The Power of Place 

VCU’s Pulitzer-winning poet is never bored and always watching.

click to enlarge Chatham-born poet Claudia Emerson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection, “Late Wife: Poems.” She now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Scott Elmquist

Chatham-born poet Claudia Emerson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection, “Late Wife: Poems.” She now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Claudia Emerson's study is a small, sun-washed room at the rear of her house in the Woodland Heights neighborhood. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet creates her work on a small desk, on paper covered with tiny writing.

"I love it here," says the former poet laureate of Virginia while she scans the trees in her backyard. Her study has a spare clutter to it. There are antique pictures of a girl sleeping with a dog beside her. A doll in a blue dress boasts a button stating "Poetry."

Emerson, who came to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University from Fredericksburg last summer, is one of the most highly regarded poets in the country. The 57-year-old is praised for her finely honed and sharply detailed poems that can deal with death, birds, turtles and divorce.

"What I like about her is her exquisitely crafted, beautifully and thoughtfully made [work]," says professor David Wojahn, [former] director of creative writing at the university. "She recounts the difficult traumas and struggles in human experience and offers us consolation. That's rare for a poet to do."

Emerson taught at the University of Mary Washington for 15 years. But fearful of potential cuts in arts classes, she applied to VCU, where she has many friends and has taught from time to time. Although her first semester was marred by serious illness — her cancer, which had been in remission, returned — she says she's having a fine time. "The kids are great," she says. "They are earnest and aren't afraid to make mistakes."

Staying in Virginia made absolute sense. She grew up in Chatham in rural South Side known for its dairy farms, tobacco fields and potential for uranium mining. She got her cool eye for detail from her father, who owned a furniture store.

"One thing that defined my father was that he was never bored and was always curious," she says. "When he was little, he didn't have any books. He only went to the seventh grade, but if he was curious about a bird and saw the nest, he would climb up to see what the eggs looked like. I am very much like that. I am not easily bored. I do an immense amount of observing and poking around before turning it into a poem."

She attended Chatham Hall, a private girls' school, before going to the University of Virginia and moving back to Chatham. Married young, she and her first husband, a documentary photographer, lived in a series of farmhouses that they fixed in lieu of paying rent. Rural life provided close-up observations of animals, plants and the seasons.

She held a series of jobs and finally some steered her towards writing. She worked at a bookstore part of the day, and because there weren't many customers she ended up reading a lot. Later in the day, she worked as a rural mail carrier.

"Riding around gave me a lot of time to think," she says.

Next came graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she started to write seriously. Teaching gigs at Chatham Hall, Lynchburg College, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Washington and Lee University, and Danville Community College followed.

Her first of five books, "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," was published by Louisiana State University Press, which also put out "Pinion, an Elegy," "Figure Studies: Poem" and "Secure the Shadows: Poems." She's been a contributor to Shenandoah, a literary website at Washington and Lee, and Blackbird at VCU.

She says her big surprise was "Late Wife: Poems," a work she wrote as a series of missives involving her former husband and musician Kent Ippolito, who lost his first wife to cancer and whom she married in 2000. One poem describes cancer:

By the time they saw what they were
looking at
it was already risen into the bones
of her chest. They could show you
then
the lungs
were white with it; they said it was
like
salt
in water — that hard to see as separate —
and would be that hard to remove.

She was teaching at Mary Washington one day in April 2006 when the phones started to ring with reporters asking her how it felt to win the Pulitzer Prize.

"I just freaked out," she recalls. "I didn't know how to describe it."

She raced to her house with some students and colleagues and "held an emergency party." Later she attended a luncheon at Columbia University, where prize winners were given Tiffany bags with their names on them. "I just couldn't wait to see what was inside," she says. It held a crystal prism in commemoration.

More accolades came. She was named the state's poet laureate from 2008 to 2010 by former Gov. Tim Kaine and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011.

Her next book, "Opposite House" will be published by LSU Press in 2015. For now, she's digging in at her teaching job at VCU. She says she's happy to be around such creative writing colleagues as Wojahn and another recent arrival, Harrison Fletcher, who's married to Style Weekly's news editor, Tina Griego. "He trained as a journalist and now he's a creative nonfiction writer," she says. "I told him about my process and he said that's a lot like being a journalist, the way I go at it."

In some ways her move to Richmond was oddly fortuitous. A cancer survivor, Emerson learned after she moved here that the disease had come back. Had she been in Fredericksburg, she probably would have had to go to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.

But Richmond has the Massey Cancer Center, where she underwent surgery. Her prognosis is good. "People used to make fun of me being a jogger," she says, "but let me tell you that being in shape helped me through the ordeal." She runs regularly in James River Park just down a bluff from her home.

Eventually, she sees herself retiring near her home in Pittsylvania County. But she's concerned that a large deposit of uranium might be mined eventually, and that would seriously endanger the local environment. She's fought against the mining and written poetry about it. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said he will veto any legislation ending Virginia's three-decades-long ban on uranium mining. Low uranium prices also have put the project on hold.

It's a part of the South she deeply loves. "It is such a haunted and troubled place," she says. "A lot of our troubles are out and about. You know it for what it is. I am moved by the context of where we are. You notice I am right here by the James River, and that's going to show up in my work." S

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