Claudia Emerson Wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
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JEFFREY BROWN: For Claudia Emerson, the road to the life of a poet wasn’t immediate or self-evident. After college, she was soon married and worked as a mail carrier and in a used bookstore before setting her sights on verse.
For the last eight years, she’s taught English at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Claudia Emerson is the author of three books of poetry; the most recent, “Late Wife,” has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It tells of loves lost through death and divorce and examines a newfound love between a couple who came together later in life.
Claudia Emerson joins us now.
And welcome, and congratulations.
CLAUDIA EMERSON, Pulitzer Prize-Winner in Poetry: Thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: Each poem in this book is a kind of letter to someone, a former husband, your current husband, and to yourself. Tell us how this came about?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Well, I had written two previous books of poems before coming to write this book. And what began it was getting married a second time to a man who was a widower.
And he had lost his first wife to lung cancer, and they had been very happily married. And I began to feel compelled to write about our relationship because of that. I process the world through poetry; it’s how I think about things, emotions, that sort of things.
So I began to write those poems first. And then, from that period, I began to look back on my first marriage and see that there might be poetry there that would also be of value to me.
"Close to the personal"
JEFFREY BROWN: So did you think of them as almost letters, direct address?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Yes. I mean, that's a tricky thing, because when you use "you," I was thinking about a former husband and my husband now, but I also am aware that, in some ways, I'm putting you, the reader, in that seat, as well, or asking you to be with me in the first-person, and maybe relate to some of how I would address that other.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it normal for you to be so personal in your writing?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: No. No.
JEFFREY BROWN: No?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: I think, sometimes when I look back on the earlier work, my autobiography is in there more than I thought it was at the time, but, no, I had never written anything so close to the personal before this book.
JEFFREY BROWN: But in this case, there was the loss you had to address and then the changes that grew out of that?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: That's right. That's right.
Living with loss
JEFFREY BROWN: There's a poem called "Artifact." Tell us about that, and then maybe you could read it for us?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: All right. I began to find meaning in things leftover from both my first marriage and then from Kent's first marriage. And when someone is missing, their possessions take on meaning.
And so where I would run into these things inadvertently, I would be moved to write poems. And this poem is actually pretty much what happened in Kent's life. He lived in...
JEFFREY BROWN: Kent is your current husband.
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Kent is my current husband. He lived in the house where he and Lynn had lived for three years before he decided he had to move on from there. And so I think that the rest of the poem tells the story.
For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same
box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's interesting, of course, the "you" is addressing your current husband, but the "you" of the reader is also allowed in through a kind of clarity.
CLAUDIA EMERSON: That's right. Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that important to you, to give us a way in?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Yes. And when I'm writing the poems, I'm never sure what the audience will be, and how that will work. But with these, what I hoped was that the personal -- I could transcend the personal to let in another reader who might then identify.
Because, even though everyone hasn't lost a partner, either through divorce, or a breakup, or through death, I think everyone has said goodbye along the way. And I hoped that people would be able to relate on that level.
Coming late to poetry
JEFFREY BROWN: As we said in the introduction, you came to poetry in a kind of roundabout way, but something did finally drive you to it?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Right. Well, the story I tell is I was a part-time rural letter-carrier, a rolling P.O. in Pennsylvania County, Southside, part time...
JEFFREY BROWN: Southside, Virginia.
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Southside, Virginia. And I was also managing a used bookstore in Danville, Virginia. And not very many people came into that bookstore, so my life was an interesting one of being bound in this shop with lots of books, and then sometimes getting out on the mail route, and being alone all day long, looking at the landscape.
And two books were traded in to the bookstore that had profound -- lots were traded in, but two had a profound impact on me. One was Rainer Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." And the other was an autobiography-memoir by May Sarton called "Journal of a Solitude."
And those two books really had an impact on getting me to think about poetry again as a practitioner, because I had studied literature at UVA when I was younger, but had not written very much poetry. I had written songs; I tried short stories, that kind of thing.
But I began to write furiously in those two years, often a poem a day, which I don't do anymore, and I decided to think about graduate school.
Lessons on writing poetry
JEFFREY BROWN: And from there to here, a Pulitzer Prize is quite a journey?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Yes, it's been a long one. It doesn't seem so long now, but it's been a pretty long one.
JEFFREY BROWN: You're a teacher?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, I want to ask you, as a teacher, what's the main lesson that you try to impart to students about writing poetry?
CLAUDIA EMERSON: If they want to do it, if they are compelled to do it, they should do it. I've had people ask me, "How can I encourage people to write poetry when there's so little chance of, quote, unquote, 'making it'?"
But it has made my life better to write poetry. It can be cathartic; and it can be beautiful and reach people. And I do encourage my students to try it, to read it, to get inside the genre and see if that's what they want to do.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Claudia Emerson, congratulations again. And thank you.
CLAUDIA EMERSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.