AN INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDIA EMERSON
Susan Settlemyre Williams: This is Susan Williams. It's Wednesday, November 27, 2002. I'm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, talking with Claudia Emerson.
In your first book Pharaoh, Pharaoh, there was a sort of unity of placerural Virginiabut the poems themselves were pretty discrete. So I'm curious what it was like to move from that relatively relaxed structure to a book that's as intensely unified as Pinion is.
Claudia Emerson: I can pretty much tell you exactly why that happened. I don't remember the exact moment, but when I wrote Pharaoh, Pharaoh, I was in graduate school for the most part; and that was my whole identitywas poetI was encouraged to do that. And so I felt relaxed to live my life poem to poem. And they're united by place because I'd never lived anywhere else but that county, so that was sort of chosen for me. But when I finished the MFA program [at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro], I began working as an adjunct professor at Washington and Lee University, Randolph-Macon Woman's College. I taught night school at community colleges. Sometimes I was at two schools at once, teaching five courses. It was insane. I had very little time to write, and so I decided that, if I had a project to hold onto, I could write better. So I decided to write all in the voice of one old man, the "Preacher" character, and that was the beginning of what ended up being Pinion. But originally, I thought I'd write a sequence of poems in one voice to have a project to hold onto.
SW: That makes sense. And I've heard you say that you found a diary and that was one of the starting points. Could you tell us about that?
CE: Yeah. After I had written the Preacher poems, I realized that he wasn't going to work by himself as a whole book, and I didn't see him as being part of another book with more poems like Pharaoh, Pharaoh, so I sort of let him just sit around for a while. And then, around that time, I found a diary in an old farmhouse I was renting. And it spanned 1900 to 1902, and all written by a woman who did all the housework, wrote about the housework, and never left home. And Preacher already had a sister in the original poems, and I thought, "I believe I will write the-diary-this-woman-couldn't-write sort of thing" and decided to create the Sister character. She's actually my favorite part of the book. I love thinking about the life of that woman who kept that boring diary of her work and what she must have felt in her emotional life, and so that's where a lot of Sister came from.
SW: Now were the epigraphs that you use in the poemswere those actually from the diary?
CE: In part. She would always record weather, little tidbits about the day, whether it was windy or warm, that sort of thing. It is a little bit obvious, I think, what I'm doing, but I think that the poems themselves are so unlike diaries in some ways that I thought I would give that little artifact.
SW: Yeah, I think it works really well to provide a sort of balance, and I loved reading those poems too because my mother grew up on a farm. I could hear a lot of what she used to tell me about and all those expressions like, "The devil's beating his wife." I believed you instantly when I heard you use that.
So you had the idea from the beginning then that this was going to be a full-length book?
CE: Yes. Originally, what I had in mind was that the poems went back and forth between Preacher and Sister immediately. He would tell about the birth of the late baby, and then she would in the next poem. And I jumped all over in time in the original manuscript. I thought that was fine; I thought any reader should be able to follow this.
And then I sent to whole thing off to Dave Smith, my editor at LSU [Louisiana State University Press], and he was worried I was asking too much. And he asked some really good questions: Why would I insist on time being so important"it's March of 1924"but then I'm jumping all over in the manuscript itself? So he sent me off to Betty Adcock's house. Betty Adcock is a wonderful North Carolina poet who's been my mother/poet-mentor forever, and Betty helped me arrange the book so that it came out the way you see it now, where Preacher opens, and then we go to Sister, and it kind of follows chronologically. But I did it kicking and screaming. I did not want to do it.
It also involved changing the point of view. In the original manuscript Sister was written in third person, limited to her. I loved looking over her shoulder. She did not have first person until much later in the book. Well, when I had to fool around with the chronology, she had to go all to first person, which I just really didn't want to do. But now I'm very satisfied with it. I think it didn't change her much to do that, but I was so determined that she sound different from Preacher that I couldn't hear her originally in the first person. But that all happened in revision, when I realized this was a long poem and not just a sequence.
SW: Well, her voice is certainly very different from Preacher's, and you would not mistake one for the other.
CE: Right. But I really think part of the reason that worked out was because I wrote her in third in the beginning.
SW: Did that give you some more detachment from her?
CE: Yes, it really did. And, oddly enough, I felt closer to her in third person than I ever felt to him in first.
SW: I thought it was interesting really that you spent so much timebecause Preacher's a fascinating personhe's very sensitive and really a poet manqué, it seems to me.
