blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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A Reading by Claudia Emerson

Mary Flinn: Welcome to another season of Poetic Principles. I’m Mary Flinn with New Virginia Review, and New Virginia Review, in a partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, help me welcome Claudia Emerson.

Claudia Emerson: Thank you. Thanks, Mary, for the introduction, and I’m going to start with things from Figure Studies,which is my brand new book, it just came out. If you’re familiar with my third book, Late Wife, that got so much attention, that book was very, very personal, emotionally exhausting to write, and, when I was done with it, I decided to disallow the first person singular for an entire book, which is tricky to do. I thought, I’m gonna write nothing about myself and I’m just gonna exercise a different set of creative muscles. So I looked back into my life and went to something more imaginative, and I’m gonna read some from the opening sequence of this book which is called “All Girls School.”

My experience with the all-girls school is having attended an all-girls Episcopal boarding school in my home town. I was a villager, I was from down the hill, so I had a little different angle on the girls’ school, and I paid a lot of attention in the seventies to what was going on. Then, fast forward, I became the Academic Dean of that same girls boarding school with my Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry which made me, as I’ve said many times, stunningly unqualified to hold that position.

I’m still very proud of the fact that I believe that school still has a nurse twenty-four hours a day. That was my mission. That school should have a nurse in the building twenty-four hours a day. This was after I spent many weekend evenings poring over a Physician’s Desk Reference trying to figure out what some girl had mistakenly taken thinking it was her whatever medication.

Then I was also on the Board of Trustees of the same school for six years. So I had a lot of interesting meetings where they were talking about things of great concern to the school and I was taking notes for poems. Also, I taught for a while at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which is now Randolph College, and I currently teach for the University of Mary Washington which had, as its founding, being all women. And you’ll hear from some of the poems that even the architectures of girls’ schools can be different.

So this is the opening epigraph. It’s a little bit long, so I’ll read it really fast. But it’s from Sir George Frazier’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion and it was published in 1923.

[Epigraph 1, “The Physical Plant,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I found out, jogging with the women’s history professor at Mary Washington, that Frazier made all that stuff up. And I decided, even better then, that people just simply believed it.

Second epigraph is from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

[Epigraph 2, “The Physical Plant,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

[“The Physical Plant,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

In all those board meetings when they would talk about the health of the physical plant and all the buildings, and I thought, I think I can do something with all these adolescent girls wandering around in something called a physical plant.

I’m glad you’re laughing because sometimes, if anyone’s read Late Wife and I read from those poems first, I can’t get ’em to make the turn with me. But, I actually did something a little bit wicked, and had some fun thinking about the poems that way. So, I think you’ll appreciate the humor in a girls’ school, many of them are like this, claiming to be leadership programs for women, and all of the offices of leadership that they see are held by men. This one is called then, “Headmaster.”

[“Headmaster,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

When I looked at a school as a metaphor, or a figurative place for thinking about women and how women are taught to behave and be good, I looked at teachers, I look at architectures, and I also looked at lessons. So this one is called “The Girls Dissect the Eye of a Cow.” I have to say it’s also great fun to teach at a small liberal arts university where I can pick the brains of my science colleagues and they tolerate me very well—this little, odd poet who wanders around in the Jepson science facility looking for metaphor. The students at Mary Washington that semester were dissecting the eyes of sheep, but I substituted cow because it fit better with the mission of the book.

[“The Girls Dissect the Eye of a Cow,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I couldn’t resist one for the Latin teacher. And actually this one is a combination of memories from the girls’ school Latin teacher that we all loved named Mary Virginia Gillam, who was very, very southern. So, she’s at the heart of this poem. But also there was a very mean English teacher (I guess if this is being recorded I won’t mention any names) but she really did make us eat everything with a knife and fork. But, in the poem, it all goes for the Latin teacher.

[“Latin Teacher,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

Esto perpetua means “she will live forever.” I don’t want to linger in the girls too long. Once I got obsessed with this project I wrote twenty five of these girls’ poems I think I could have written a hundred and fifty. Once I began looking around school for metaphor it seemed to be everywhere.

