Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday Muse: Virginia's Poet Laureate

It has made my life better to write poetry.
It can be cathartic; and it can be beautiful and reach people.
~ Claudia Emerson

Today I'm inaugurating a new column, "Monday Muse", to introduce you to Claudia Emerson, Virginia's Poet Laureate. Each Monday I'll highlight a different state's poet. I'm beginning with Virginia because I was born, raised, and live in the state.

Virginia created the position of Poet Laureate, which is codified in the Virginia code, in 1936. The governor selects the appointee for a two-year term (earlier, the state General Assembly did so for a one-year term) from a list of nominees compiled by the Poetry Society of Virginia. Strictly honorary, the position has no defined requirements.

I was unfamiliar with Claudia Emerson's poetry until I decided to do this column. My research reveals that I've missed some superb poetry.
* * * * *

Claudia Emerson, appointed Virginia's Poet Laureate on August 26, 2008, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection Late Wife: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005). Her other collections include Figure Studies: Poems (LSU Press, 2008), which contains a series of 25 lyric poems;  Pinion: An Elegy (LSU Press, 2002), and Pharaoh, Pharaoh (LSU Press, 1997).

Many, if not most, of Emerson's poems address love and heartbreak, loss and redemption, isolation and solitariness, memory, and identity. They are rich in observances of daily life, and often read as meditations on time. They seem at once both highly personal and universal, narratives we all can recognize.

Here are some examples:

. . . My grandmother, as though by her own design
removed, is buried in the corner, outermost plot,
with no one near, her married name the only sign
she belongs. . . .
~ from "My Grandmother's Plot in the Family Cemetery" in Late Wife

. . . I confess that last house was the coldest
            I kept. In it, I became formless as fog, crossing

the walls, formless as your breath it rose
            from your mouth to disappear in the air above you.

You see, aftermath is easier, opening
            again the wound along its numb scar. . . .
~ from "Aftermath" in Late Wife

It began with the first baby, the house
disappearing threshold by threshold, rooms

milky above the floor only her heel,
the ball of her foot perceived. The one thing real

was the crying: it had a low ceiling
she ducked beneath—but scalable walls. . . .
~ from "Photographer" (The complete poem is here.)

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Emerson's poetry is found in Poetry, The New England Review, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, and numerous other literary magazines and periodicals and in such anthologies as Yellow Shoe Poets, The Made Thing, Buck and Wing: Southern Poetry at 2000, Strongly Spent: 50 Years of Shenandoah Poetry, and Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets of Virginia. She is a contributing editor for Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review. 

Emerson, born in 1957 in Chatham, Virginia, holds the Arrington Distinguished Chair of Poetry at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, where she is a professor of English.

A recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Library of Congress, Emerson was awarded an Academy of American Poets prize and the Donald Justice Award in Poetry - West Chester University from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She is profiled in the Library of Virginia's Virginia Women in History 2009.

Emerson is appearing at the 2010 Sewanee Writers' Conference, July 13-25, at the University of the South; and at Lifting Belly High: A Conference on Women's Poetry Since 1900, September 11-13, at Duquesne University.


Streaming video of Emerson discussing with Jeffrey Brown the award of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and a transcript of the interview are here.

To hear readings of some of Emerson's poems, go here

Three complete poems can be read here. Others can be found by searching the various literary magazines.

The Poetry Society of Virginia, in Richmond, recently announced publication of a book to accompany its DVD of Four Virginia Poets Laureate: Margaret Ward Morland (1996 - 1998), Joseph Awad (1998 - 2000), Grace Simpson (2000 - 2002), and George Garrett (July 9, 2002 - 2004). Details are here. Each year the PSV holds an Adult Poetry Contest and a Student Poetry Contest.

Rita Dove, arguably the most famous of Virginia's contemporary Poets Laureate, held the position from September 20, 2004, to June 25, 2006. In 1993, she became the 7th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Stand With Haiti


katdish said...

You're going to turn me into a poetry fan if you're not careful, Maureen. That was incredible.

Anonymous said...

ok...i'm in.
oh, to live in the state of one's birth.
to feel those deep roots of home.

Billy Coffey said...

I feel a little ashamed that I'm not familiar with my own state's Poet Laureate. I'm glad that's been rectified a little now. Those words were amazing.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this profile Maureen. Thanks.