John Shoptaw was raised in the Missouri Bootheel, the state's poverty belt, where his first jobs included picking cotton and stacking lumber in the local mill. He began college at Southeast Missouri State Teachers' College, and graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, with a degree in physics. He returned as a special student, and received undergraduate degrees in English and Comparative Literature. Upon graduating, he won the University award in Greek and Latin language. Shoptaw attended graduate school at Harvard University, winning there a Merit and a Whiting Fellowship. He received his PhD from Harvard in English and American Literature. His dissertation, on the poetry of John Ashbery, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, was rewritten and published by Harvard University Press. After graduating from Harvard, he taught in the English Department at Princeton University, where he received a Mellon Preceptorship, and at Yale University, before he transferred with his wife (a professor in Classics at Yale) and daughter to the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley, where he now teaches American poetry and poetry writing. Since his study on Ashbery, he has published articles in the lyric theory (e.g., "Lyric Cryptography," Poetics Today) and on American poetry (e.g., "Listening to Dickinson," Representations).
Since joining the UC Berkeley English Department, Shoptaw has shifted his primary focus to creative writing. He completed the libretto for Our American Cousin, a full-length opera composed by Eric Sawyer. He is currently finishing his first book of poems, Navigator, a sequence dwelling on the Mississippi River basin, where Shoptaw was born and raised. Some of these poems have been published in journals such as The Chicago Review and New American Writing. He also recently collaborated with Sawyer on a setting of "Itasca," a poem from Navigator recounting the discovery of the source of the Mississippi River, for four choreographed singers and electronics. It premiered at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology.