UMW Professor and Poet, Claudia Emerson

 From the Archives: For a 2003 article, Claudia Emerson discussed her teaching and writing, including the work then in progress, Late Wife, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on April 17, 2006. (Photo of Claudia Emerson by Kent Ippolito)

To hear Claudia Emerson read from Late Wife, visit the University of Mary Washington's podcasting site.


Claudia Emerson, professor of English at Mary Washington College, has received much acclaim for her work, Pinion: An Elegy (2002). Praised by critics as enchanting and a marvel, Pinion is a long poem about four siblings---Preacher, Sister, Rose, and Nate --- and their duty to each other and their home, a Southern tobacco farm.

Set in the 1920s, the poem tells the story of how Preacher and Sister are tied to their roles on the farm after their mother gives birth to Rose, her change-of-life baby. Their mother dies shortly after. Preacher battles his feelings of bitterness as he remains on the farm to provide for his family. Sister resigns herself to a maternal duty for the family and never leaves the farm. Nate's voice is silent and readers only experience him through Preacher's perspective on his younger brother. Rose, the only family member who escapes the farm, allows the hushed voices of Preacher and Sister to speak through her, as narrator of the text. "I think we all have roles we're born to, the dynamics that bind us," Emerson says. "These aren't necessarily bad things, just realities."

While Emerson's writing has won awards, from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, writing hasn't always been the center of her life. Emerson received her undergraduate degree in English in 1979, but didn't begin to write seriously until she turned 28. During that time she worked as a substitute teacher, a librarian, a rural letter carrier, and the owner of a used bookshop. At age 32, she enrolled in the MFA program at UNC in Greensboro. "I thought at the time I would teach or do publishing and editing; I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be a better writer."

After graduating with an MFA in creative writing, Emerson juggled her desire to write with teaching. "When I was writing Pinion, I was at three different schools doing adjunct teaching and I wanted something bigger to hold onto. So, I came up with the character of Preacher and, then, later I did Sister."

The most challenging part of writing, for Emerson, is the work it takes to publish a book. She spent three and a half years writing Pinion and a year and a half revising her work. Not only was she writing and revising, she was also teaching about 80 students, getting remarried, buying a house, and doing service work at the college.

Emerson's dedication to her students takes much of her time. "One challenging part about writing now is teaching and writing because both take creative energy and I love what I do in the classroom; I'm very engaged. I really want everybody to grow as writers and that takes an immense amount of time and energy." It isn't easy for her to find time to devote to her writing. Therefore, she combines both of her careers.

During the fall, Emerson teaches a poetry class and expects her students to write 10 to 12 polished poems throughout the semester. However, she writes her poetry at the same time, "and I'm teaching just as much as they're studying so I sort of keep pace with them, bring in my poems and read them, which helps me."

Much of her work is inspired by personal experience. While writing Pinion, she identified with all three characters at different points. When she wrote Preacher, she was in an unhappy marriage and, as the provider, felt alone and bitter. "He's angry, and I think I was angry, but couldn't say it out loud, so it came through him." She wrote Sister's character while going through a divorce and moving to Fredericksburg. She was playing the role of the dutiful daughter and taking care of her aging parents, resigning herself to the belief that she wouldn't marry again. After meeting her current husband and establishing herself at Mary Washington College, "I suddenly turned into Rose, the narrator who could tell the story, but get away."

Emerson's environment influences her writing. The setting in her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), and Pinion mirror the landscape of her hometown, Chatham, Virginia. She describes herself as "very, very influenced by my surroundings, which in some ways is a strength and in others a failing, but I definitely write out of the landscape."

Her current work, Late Wife, contains scenes from Fredericksburg, including one poem about jogging on the battlefields and another entitled, "Orthopedic Injuries of the War." She believes that it's almost finished, with only one poem left to write before completion. However, she warns that "I always think that and a year later I'm still editing." Emerson hopes Late Wife will reach publication by 2005.

Emerson offers this advice to aspiring writers: "Grow a thick skin. Each generation needs its artists and writers, so remain sensitive to art and the world, but be prepared to handle its disappointments. It's a lot of work, but you can't let that get to you. You have to remember that you can't always win the prizes. That comes and goes."