Maxine Kumin was born Maxine Winokur of Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1925 and educated as a child at a Catholic convent school. She describes herself as an agnostic who believes passionately in poetry. Kumin’s father, Peter Winokur, was a successful pawnbroker. As a teenager, Kumin trained to become an Olympic swimmer, but she abandoned this dream on entrance to Radcliffe College, which lacked suitable training facilities. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and a master’s in 1948, both from Radcliffe, but did not begin writing seriously until her late twenties, when, as a suburban housewife with small children, she turned to poetry for self-gratification. She met the poet Sexton at a writing workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and the two women developed a close personal and professional relationship, each installing an extra telephone line in her home so they could talk at length.
Kumin began her teaching career in 1958 at Tufts University in Massachusetts and has taught as visiting lecturer at Radcliffe, Columbia University, Amherst College, Princeton University, and Bucknell University, among others. She has been on the staffs of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (on numerous occasions) and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and she served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1982. In 1983, she traveled with the United States Information Agency on its Arts America Tour. Her academic appointments include stints at many colleges and universities, and in 1995-1998, she served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She and her husband and three children settled on a horse farm in New Hampshire. In 1998, she sustained injuries during a horse-riding competition that were severe enough that the most frequent outcome is severe disability or death. However, she recovered, and that experience, she says, has contributed to her poetic wisdom.