Until people started yelling in the hall, banging on her door and ringing her phone off the hook, it was a normal day at Mary Washington College for poetry professor Claudia Emerson. When she realized that the word in the hall was that she had won the Pulitzer Prize, she didn't believe it. So she barricaded herself in her office, scrolled down the page of the Associated Press Web site, and there was her name, winner of the 2006 prize. Her family called an emergency party. Food and flowers began to arrive. It became, as she says, "a crazy day."
For Emerson, the Pulitzer has been like a disco with a loud, pulsing beat, strobe lights and confetti. Prior to the spotlight, she already loved her job, her husband and her life. These were things that did not need the intervention of fame to be improved upon.
"But," she says, "there are some ways that the disruptions -- I shouldn't call them that have been good for me. Before the Pulitzer, I wasn't much of a traveler." She's received dozens of invitations to attend conferences, sit on panels and make speeches. Mary Washington has given her a distinguished chair and lightened her course load from four classes to two, allowing her to attend to all of the ensuing duties of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. But she also found it disconcerting to have something so personal get national attention.
Like "Late Wife," her two previous books, "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," and "Pinion: An Elegy," were published as part of the Southern Messenger Series, edited by Dave Smith, an award-winning poet and founding member of Virginia Commonwealth University's graduate creative writing program. But with a series of sonnets involving divorce, death, love and remarriage, "Late Wife" is by far Emerson's most personal work and has resonated with more people than Emerson ever imagined.
Chatham-born Emerson went to University of Virginia, received a bachelor's in English and married when she returned to her hometown. She received an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon Woman's College and Washington and Lee before being hired at Mary Washington in 1998. She divorced at 42 and then, quite suddenly, remarried at 43. "It was a matter of chance and opportunity," says Emerson. "It was a surprise, but right away we were good friends."
Now 51, Emerson spends much of her time writing music with her husband, renowned bluegrass and ragtime musician Kent Ippolito.
But it was poetry that helped Emerson navigate the way out of a dying first marriage, breathe life into her second marriage and forge a new life with a man who was grieving his first wife, who had recently died of cancer. "I think sometimes poets are drawn to a kind of distillation and ordering of language because it is a way to order emotional hardship or chaos. The tighter something is, the more it helps to remake it into art," says Emerson.
Section IV of the poem "Natural History Exhibits" sets the stage for the rest of the poems: "I know now I should have killed the snake/and hung its long body as straight in death/as the glistening barrel of a gun. I was young/new in my marriage-bed, but regret was already/sunk sharp in me."
The poems in "Late Wife," Emerson says, are "sort of sonnet ghosts," because the words hang loosely around the form. "I wanted to use restraint with the poems. For 'Late Wife,' it was a very reassuring thing to have that form." She tries to determine what form will be appropriate every time she writes.
She's now completing a book with the working title "Figure Studies," based on her experiences attending and teaching at schools for girls or women. It's divided into sections and is told from different points of view, including that of children and the third person plural. Some of the poems are lyrical; some are surreal; the school is imaginary.
"I wanted to take a break from first person singular, and that became the beginning of the whole book," she says. She is also five poems into another book about her family, not yet titled. But one thing Emerson can take to the bank: When she is ready to present her new work, the literary world will be ready to receive it. S
Claudia Emerson will be at the James River Writers Conference at the Library of Virginia Sept. 28-29, along with authors Sheri Reynolds, Eric Van Lustbader and others. Tickets are $85 for one day or $155 for both. Visit www.jrwf.org or call 230-4575 for details.