CE: The original inspiration for himI probably should have told this when you asked the other questionI knew a family. Actually by the time I really got to know them, they were down to two brothers living alone in a house. I used to go there when I was an undergraduate and do folklore projects about the Davises. And so there was this wonderful character named Bill Davis. He ended up living on a farm down there in Pittsylvania County by himself, and I was fascinated by him. Going to his house was like going to a different century. So he was the original inspiration for the Preacher character.
SW: Was there a female figure that he had any kind of relationship with?
CE: Yes, but she had died by the time I met him. But he had a sister who took care of him and his brothers for a long time. So she was part of the inspiration, but mainly my Sister came out of that diary that I already talked about.
SW: Yeah. Well, the relationship was interesting to me, that sort of deep, almost sexual longing that he seemed to have for both sister and mother, and kind of confounded the two of them.
CE: When I read him now, I can feel his frustrationthat wasn't how I thought of him at the timeand his relationship with the women in the house, with his father, and also with the place itself. It was very frustrating. But I don't think of him as a bad person in that frustration.
SW: No, there's something very sweet about him.
CE: Listen to me saying "person"! I always tell my students, "No, it's a character. It's a word mass. It's not real."
SW: But don't you get the feeling, after you've lived with him for a long time, that he is real?
CE: Yes. I remember hearing Toni Morrison talk about her charactersI think it was Toni Morrison. She said she heard them, you know, and I remember, as a poet, for a long time I thought, "I don't quite understand that," but now I do because writing Pinion was tantamount to living with a novel.
SW: I think it's interesting really to be living with a male persona as much as anything. I think that would be a lot harder to do.
CE: I'm not quite sure why I did it. Except, now, when I step back from this book and look at it and I think, "Why did I get so involved with fiction? Why was I doing that instead of more of what I had going in Pharaoh, Pharaoh?"now I look back, and I can tell you I was in an unhappy marriage but I couldn't tell anyone, or that's how I felt. So I think, when I wrote Preacher, some of my personal frustration came through this persona who felt very alone, and, you know, he was male and responsible for everybody. And I think that's how I felt. I was working really hard, and I felt responsible, and so I think he was easier for me than he probably should have been.
SW: There is a lot of caretaking in his character.
CE: And then when Sister . . .when I was writing Sister, for a lot of it, I was getting divorced, and I was in my forties and alone, and I thought, "Okay, I'm going to be teaching and then also taking care of my parents, and I'll be that figure."
SW: It's interesting to me how both of them seem perfectly resignedI mean, not happy, but accepting the fact that they weren't going to have marriages or any other type of relationship.
CE: Right. I think that was probably what I was thinking at the time. Not very happy about it, but I was interested in how . . . not interested, that's not the right word, but completely fascinated with why and how we're bound, by place in the family, by place geographically, birth order, gender.
SW: And using a name like "Sister" really underscores that. I think that was very effective in the book.
CE: As I say, if you want to know who the "Sisters" are in any family cemetery, look for the stone that says, "She served others."
SW: Those were the main questions I had about the book, but if there's something I didn't ask you that you'd like to tell about writing the book, I'd like to hear it.
CE: One thing, when the book was moving along and I realized I had to get past the individual poems and look at the whole thing, I was very stubborn about it, as I said; but I also had a huge epiphany about the long poem. Because I didn't set out to do itthat's what it turned into, and then my loyalty had to be for the whole thing. So I became happy about the changes I was making. And I remember very late in the gameonce you get a book accepted for publication, they make you write a description of it, which is really difficult. But one of my colleagues, who teaches American Long Poem, was walking by my office. She looked in. She saw me staring at the bookwhich, as you see here in my office now, I have my other book pasted up all over the walls so I can look at it all the time and think about itand she said, "Claudia, I don't know why you don't see that this is a long poem." So that was a huge thingyes, it is, and then, as I say, I became comfortable with trying to be the architect of the big picture. But I'm not sure I would have written the book the same way if I had set out to say, "Okay, I'm going to make a long poem."
SW: Were there individual poems that you wound up taking out?
CE: Yes, there were.
SW: So there are some other Sister and Preacher poems?
CE: Yes. Not very many. And there were poems in the voice of the trapper brother [Nate] as well. He lost his voice in the revision.
SW: He's certainly less significant in the whole picture. And he doesn't seem like a very likable character.
CE: No. And probably, if I had it to do over, I'd take him out altogether. Although I remember talking about it at the time, and Betty liked him and thought he was a nice sort of counterbalance to Preacher, the one who wants to go out and drink and play the fiddle and be with women and all that kind of stuff, so that they don't seem unnaturally isolated. I mean there would be other people around.
SW: I think he did add to that. It was interesting to see him only through Preacher's perspective.
