Claudia Emerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and VCU English professor, dies

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Claudia Emerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and creative writing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, died early Thursday morning after a long battle with cancer. She was 57.

Emerson, who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection "Late Wife," was among the most critically acclaimed poets in the country.

"Claudia's passing will not only be difficult for her family, friends, current and former students, and colleagues, but I am saddened to think of the countless students who could have otherwise been transformed as people and as writers by her passion for teaching the art of poetry," said Jim Coleman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. "I feel an empty hole as I'm one of the thousands, if not millions of people, who, when we turn to literary arts for  profound, joyful, and meaningful journeys into what it means to be human, will yearn for just a little more of her amazing skill at creating mesmerizing, deeply honest, and accessible art with words."

In addition to "Late Wife," Emerson was the author of a number of poetry collections, including "Pharaoh, Pharaoh" (1997), "Pinion, An Elegy" (2002), "Figure Studies" (2008), "Secure the Shadows," (2008), and the forthcoming "The Opposite House" (2015).

Her poetry appeared in The New Yorker, Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets of Virginia,  Poetry, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, New England Review, and numerous other journals and anthologies.

Emerson was the recipient of a host of notable awards and recognitions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, as well as fellowships from the Library of Congress, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with two additional Pulitzer Prize nominations. In 2008, then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine named her poet laureate of Virginia.

"Claudia Emerson was more than the sum of her many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize," said Kathy Bassard, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of English. "She was simply the most alive, gracious and courageous human being I have ever met.  Incredibly funny and down to earth, she lived and loved life to the fullest."

Bassard added that "Emerson loved every minute of being at VCU."

"Her dedication to her students and her craft were unquestioned and she will be desperately missed by her family, friends, colleagues and students," she said.

Emerson formerly served as poetry editor for the Greensboro Review and as contributing editor for the literary magazine Shenandoah. She also edited the 2010 "Best New Poets" anthology.

She grew up in Chatham, Virginia, attended the University of Virginia, earning a degree in English in 1979, and later completing a master's degree in fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991.

Emerson joined VCU's creative writing faculty in the Department of English in summer 2013, after serving as a professor and the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at the University of Mary Washington, where she had been since 1994.

Kathleen Graber, associate professor and director of creative writing in the Department of English, said Emerson's death is "simply a heartbreaking loss."

"Claudia Emerson was unquestionably a poet of the highest caliber and achievement, a poet whose work needs no one to speak on its behalf," she said. "When I think of her poems, I think of the marriage of astute, honest observation and fierce urgency to remarkable grace, and I think now that is how someone might also describe her character. In this way, she continues to give us an ongoing model of how to be fully alive and actively engaged in the world."

David Wojahn, a professor of creative writing in the Department of English, said Emerson's passing is "a devastating loss, both for the VCU community and for the entire nation's literary community."

"She was one of the finest American poets of her generation, and one of the most generous and devoted teachers I've ever known," he said. "She was vivacious, witty and deeply learned – while at the same time completely down-to-earth. But above all she was immensely brave – brave and risk-taking as a writer, and brave in the way she faced her final illness. She was one of our finest."

As a teacher, Graber added, Emerson was "generous almost beyond limit."

Graber extended the VCU community's sympathy to Emerson's husband, musician Kent Ippolito. "We all send our thoughts out to her husband, as anyone who had ever seen them together could tell immediately that theirs was truly a very deep, very rare love," she said.

When Graber heard Thursday morning that Emerson had passed away, she went for a long walk, something Emerson loved to do.

"As I was walking," she said, "I thought of a line from a poem by Stanley Kunitz, a poem he had written late in his life, perhaps in his 90s. He asks, 'How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?'  I am not sure that it ever is."

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 11 at Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St., in downtown Richmond, and another at 11 a.m. Dec. 12 at Chatham Presbyterian Church in Emerson’s hometown of Chatham, in Southside Virginia.
The Claudia Emerson Fund has been established for those wishing to contribute. Gifts can be sent to the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, P.O. Box 842019 Richmond, Va. 23284-2019. Checks should be made payable to the VCU Foundation and note the Claudia Emerson Fund on the memo line.


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