Poetry picked her
Claudia Emerson didn’t expect to be a poet, much less a prize winner.
Photo courtesy of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.
Claudia Emerson had been out of the academic world for 10 years — since her undergraduate years at Virginia.
She had worked as a rural mail carrier, run a small-town bookshop and read meters for the natural gas company in her native Pittsylvania County.
Emerson returned to school in 1989, studying for a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was back in the academy.
“It just changed everything,” she says. “I became a born-again student.”
She also became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Emerson (English ’79) surprised herself as much as the literary world earlier this year by winning the Pulitzer for her third collection of poetry, “Late Wife.” She’s a Southern woman, far from what she calls “the engines of the literary world.”
“I was not supposed to win the Pulitzer Prize,” she says.
“Late Wife” is touched by an uncommon grace. It is an autobiographical meditation on loss and recovery, but it never veers into sentiment, bitterness or confession.
It was not an easy line to walk for Emerson, who is both the “late wife” of a failed first marriage and the successor to a deceased wife in a second.
“I was really trying to rein it in,” she says. “I’m no dummy. I knew it was dangerous.”
Her second husband, Fredericksburg musician Kent Ippolito, helped Emerson renew a talent for songwriting that she showed when she was an undergraduate at Virginia from 1975 to 1979.
They are writing songs together at their home in Fredericksburg, where Emerson is an associate professor of English at the University of Mary Washington.
She has taught at Mary Washington since 1998, the year after her first book, “Pharoah, Pharoah,” was published. She published a second poetry collection, “Pinion: An Elegy,” in 2002.
“Pinion” grew from work in folklore that she had begun as an undergraduate student of Professor Charles L. Perdue at U.Va.
In those days, Emerson had no glimpse of poetry in her future. Her interests then ranged from novels and short stories to creative nonfiction.
She was 28 when “poetry picked me.” She had returned to her native Chatham, in southern Virginia, and married a longtime sweetheart who was rooted in the rural life there.
The turning point was her return to academic life. She earned her master’s degree in 1991 and began teaching. “I really believed if I tried hard at becoming a teacher, it was going to come to something,” she says.
Emerson taught for three years at Washington and Lee University, often commuting from Lexington to another job at Danville Community College with only a short pause at home in Chatham. She remembers teaching students at the community college who arrived from jobs in the local textile mills with lint clinging to their hair.
“Those years, I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” she says.
Emerson also taught at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg and worked as academic dean at Chatham Hall, a girls’ school that matriculated painter Georgia O’Keeffe more than a century ago.
She arrived at Mary Washington to discover that she had left her marriage behind. She met Ippolito the next year and married eight months later.
Emerson wasn’t entirely comfortable with the attention that the Pulitzer brought to what she called “my kind of quiet career.”
The attention, however, has led to more space in her teaching demands and time to work on poems for a fourth book, one that promises to spring from her experiences at Chatham Hall.
Given a past that includes a stint on the rural route, Emerson says, “It seems miraculous that I’m here.”