What else are you working on? What do you have coming up now?
CE: I am finishing what I hope will be the third book, which is really unlikewell, one part of it is similar to my other work. The first section of itand the working title of the book is Late Wifethe first section is made up of a series of epistles, actually to my ex-husband, and they're all involving Pittsylvania County landscape, and they sound in some ways more like what was in Pharaoh, Pharaoh. But they're linked as well with certain images, certain metaphors that weave their way through. Then the last section of the book, I call "Late Wife," and it's a sonnet cycle, where I address my new husband, whose first wife died, and I felt I had to make a peace with that. Then the middle section I call "Breaking Up the House" right now, and that's about my parents and the homeplace down in Chatham and that kind of thing, and those arethat middle section is a little squirrelly right now, and I don't know exactly what's going on with it. I think I'm almost done with it. In my mind, it's sort of a call-and-response kind of book, where I disappear from my life in some ways to reappear in another life where there has been a disappearance. So I guess I'm playing with that.
SW: So there is a sort of narrative but not a strict narrative?
CE: Not a strict narrative. But some of them are very much linked to others, and I see poems in the first section that are then echoed in the third section and in the middle. So I've had a good time doing it. The work is very different. The sonnet cycle is real different for me, a real break from what I was doing in Pinion.
SW: I wanted to ask you about the sonnet cycle because that seems to be pretty popular right now.
CE: It is.
SW: Lots of books have extended ones.
CE: I think I was most inspired to do it from Ellen [Bryant] Voigt's book Kyrie. I really loved that book a lot. I liked hearing the voices in sonnet, I liked what she did with sonnet. Sometimes she's just writing very strict form and other times not, and I enjoyed it a lot. And so I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to try it. And then also, I thought, "If I just write a couple of sonnets, maybe I'll stop doing all this long stuff." And so then I haul off and write fourteen of them, so . . .
SW: So, what was it likethe sonnet just inherently is going to be shorter and harder to get much of a narrative into. Did you try to make it narrative? I was impressed at how Ellen Voigt did seem to get the . . .
CE: I think mine is not quite as narrative as what Ellen ended up doing, and I'm relying again on certain key images through that cycle of sonnetsand there aren't that many. I think, of actual, strict sonnets, there are maybe twelve, and then I break from that in the rest of that section.
SW: So it's something like freeze-frames?
CE: Yes, it's more like freeze-frames. It picks up throughout, but again, the consistent thing through the whole book is, the first person addresses "you." And that was strictly because I didn't want to assume that I could write anything from my husband's first wife's point of view. I don't know anything about that, so I had to be me in the house with him and write about her. So in every sonnet, I'm juggling three people basically. And it was really hard for me because, all my poetic career, I have insisted to my students that I don't care what really happened, I don't care what really happened, I'm not interested in confession. I've never, ever done that. Now, at the age of forty-five, I suddenly am compelled to write something true, which is very, very dangerous! But I felt I couldn't do it if I had to make things up about that subject, so I've been challenged by it, but I'm really happy with how they've come out.
SW: Sounds fascinating. Can't wait to see it.
Just to get a little bit of background too, you're teaching English now at Mary Washington [College], but you didn't really follow what I guess is becoming the conventional academic track for poets, to go from college to MFA to teaching.
CE: No. I did college at the normal age. I graduated in 1979, got married almost immediately, went back home to Pittsylvania County, and then I had a decade where I did a lot of different things. I was a branch manager for a little library for a while in Gretna, Virginiaonly a two-room house. I was a substitute teacher. I was a meter reader. I was a part-time rural letter carrierthat was probably the best job that I had. But at the same time, I had a used bookshop in Danville, Virginia. I did a lot of really crazy things, and then I realized I wanted to be serious about writing, and I applied to UNC at Greensboro and was lucky enough to get in, and it changed my life. Made me a better poet; I adored my MFA. But then I hadI don't know how many yearseight yearsof working as an adjunct, I guess, between Washington and Lee, as I said, Randolph-Macon Woman's College. I loved every place I taught, but just could never find a tenure-track position, and also my husband at that time didn't want to leave Pittsylvania County, so I was trying to commute, which was real tough. And then I published Pharaoh, Pharaoh, and that was the thing that most MFA's need to do tenure-tracking, to get a book out, and I ended up coming to Mary Washington, where I'm real happy.
SW: In looking back on it, though, are you glad or sorry that you waited so long to get the MFA?