I taught for years at Mary Washington a lower level Intro. to Lit. course that carried the environmental awareness designation. And we’ve changed the Gen. Ed. since then but I really did believe that studying the environment, reading about the environment, caring about it could happen in the humanities just as well as in the sciences. And so I read this essay, at some point, about the Right whale and the poem tells you what the girls will learn in their lesson about the Right whale. But I was horrified to think that this giant creature was harvested all those years just for the stuff that would make corsets—seemed all wrong.

[“Environmental Awareness: The Right Whale,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I think I’ll read one more from the girls and then read some from the rest of the book, because I do change point of view there.

Some of you may have heard me read from these poems before they came out in the book, so I apologize if you’ve heard this little story before, but when I was the dean of the girls boarding school we had a natural gas leak in the building and the headmaster was out of town, so I opted to evacuate all the buildings and pulled the fire alarms, and everyone went out. And everyone did obey me, and they all went out front and lined up, except for a wonderful woman named Phyllis who ran the switchboard, and she thought I was overreacting and refused to leave the building. So I was really worried about Phyllis, but I lined all the girls up. Later I learned that had the gas leak been bad enough, I would have exploded the building because the bells were the old clapper kinds. I don’t know if that was true, it was the volunteer fire department in Chatham, Virginia, but anyway, that’s what they said. And then if I had exploded the buildings I would have killed the entire student body because I had lined ’em up too close to the building.

Thank goodness none of that happened and the following year I got my job at Mary Washington where I don’t have to make decisions about evacuating buildings. But I did write this poem thinking about those days. This one’s a lot quieter than that, it comes toward the end of the sequence, and it’s called “Fire Drill.”

[“Fire Drill,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I’d decided in thinking about this book that I would explore a point of view I had not used before—having written so much in the first person singular—so I went to first person plural for two sections. One section I have women who are gossiping about other women, and those women they’re talking about are women isolated by one thing or another. In this one, I call it “Funny Valentine,” the woman has simply opted out of the world and stays in her house most of the time. If you don’t know the song, “Funny Valentine,” here’s a little bit of the lyric:

My funny Valentine, sweet comic Valentine,
You make me smile with my heart,
Your looks are laughable, un-photographable,
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?

And, again, this is in the voices of women in a small town—this time the ladies in the garden club.

[“Funny Valentine,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

That poem was inspired by some years of helping my dad read gas meters in my small town and this one reclusive woman had that car in the back filled with all those paperbacks and I wondered, why did she put them in the car? So, I just made up the poem from that.

Then I have children who narrate. Often the children are the wisest of us, I think. And they are seeing things that the gossips do not. There’s a little epigraph from this section from one of my favorite books, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This is in the voice of Charles Baker Harris, little Dill Harris, who says, when he pops up out of the collard patch, he says “I’m little, but I’m old.”

This one’s about the cat lady. I started to write this poem, and I started talking about the cat lady in Chatham, Virginia and everybody I mentioned it to talked about the cat lady in their hometown. So I realized that every town has one, I think. And that’s why I open with “Ours was a widow . . .” I actually did a lot of research about that and found out that having too many cats is a different version of hoarding, only they rotate around by themselves; you don’t have to move them around like the newspapers.

[“Cat Lady,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies, LSU Press, 2008.]

In the original version of that poem, what really happened was the men took that Pontiac after she died and they backed it up to the house and put a hose from the car into the house and gassed all the cats—in the years before SPCA’s existed. So I had that in the poem, and I had this whole thing about the cats going with her to the tomb, you know and all this stuff, and my mentor and first reader, Betty Adcock, says “You’ve got too much burning up in this book. You’ve got to pull that out.” So I just cut it off at the cats there.

