By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH
Students and faculty from the department of English, linguistics, and communication came together to read poetry and honor the life and work of the late Claudia Emerson on Thursday, Jan. 15.
The faculty read their favorite poems by Emerson, 32 total, in a packed Combs 139. These poems included selections from the book “Late Wife,” which won Emerson the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2006.
In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Emerson was also awarded the title Poet Laureate of Virginia in 2008 by then-Governor Tim Kaine. Emerson held the position for two years.
A reception funded by UMW President Hurley followed the event.
The poems “The X-Rays” and “MRI,” which described Emerson’s battle with cancer, were received with hushed silences. By the end of the event, some in the audience were in tears.
English Professor and former Creative Writing Coordinator Warren Rochelle led the event and spoke about attending graduate school with Emerson. Both attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in their 30s and were among the oldest in their classes.
“We jumped off the cliff together,” Rochelle said after the event.
According to Rochelle, Emerson had formerly been a mail carrier and discovered poetry later in life. She spent most of her money to attend to UNC at Greensboro.
“That was how much she wanted to take the risk,” said Rochelle.
Emerson received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and later became a professor, coming to UMW in 1994 and staying to teach for over 15 years. She left the university in 2013 to become a member of the creative writing faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“She taught students how to find beauty in the ordinary, through saying it as simply as possible.” -Moira McAvoy.
Emerson passed away on Dec. 4, 2014 from complications associated with colon cancer.
UMW alumna Upma Kapoor created the Facebook page for Thursday’s event and remembered taking Emerson’s poetry classes, where she and other students’ preconceptions of poetry were changed.
“A lot of people come into class hating poetry,” said Kapoor. “She taught me how to trust my own writing voice. A lot of people don’t listen to their own voice, especially in college.”
Emerson was instrumental in forming the creative writing concentration at UMW, along with professors Rochelle and Steve Watkins, and she was also appointed the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry.
Emerson was the most formative in the classroom. She wrote simply and taught her students to find wonder in ordinary events, according to senior English and linguistics double major Moira McAvoy.
“When people talk about contemporary poetry, they talk about not looking at the extraordinary but at the ordinary. She taught students how to find beauty in the ordinary, through saying it as simply as possible,” McAvoy said.
According to department members, Emerson’s warmth and honesty has continued to make an impact on faculty and students.
“People who had the great fortune of meeting her left feeling that she was very grounded. It came through her poetry. Her cadence reflected who she was as a person,” said Assistant Professor of English Jon Pineda.
McAvoy also asserted that Emerson was a supportive professor, able to be helpful and critical when needed.
“She was by far the most supportive person I have ever met,” McAvoy said. “But she wasn’t afraid to offer criticism.”
Emerson advocated for students and writers even after they left the university. Brad Efford, who graduated from UMW in 2010, was one of Emerson’s students. He read at the Thursday Poems event.
“I had gone to graduate school and had gotten my first job on her recommendation,” said Efford.
At the event, Efford honored Emerson by reading her poem “Aftermath.”
“‘Aftermath’ is definitely a favorite of mine,” said Efford. “I always keep it in my wallet. I always have it with me, and I’ll pull it out occasionally to read it.”
The event offered a venue for students and faculty who knew Emerson to remember the legacy she had left behind as a poet, teacher and friend.
“I will miss her,” Rochelle said.