Claudia Emerson, Pulitzer-winning poet, dies at 57

Claudia Emerson, 57, received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2006.

Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2014 12:19 pm

By ZACHARY REID Richmond Times-Dispatch

Claudia Emerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate of Virginia, died early Thursday from complications associated with colon cancer. She was 57. Ms. Emerson had been a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University since 2013, but she made her name, and won her Pulitzer, while teaching at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. She was honored in 2006 for her collection “Late Wife” and later served as Virginia’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2010. She also won a 2011 Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to travel to Italy to pursue a poetry project about mummies. “I never knew what the soul of a poet was until I knew Claudia,” said former state Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, who’d known Ms. Emerson since her childhood in her native Chatham. “She was a loving soul, a creative mind and had the ability to express herself in ways not many of us can. This has hit us really hard down here.” Ms. Emerson credited her childhood in Southside Virginia with sparking an interest in writing that never subsided. “I may not always be the smartest person in the room, but I am the most curious,” she said in a September interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. For years, she did her exploring at Mary Washington, where she taught undergraduate students how to express themselves in words. “She had a deep, abiding love for her students and their success,” said Teresa Kennedy, an English professor at Mary Washington who was department chairwoman when Ms. Emerson was there. “A lot of people think of poetry as some kind of voodoo that has no rhyme or reason. She made it reasonable for her students.” Ms. Emerson moved to VCU in 2013 to work with graduate students. She was not on campus for long, but she made a fast, lasting impact. “Claudia Emerson was more than the sum of her many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize,” Katherine Bassard, the chairwoman of the VCU Department of English, said in a statement. “She was simply the most alive, gracious, and courageous human being I have ever met. Incredibly funny and down to earth, she lived and loved life to the fullest. And she loved every minute of being at VCU. Her dedication to her students and her craft were unquestioned and she will be desperately missed by her family, friends, colleagues and students.” Jim Coleman, the dean of VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, said the impact of Ms. Emerson’s loss would spread far and wide. “Claudia’s passing will not only be difficult for her family, friends, current and former students and colleagues, but I am saddened to think of the countless students who could have otherwise been transformed as people and as writers by her passion for teaching the art of poetry,” he said in a statement. “I feel an empty hole as I’m one of the thousands, if not millions of people, who, when we turn to literary arts for profound, joyful and meaningful journeys into what it means to be human, will yearn for just a little more of her amazing skill at creating mesmerizing, deeply honest and accessible art with words.” *** In the September interview with The Times-Dispatch, Ms. Emerson said she came to Richmond to escape the suburban sprawl creeping into Fredericksburg and to work with advanced students. Instead, she spent much of her time in Richmond battling colon cancer. “She had been treated for cancer in Fredericksburg and we thought that was cleared,” said her husband, Harry Kent Ippolito. “It came as such a surprise,” she said in September. “I’ve always been a really active person. I don’t know how to be frail.” Ms. Emerson spent most of her life being tough and independent. After earning a degree in English at the University of Virginia in 1979, she returned to Chatham and found herself driving a rural mail route. But at age 28, somewhere along that 86-mile route, she discovered who she really was. “I was a poet,” she said in her office at VCU, where she taught poetry in the English department. “Until then, I’d thought about writing songs or short stories. But I realized I was a poet.” With “an armor of naivety,” she said, she went back to college. In 1991, she earned a master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In the years since, she became one of the most honored, decorated and revered poets in Virginia history. “I think Claudia is one of the finest American poets of her generation,” David Wojahn, a creative writing instructor at VCU, said in September. “W.H. Auden said more poets fail for lack of character than lack of talent. Claudia has plenty of character.” Ms. Emerson called winning the Pulitzer a complete surprise. “It’s just not one of those things you think about,” she said. “It brought a lot of attention. I was happy with my career before.” While Ms. Emerson lived in Richmond briefly, the move proved to be a creative spark. She completed two volumes of new poetry, both of which are scheduled to be published by the Louisiana State University press next year. When those come out, she will have had seven published volumes. The last, she said in September, includes material related to her battle against cancer and was the toughest to write. “I was always a healthy, active person,” she said. “I loved long-distance running. Now I don’t think I could walk a mile and a half.” Emerson’s creative output includes “Late Wife,” published in 2005; “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” (1997); “Pinion: An Elegy” (2002), “Figure Studies: Poems” (2008); and “Secure the Shadow” (2012). “The Opposite House” is scheduled to be published in March, and Emerson’s last collection should come out next fall. Two more Emerson collections, “Impossible Bottle” and another untitled one, are expected to be published, her husband said. Other survivors include her mother, Mollie Emerson of Chatham. Arrangements are incomplete for memorial services to be held at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond and Chatham Presbyterian Church in Chatham. (804) 775-8179