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Claudia Emerson’s Poetry Wins New Fans Nationwide

She holds the publishing world’s top award in her hands … the Pulitzer Prize … an honor which transforms the life of the recipient.  She is not just any poet.  She is the best of the best, an artist in rare company, and a writer who received a lesser honor on her first submission to the LSU Press many years ago.

“They rejected it,” she said.

Her name is Claudia Emerson, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Late Wife:  Poems, a work which cements her legacy as one of the LSU Press’ most outstanding writers.  The book is rightfully hailed as a masterwork of personal reflection, humming with the concert of linguistic imagination and powerful emotion.  But before becoming the LSU Press’ fourth Pulitzer Prize winner, she had the distinction of joining the much larger group of authors told to try again.

“My mentor in the world of poetry is Betty Adcock, and she’s published her whole career with LSU Press,” said Emerson. “As a Southern poet, LSU is just where you want to be.  It’s just what you aim for.  So Betty recommended my first volume to the Press, and it was rejected.  I was absolutely devastated, but (Adcock) said … ‘No, no … we’ll just keep working on it and you’re going to keep going.’  And I look back on that now, and I’m really happy that LSU turned that book down when they did, because it wasn’t as good as it turned out to be.”

That book, Pharoah, Pharoah, became the foundation of a decade-long relationship between Emerson and LSU, which is only now reaching its zenith with the popular and critical success of Late Wife.

Emerson admits that Late Wife is by far the most personal work she has ever attempted, as each poem has its basis in an episode from Emerson’s deepest relationships.  The collection of poems is broken into three parts.  The first part chronicles her divorce from her husband of 20 years, focusing on their life together in rural Virginia.  The second section reveals her rediscovery as an independent person.  The third is a touching series of poems to her new husband, who lost his first wife to lung cancer.  In each division, Emerson reveals an inner character affected by the sadness of the past, yet steeled by optimism.  The result is a work that will draw the reader deep into Emerson’s heart, as she mourns a vanishing marriage and finds joy in a new life.

Emerson said even though readers see a far more personal side of her than ever before in Late Wife, she remained focused on the poems, carefully choosing what to reveal, and what to keep secret.  “The poems aren’t strict autobiography in that I don’t tell everything,” she said.  “This book was a lesson in what’s personal versus what’s private.  I tried to choose very carefully where I thought the metaphor would be in a situation.”

Late Wife is a clinic in the use of transformative language, as Emerson’s feelings take root in the natural world surrounding her.  Her keen eye for nature was sharpened from her decades of living without electricity in farmhouses where even routine conveniences like heating were hard to come by.

“It was wonderful in many ways,” she said.  “We had five homes in 20 years, and they were all rural Virginia farm houses with wood stoves.  I was a hippie, living out in the country.”

Living the country life, Emerson said, was satisfying to her for a time.  But she began to feel the pull back to the city.  This was one source of the heavy tension apparent in the first section of Late Wife.  “We were going to live far away from any neighbors, and I wanted to do that,” she said, stressing that it was not entirely her husband’s idea.  “But as my life changed and I turned to poetry and I turned to teaching and some other things, that life became very time consuming.  It takes time to get the house winterized, and I didn’t want to spend my time on that anymore.  To be fair to my ex-husband, he didn’t marry the professor-writer.  He married a little hippie bride who he thought would live in the country forever.”

Once Emerson encountered success in graduate school, she felt the draw to become a teacher.  She left the country life behind and began to refine her considerable skills and life experience into a career as a professor and writer.  She now teaches at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Not long after returning to the city, she met her second husband, Kent Ippolito, who became the inspiration for the poems near the end of Late Wife.  Kent’s first wife had died from a long battle with cancer.  For Emerson, filling the void left by Kent’s first wife created strong and unique emotions for her … emotions which would manifest themselves in the section of Late Wife entitled “Letters to Kent.”  It is this group of poems of which Emerson says she is most proud.

“I didn’t think I’d write about it,” she said, conceding that in some ways the situation confused her.  “There’s no way I expected him not to love her (his first wife) … and it’s human to want him to love ME,” she said.  “But to come to that place in my life where I can say, ‘you know what?  This is really strange.’  I know how she looked at him, because that’s the way that I look at him.  I know how she felt when she left this world … that she didn’t want to leave him.  And that’s what love is.”

For Kent, he never expected to be the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. But ultimately the beauty of Emerson’s words created a wonderful tribute to his first wife, he said.

“I had plenty of time to get my mind around the fact that somebody could take all of that really horrible stuff and turn it into something really beautiful,” he said.  “So I got to watch this really nice stuff start to grow from my own personal tragedy, and I guess I could have wallowed in that,  but I did see that there was something really beautiful coming from that.  I’ve since talked to a lot of people who’ve known both me and my first wife who have read this book and said what a tribute that book is to my first wife and that’s very gratifying.  It couldn’t be more beautiful.”

The judges for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in poetry could not have agreed more.  When Emerson got the call with the results of the judging, she said everything changed for her.

“We freaked out,” she said.  “I was at school that day and the phone just wouldn’t stop ringing and it was crazy.”

She adds that it might surprise people to know she had never envisioned such a possibility.  “People have asked me, ‘Is this a dream come true?’ and for me, no,” she said.  “I didn’t dream of winning the Pulitzer Prize.  I was delighted to have this book come out with the LSU Press.  I was happy with that.”

Emerson said she has had to get used to her work being exposed to a greater number of readers nationwide. 

“I went through a phase where I felt incredibly vulnerable, because when I wrote this book I thought my audience would be my little Claudia Emerson audience.  I’m a poet, and we just don’t have that kind of big run.  To go from that to national prominence… I had to go back and say, wait, let me read this book again!”

Emerson says most of all, she is happy for her husband Kent, “because something that was so sad for him had turned into something good.”

For now, Emerson is adjusting to new levels of success and enjoying meeting legions of new readers.

“I’ve had a real good experience out on the road with people expressing things,” she said, “I had no idea the book would have the kind of broader audience that it’s had.  I had thought that the book was so personal that it might not do that.  And I’ve also had people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never read a whole volume of poetry before this.  And I read the whole thing…’ This is a good thing for LSU Press and a good thing for all of us.”

LSU is committed to excellence at every level, offering a challenging academic and research environment in one of the most unique cultural settings in the nation. Visit www.foreverlsu.org to assist (the LSU Press) in LSU's path to national prominence. Our goal is to raise $750 million by 2010. Every Tiger can help.

Scott Madere | LSU Foundation | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Summer 2007

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