RICHMOND, Va. ― Claudia Emerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, died early Thursday morning at age 57 after a long battle with cancer, the university said.
Emerson, a native of Chatham, Virginia, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book “Late Wife,” a collection of handwritten letters reflecting on her failed marriage of 19 years and her blossoming relationship with her second husband, Kent Ippolito. For three years, Emerson took the letters—never mailed—and taped them to the walls of her home and office.
In an interview with The Associated Press after she won the prize, Emerson said she drew on the complex emotions of two people trying to rekindle a love they once believed was gone from the world.
“The book says a lot about my life,” she said. “Sometimes the subjects just present themselves; I process the world through poetry.”
At the time, Emerson said the letters to her ex-husband were not those of a vengeful ex-wife.
“I don’t think they’d be very good if they had been sharply written,” she said. “I think it is sad when a marriage dissolves, even if it wasn’t the happiest one.”
Emerson was named Virginia’s poet laureate, an honorary two-year post, by then-Gov. Tim Kaine in 2008. She was awarded 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, the university said.
Emerson joined VCU’s Department of English in 2013, having taught at the University of Mary Washington since 1994. She earned an English degree at the University of Virginia in 1979 and a master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991.
Kathleen Graber, director of creative writing in VCU’s English department, said Emerson was “unquestionably a poet of the highest caliber and achievement, a poet whose work needs no one to speak on its behalf.”
“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,” Graber said in a written statement. “In this way, she continues to give us an ongoing model of how to be fully alive and actively engaged in the world.”