CE: Both, I think. I felt I was out of practice with being in school, and I was worried about that, but actually I was a wonderful graduate student. I was not a stellar undergraduate, so I was better prepared emotionally, I think, to go to school, but I felt I was late getting started, and I wanted to catch up desperately. I remember having that feeling. So I tell my students I'm not sure it's the best thing to go right from an undergraduate program to a graduate program in creative writing, but I wouldn't wait over five or six years if I had it to do over.
SW: I guess the other things that I wanted to ask . . . Well, I guess, first of all, obviously you waited a while to go. Were you writing all your life, though?
CE: No. I always loved to read. I would keep a journal, that kind of thing. I was interested in fiction initially. I wanted to write short fiction. I loved novels, I loved to read novels. I thought maybe I would do that. Poetry sort of chose me. I was writing a lot of poetry when I had the used bookshop and no one came in. I wrote a lot then. But when I applied to Greensboro, I applied with both short fiction and poetry. And Jim Clark, who runs the program, called me up and said, "We'd like to pretend you didn't send the stories." Okay, you want me to be a poet, I'll be a poet. I think it's really funny how I've ended up writing this long poem that insists on a lot of narrative techniques.
SW: There's certainly a strong narrative element in your work, and I guess, actually, that was one of my questions: It's easy to put you in the Southern Narrative Tradition, which all seems to be in capital letters. And I also was thinking about the lineage of Southern women poets, I guess, at least from Eleanor Ross Taylor through Betty Adcock and Ellen Bryant Voigt up to, maybe, Judy Jordan. And I just wondered if you see yourself in those traditions?
CE: I do. I feel a lot of kinship with the other Southern women poets that I've read and admired and met. And really, there aren't that many. I find it fascinating. I mean, if you think about the world of the Southern novel, women just dominate. There are more nowSouthern women poetsthan there were, but Betty and I have talked about this a lot, and it seems for a long time there weren't that many, at least anthologized or in obvious places where you think you would find Southern women writers.
SW: I know. I've been hunting for them too.
CE: Yeah. That's how I met Betty actually. I was teaching at Washington and Lee, a genre-based course, and my theme was Southern lit, and the anthologies didn't have any women, so I asked Dabney Stuart at W & L if he had any he would recommend, because I knew a few, but I wanted more names. And he had a stack of books, and Betty Adcock was in there, and I read her work and absolutely loved it, and we invited her to come up to Washington and Lee. And we've been friends ever since.
SW: Who else would you consider your influences?
CE: Honestlyand this will sound so provincial of me, and you'll just have to forgive me for itbut my mother gave me Ellen Bryant Voigt's first book when I was sixteen years old. She gave it for Christmas.
SW: You're from the same hometown?
CE: Same hometown, Chatham, Virginia. And I loved it, and I've watched her work ever since, and I've admired it. And she encouraged me early on in my writing, and I've always been very inspired by Ellen and jealous of her. I remember getting one of her booksI've forgotten which oneI had that little, goofy bookshop, and I would open up her book and read a poem and then slam it shut, just in sheer jealousy. Why can't I write this? And I adore her work, and I love Betty, as I've said, so they've been real important to me. But early on, I was influenced, I admit it, by Robert Penn Warren. I loved to read him, and William Faulkner was huge for me just for years and years. He doesn't write poetry, but it doesn't matter. If I'm ever just at a loss, I can read something from Faulkner and feel like writing again.
SW: He sure knows how to tell a story.
SW: Okay. Well, those are really all the questions that I had, but if there's something else that you would like to say, please feel free.
CE: I'll say this. It's been interesting to have Pinion come out and be a finished thing, when it was for a long time, five years, a work in progress. And now I feel I can talk about it with honesty. I think for a while I was so close to it that I couldn't even say the things I've said to you about where Preacher came from or where Sister came from. I was just so involved with them.
SW: Did you have any of the same feeling with Pharaoh, Pharaoh?
CE: No. Although Preacher was written before the end of Pharaoh, Pharaoh. He was written in about twenty poems, I think. I thought Pharaoh, Pharaoh was done. Almost all of ityou know, the poems are relatively short, and when Dave [Smith] accepted the book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, he said, "What else have you got since you finished it?" And I had some longer things that went into the book, "Timepiece," "Inheritance," "Searching the Title," some of the longer ones. They, in my mind, were going to be in another book, and Preacher was just sitting over on a shelf by himself. So, when Pharaoh, Pharaoh came out, I remember feeling the same way, that there was a chunk of time missing, even though in the end it ended up being, I think, fairly seamless. I'm not sure.
SW: Yeah, I think it was. Okay, well, that's, I think, all that I had to ask, and I certainly appreciate your talking to me.
CE: Well, thank you for coming up. And I really admire Blackbird. I think it's a great endeavor.