Another great loss, which I failed to notice, distracted as I was by the frenzy of the holidays and subsequent slide into the new year. Claudia Emerson died of cancer in December, but I only just found out about it. We went to grad school together, at UNC-G, from ’89 to ’91. Our class was small, so we got to know each other pretty well, though our temperaments and situations were vastly different. In fact, looking back, she probably found me rather annoying, but (mostly) put up with me good-naturedly. She took her work seriously, and (though I didn’t realize it at the time) viewed her presence in the program as a wondrous gift that could not be squandered. I, on the other hand, was much younger, and had only graduated college a year or two before joining the program. I still very much had an undergrad mentality—work hard, yes, but don’t forget to have fun. I was the Jarrell Fellow that first year, and it probably irked a few of my classmates to see that honor given to someone with such a dubious work effort (of course, I was working—diligently—but I never let anyone see that). As for Claudia, she had been waitlisted for the program. How could that be? I don’t know. Perhaps she simply didn’t have any contacts in the poetry world. She was not yet widely published, though that was soon to change. In an effort to enhance her chances of getting in off the waitlist, she started submitting her work everywhere, she told me. And the acceptances started rolling in. We were all a bit stunned and chagrined to see her work appearing in some of the premier journals of the day during our second year in Greensboro. That year, she also began editing The Greensboro Review, along with her close friend Kathleen Driskell. I remember being somewhat disgruntled—I thought the job would be offered to me, as the Jarrell Fellow. I was so clueless, I didn’t realize that: a), they didn’t just offer it—you had to pursue it, and b) the job required a good deal of work, and I suppose my reputation in that regard was already well established. In any case, she and Kathleen did a great job of it. That year, Claudia, Kathleen, and I did an independent study with Prof. Tom Kirby-Smith. He was, strictly speaking, not part of the writing faculty, but did write poetry, and taught classes in poetry and prosody. When I look back at my time in Greensboro, it’s those mornings that I remember most, and most fondly. Kathleen and Claudia would swing by my house in Kathleen’s Volvo, and we’d all sit together in Tom’s genteel sitting room, sometimes treated to tea and cookies by his wife. On warm mornings, we’d sit outside by the flower garden. And we’d read and discuss poetry, not just our own, but anyone we’d discovered, or who Tom thought we should know about.
Claudia’s basic voice and style were already established, and she was developing greater range and complexity. My poetry was awful, but I was excited by it, because I was trying new things, pursuing new experiments, most of which failed admirably. I remember one very long poem I wrote about a river flooding around a farmhouse. I knew nothing about the subject, but it was hard not to be influenced by the perceived trials of the rural south in such an environment. Claudia, who knew a thing or two, had written notes all over her copy. I don’t think she was planning to give me her written comments, but Tom asked us all to share them when we had them. She was so apologetic, but I must say, her critiques were spot on. I’m sure that none of us ever dreamed that one of us would one day be honored with a Pulitzer prize. I don’t think anything I wrote in Greensboro made it into my first book, but I think (though my memory is not always reliable) that I first encountered some of the poems in Pharaoh, Pharaoh in Tom’s sitting room. In fact, I remember when the book was first published. I was living by then in Oakland, CA. We hadn’t been in touch much, but I still had her phone number. I called to congratulate her, and ended up speaking with her first husband, as she was out of the house. I don’t know if she ever got the message.
I’ll finish with a snippet of poetry from her first book. To do justice to her early work, I should present something with cows in it—cows figured prominently in her poems, and became oddly emblematic (there’s a paper topic for you, students!). But instead, I will finish up with the second stanza of “Bait,” which has stuck with me for many years:
over the sharp toe, the smooth curve
of this wicked, hooked leg, tell me again how
the bloodless vessel feels no pain as you pierce
the first of its abundant hearts.