The door to Claudia Emerson’s office on the Fredericksburg campus tells a story: her favorite quotes about writing and poetry are pinned to a corkboard; a name badge from her appearance at the 2011 National Book Festival hangs from a hook; and a black and white photo of Emily Dickinson is front and center.
Emerson, the Arrington Distinguished Chair of Poetry at the University of Mary Washington, drew inspiration from a Dickinson poem for the title of her own latest poetry collection, “The Opposite House.”
Emerson finished the book, recently accepted for publication, during her Guggenheim Fellowship sabbatical last semester. The sabbatical took her from catacombs in Sicily to medical history museums in Frederick, Md., and Chicago.
“I became interested in looking at loss from a distance and looking imaginatively into the lives of others,” she said, explaining that “The Opposite House” ranges from poems about rural life in America to poems of travel and medical history.
As part of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Emerson spent two weeks in Sicily to gather research for the book. She explored catacombs underneath a monastery and became fascinated by the mummy of a small child that was preserved less than 100 years ago.
“I’m interested overall in why we take so many photos and why we would mummify someone after they died,” she said. “We don’t want to let things go.”
“The Opposite House” is a departure from her previous collection, “Secure the Shadow,” which centers on the deaths of her brother and father.
“[Secure the Shadow] was a very personal book for me,” Emerson said. “It took me four years to write it… that was my most difficult book to put together.”
In contrast, she wrote “The Opposite House” quicker than any of her previous five books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Late Wife.”
Sabbaticals allow faculty members, who usually direct the majority of their energy to teaching, the chance to give undivided attention to their own work, as in the case of Emerson’s fellowship.
“When you get that break from teaching, you have that rare luxury to focus in and not spend the creative energy on anything but your own project,” Emerson, recently named a “Woman of Distinction” by the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia, said.
Now that she is back in her familiar role at UMW, Emerson finds creative fulfillment in her daily interactions with students.
“When it’s going well and you are excited about what your students are doing and about your job as their mentor…it’s very satisfying on that creative level,” she said.
Allison Seay, a former student of Emerson’s who is now an accomplished poet in her own right, said Emerson’s guidance has been indispensable to her career.
“She was my first mentor, but she continues to be the best one, too,” said Seay, a 2002 graduate and an adjunct instructor of English at UMW. “Though I have gone on and studied under other poets and found additional readers for my work, it is her voice I always hear in my head. Her voice is clearest and closest to me. I would not have known how to be a poet at all if I did not have her as a mentor.”
For Emerson, mentoring is a passion, just as teaching, writing, playing music with her husband, dancing and appreciating the fine arts are.
“I can’t imagine being in a world where all I do is write poetry, read poetry and think poetry,” she said. “I don’t write much poetry about poetry – it’s about the world.”
Photos taken by Kimmie Barkley ’14