By Susannah Clark
UMW Professor Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2006, knew several months ago that she was being considered for the position of Virginia’s poet laureate. However, her father’s failing health pushed any thoughts about the honor to the back of her mind.
“[The nomination] was right around that time that my father died so I honestly forgot all about it,” she said earlier this week in her office at Mary Washington, where she serves as the Arrington Distinguished Chair of Poetry. Even though her father was not there to celebrate the news with her, Emerson’s mother expressed great pride.
“My mother was thrilled. She’s 83 years old and still lives in my hometown,” Emerson said. “It just made her weak.”
Governor Tim Kaine officially announced his selection of Claudia Emerson as poet laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, on Tuesday, Aug. 26. The poet laureate is selected by the Governor from a list of nominees compiled by the Poetry Society of Virginia. The poet serves a two-year term.
Along with the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Late Wife, Emerson has won many fellowships and awards for her poetry, including the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Witter Bynner fellowship from the Library of Congress. She has taught at UMW since 1998 and was awarded the Alumni Association Outstanding Young Faculty Award in 2003.
Emerson has kept the news of her latest honor to herself for the past two weeks.
“It was maybe two weeks ago that Governor Kaine’s office called and left a message for me to call back,” she said. “I can’t imagine any other reason why the Governor’s office would call me, so I called back and they told me that he had chosen me. I was honored to accept. I had to fill out a lot of paper work and send that in. It’s not ‘official official’ until the Governor announces it, so I had to wait to tell anyone.”
Emerson is particularly honored to work for Governor Kaine. “I think Tim Kaine is a good governor,” she said. “He’s done a good job. To be picked by someone I admire is just nice. Also, last fall I was at the State Library Literary Awards receiving an award in Richmond, and Tim Kaine was there to present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Tom Wolfe. He spoke beautifully about Tom Wolfe and his career. It is clear that he is a good reader and that he is interested in the arts. It was double the honor.”
Newly appointed UMW President Judy Hample praised Emerson’s achievements in an email to the Bullet: “On behalf of the UMW community, I congratulate Professor Emerson. Claudia’s prolific creative abilities continue to bring recognition to her and distinction to the University of Mary Washington. We are deeply honored to have a colleague with such breadth and depth of talent.”
The outgoing poet laureate, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, graduated from Mary Washington College in 1969 and was named Alumna of the Year in 2007. Emerson has been emailing with Kreiter-Foronda since her nomination.
“After I was nominated I told Carolyn that I have a full-time job and am already busy with a lot of professional commitments and community things,” Emerson said. “She told me that that’s what a poet laureate should do: promote poetry about awareness about it.”
Emerson says her workload will not change. Though she is currently on sabbatical, she plans to continue to help organize readings and other events in Fredericksburg and other parts of the state, and to continue to be a presence in the University community.
“The state of VA just has really wonderful writing programs and a lot of wonderful poets who live right here,” she said.
She also expressed her continuing commitment to UMW’s creative writing department. “I’m hoping to plan an event on campus this spring with visiting poets,” she said. “I’ll have to see how much funding we’ll have. That’s something I have in the back of my mind—to be not just about me but about Mary Washington too.”
Associate Professor of English Warren Rochelle is especially excited about the positive pull this achievement has for the new creative writing program at UMW.
He said in an e-mail, “I think a creative writing program is best served by practicing writers, and this honor calls attention to the quality of instruction that students receive in the program and it provides a living and dynamic example of the working poet and of poetry as a living and vital art form. We are even more visible on the literary and academic map.”
Though prestigious, the position of poet laureate for the Commonwealth of Virginia does not come with a stipend or any other form of monetary compensation.
“As far as I know it’s unpaid,” she said. “I will not earn any money as the poet laureate, in that way it’s honorary. I am someone so fortunate and this gives me a way to give back.”