An enthusiastic Summar West, Maryville College’s resident poet, introduced Claudia Emerson to a nearly full house in Lawson Auditorium on April 30 with a quote from Adrienne Rich: “… most often someone writing a poem believes … that a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images. A language that itself has learned from the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.” In the hour that would follow, Emerson would read exactly this type of poetry.
Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “Late Wife,” is the author of several collections of poems, including “Figure Studies” and “Secure the Shadow.” She read from all of these books during her presentation at MC, part of the Spring Writers Series, highlighting poems that dealt with divorce, marriage and death.
Her poetry is full of images of the South, of Appalachia and of small-town identity. These images were heavy throughout her reading of “Funny Valentine,” a short poem written from the perspective of a group of women gossiping in a small-town ladies garden club.
After she finished reading, Emerson was joined on the stage by her husband, Kent. The duo sang a musical interpretation of one of Emerson’s poems, which she referred to as an “almost murder ballad,” a lighthearted song about a more serious topic.
“I love writing songs that are country-music oriented. You can just go ahead and be your tacky self,” Emerson said.
After the song and poetry reading, Emerson answered questions from the audience, aiming her responses and advice toward new writers, young and old. One of these questions involved her writing process.
“My own process can be extremely messy and very long,” Emerson said. “I usually have lots and lots of revisions, usually around 50-80 drafts per poem. I use a wall to put up the drafts. I’m a visual learner.”
Emerson also explained that in college she had wanted to be a fiction or short-story writer, and it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she got back into poetry.
“I’m a much better poet than I am a fiction writer,” she said. “Sometimes I still take stabs at fiction. In my most recent short story, the main character came home from work, opened her refrigerator, then closed it. That’s about it.”
Other advice she offered was about handwriting drafts versus using a computer and getting into a routine of writing every day.
“I use a combination of handwriting and using the computer,” Emerson said. “The thing is, I always need to print. I don’t see things the same on the screen like I do in print. I try to write something every day, even if it’s just writing in a journal. I’m a big discipline person.”
The MC students in the audience were impressed by Emerson’s poetry and personality.
“She was very charming,” said Garrett Painter, a sophomore. “She didn’t fit the typical quiet and reserved personality that you expect to see in a poet.”
Chelsea Tarwater, also a sophomore, agreed.
“I was surprised by how funny she was,” she said. “It was a pleasure to hear her speak.”
Anyone who is interested in reading Emerson’s work can purchase her books on lsupress.org or visit her website at www.claudiaemerson.org.