” calling it “a remarkable, pungent, twangy, dramatic, and lyrical exploration of the time of his ancestors’ lives, and the way that time touches him — and us — now.”

In one poem, Mr. Junkins invoked images such as:

The last pale raspberries on my tongue,

And the single daisy by the road;

The clear remembrance of last night’s dream,

The white froth of yesterday’s storm’s wave

“These are fine, memorable poems that speak with the cadence of Maine and the murmur of old broken hearts and old healed ones,” Robb wrote.

Mr. Junkins told McDuffie that “one must always think of writing a poem as a process, a going somewhere, an exploration until the expanding center of itself is revealed. A poem is neither a statement nor a summary, it is an exploration that reveals itself. A poem is lines that open at the end.”


Donald Arthur Junkins was born on Dec. 19, 1931, and grew up in the Lynnhurst section of Saugus. His parents were Ralph Junkins, who worked at the General Electric plant in Lynn, and Evelyn Traumer White, a homemaker.

“He had a very idyllic childhood of playing with his boyhood friends, exploring the area, ice skating on the ponds,” said Mr. Junkins’s son Dan of Boston. “He was probably the golden child because he was the youngest of the three.”

Voted most likely to succeed in his 1948 class at Saugus High School, Mr. Junkins was awarded a scholarship to attend UMass, where he was a defensive halfback.

His final year, he took the only creative writing class offered.

“I had the feeling when I was taking the single senior creative writing course back in the early ’50s in Amherst that writing poems and stories was a mysterious enterprise,” he said in the 2011 interview.

Graduating in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, he went to Alaska with a church group and built a cabin where people could gather and worship.

At BU he received degrees in social ethics and theology, along with a master’s and doctorate, both in American literature, though he always avoided using Dr. as a title. Before joining the UMass faculty in 1966, he taught at BU, Emerson College, and California State University at Chico.

Mr. Junkins married Mardie Luppold, an artist, in 1958. They had three children and their marriage ended in divorce in 1980. She now lives in Shirley.


In 1990, Mr. Junkins met Kaimei Zheng, a UMass graduate student who later was director of information management at the Isenberg School of Management. They married in 1993.

A founding member of The Hemingway Society, Mr. Junkins once discovered and brought to light a previously unpublished story by Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Junkins also had formerly served as poetry editor of the Massachusetts Review, and “was very, very loyal to the university,” said Jules Chametzky, a retired UMass professor and founding editor of the Review.

As a teacher of poetry and writing, he “insisted on your full-time engagement,” Jim Laughlin, who had been one of Mr. Junkins’s graduate students and is now a leadership consultant, said in an interview. “He didn’t want any of us to take the easy route. He set very high expectations and you wanted to meet those expectations, so you worked extra hard.”

In a written tribute last year, poet Bill Billiter recalled his first day as Mr. Junkins’s student, when the class focused on Jorie Graham’s poem “Salmon.”

“I’d never, ever been taught to read a poem that closely, with such attention to line, from a writer’s point of view,” Billiter wrote.

“Frivolous poetry,” Mr. Junkins had told McDuffie, “is merely the wastrel detritus of the casual mind.”

In addition to his wife, his son, and his former wife, Mr. Junkins leaves a daughter, Karn Amiya Junkinsmith of Burien, Wash.; another son, Theodore of Rye, N.Y.; a stepson, Yunwei Chen of St. Louis; and six grandchildren.


Plans for a memorial gathering were not complete.

In a wide-ranging life, Mr. Junkins had been, among other pursuits, “a lumberjack one summer in Martin City, Montana, a fisherman, a runner with the bulls of Pamplona, a fish shacker another summer with a deep-sea fishing family,” Dan wrote in a tribute to his father.

“I was mesmerized by my dad,” he added in an interview. “I loved him. I adored him.”

For many years, Mr. Junkins kept a vacation home on Swan’s Island, Maine, and he featured the place and its people in his poems.

“A poem grows out of infinite patience, and the slight stirring of an inner wind,” he said in the 1986 speech. “Words occur in the inner ear, and magic casements open. Invisible hands move curtains, and more words occur. The poem accepts its own domain.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.