Erika Mumford was born on February 10, 1935 in Geneva, Switzerland. Her father, Gerhart Jentsch,came from Langenbielau, Silesia in Germany. Her mother, Mary Hunt, was from Louisville, Kentucky. They met when Gerhart was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 20’s and married in Paris in 1926. Gerhart ran a student exchange program with his partner John Rothschild until World War II came. He took Mary, Erika and her younger brother Jerry back to Germany in January 1940.
The story of what happened and how they survived is told in Mary’s memoir Trek. In 1946, her parents divorced and Erika, aged eleven years old, emigrated to the United States with her mother and brother. They lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. Erika graduated from Radcliffe College and received a Ph.D. in comparative mythology from the Celtic Language and Literature Department of Harvard University. She began to write poetry while working on her doctorate. She married David Mumford, a mathematician, in 1959. They had four children: Stephen, Peter, Jeremy and Suchitra.
Erika was an editor of Dark Horse, a poetry newspaper, and she taught at the Frost Place Poetry Festival, at Robert Frost's home in Franconia, New Hampshire. She belonged to the Poetry Society of America and the New England Poetry Club, of which she became a member of the board of directors. She won several awards from the Poetry Society of America. In 1984 her poem “Ashram in Pandukeshwar” won the Poet Lore narrative poetry award, and in 1987 she was co-winner of that award for the poem “The White Rose.”
For her sonnet sequence, “Passage”, she was one of three finalists in the 1985 International Observer-Arvon Foundation poetry competition. In 1986 she was the recipient of a Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fellowship.
She published poems in several anthologies and many journals, and she is the author of four books: The Door in the Forest (Green River Press), Willow Water (Every Other Thursday Press), The Karma Bazaar (Taylor's Point Press) and Words for Myself (Every Other Thursday Press). Erika lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. She and her family also lived for extended periods in France and India, and spent summers on the coast of Maine. These locations provide the settings for many of her poems. From 1980 until her death in 1988 she was a member of the writers' group Every Other Thursday. For several years Erika struggled against the cancer that finally took her life. As she grew sicker, the Every Other Thursday workshops were held at her house, sitting around the hospital bed in her study. She attended the workshop for the last time within ten days of her death on July 30, 1988, and she was writing the poems that appear in Words For Myself up until that time. To the end of her life she remained a working poet, concentrating on her craft and on saying what she needed to say.
During Erika's career as a writer she addressed many themes—nature, travel, India, the Puritans' experience in America, the experience of living in Nazi Germany, her own illness—and throughout, she wrote poems about her family and friends. Her descriptions of her experience of illness and dissolution are remarkable both for their astonishing clarity and for the way she continued to look outward to her family and to the world.
Though she wore her learning lightly and with humor, Erika was a scholarly poet, who had read widely in folklore and world literature. Her breadth of interest and her attention to form are evident in these final poems and fragments, several of which are written in strict rhyming forms. She viewed poetry as a vocation, and at the end she viewed it as a way to keep going. As she says in the poem “Four Babies,”
...I fill my fountain pen,
write myself into the world.