This is one that’s set in Danville, Virginia in 1964, and I call it “Elevator Operator,” and it’s inspired by memory I have of being a little girl. We’d go to the big city of Danville to shop and there was a Thalhimer’s department store. I know some of you in the room are old enough to remember human elevator operators, and this one was a very small African American woman and I was amazed that she’d be calling out the names of the floors but no one ever looked at her. They kept looking at the dial as though she wasn’t sitting there. So the children are narrating this as well.

[“Elevator Operator, Danville, Virginia, 1964,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

Then I go, in the final section of the book, I just go to some stand-alones, where the character narrating is not in the poem. I’ll read this one because a lot of you travel often or have traveled Route One between here or points south. Route One, in case you haven’t been on it, was a main thoroughfare that was killed by the interstate. So, this is set at the Route One flea market. If you’ve never been there, do not go alone. This poem was inspired by a little old woman who was very frightening.

[“At the Route One Flea Market,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I think I’ll read one more from this book and then maybe a couple of new ones. Mary has asked Kent and I to do a pretty bawdy country song, so I don’t know if y’all are in the mood for that or not, but we’ll see when we get there. This story, it’s near the end of the book, it’s called “Great Depression Story” and it belongs to my father’s oldest friend. He died before my father died and Daddy told this story and said that Carlton White had actually committed this little crime that happens during the course of the poem. I always thought it was a very funny story in some ways and ominous in others. And, as Daddy said and Carlton said, they wondered what the woman thought when she came back home.

[“Great Depression Story,” Claudia Emerson, Figure Studies: Poems, LSU Press, 2008.]

I don’t get that many fan letters but I had a really strange letter from a gentleman saying that he had read that poem, but he said screen doors don’t have latches—a very interesting critique. I thought, I guess that’s right. I just made that up, I just put it in there.

A couple of new things to show that we can settle in in a writing project and then it’s gonna shift, the context of our lives will shift, and the work will turn its way. So, I know I have writers in the audience. When I know I’ve got people working and have things in progress, I really like to share some things that are relatively new and doing something different. So, as I told you a little bit ago, my father just died in May. He was ninety three. He lived a good life. But I can’t help it, I’m compelled to write about him. But I decided, I just thought, I don’t want to write about him, my father, I want to write about the state of being old. Because I think people don’t think about it, we think of it as something wrong, and it’s not illness, it’s what happens.

So, this one opens a short sequence. I won’t read the whole thing, just to give a sampling of it, about my father as he got more still, he got quieter.

[“The Porch,” Claudia Emerson, unpublished.]

This one is simply called “I,” the first person singular, because, as is true with a lot of older people, my father began to lose the ability to pick up the rest of a sentence, but he would continue to try to talk, and he would open a lot of sentences, trying to say “I . . .” We open a lot of sentences with the first person.

[“I,” Claudia Emerson, unpublished.]

I suppose I shouldn’t read the one that I was still making marks on as you were all wandering in. This one is close to the end of the sequence, and it’s set in the long term care facility.

[Untitled, Claudia Emerson, unpublished.]

Ya’ll want to hear a bawdy song, anybody in the mood for that? I’ll just skip forward then, to the poem that inspired the bawdy song, which is a poem from Late Wife, which, again, if I prided myself on something in the writing of this book, which deals, if you haven’t read it, in part, with letters to an ex-husband. I was in a long marriage that dissolved, finally. And this poem deals—I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging—but I tried to be very restrained in the telling of this part of the narrative, because it’s not the most important part. But it’s the other woman poem that happens early on and then I don’t talk about her anymore. So this opens that part of the book. It’s in my voice, addressing the ex-husband, and it’s called “Aftermath.”

[“Aftermath,” Claudia Emerson, Late Wife: Poems, LSU Press, 2005.]

Well you can get the guitar, Kent. I don’t claim to be a great singer, because I’m not, but he’s a really, really good guitar player. We wrote it together, actually, and you’ll hear where I stole from the, I think, quietly reflective, soulful poem where I’m not angry at all. Really, we’re not violent. Remember the song is a fantasy.

[“Bawdy Song,” Claudia Emerson]

Thank you.  end

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