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Professor wins Pulitzer Prize
Mary Washington professor Claudia Emerson wins the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

 UMW associate professor Claudia Emerson teaches a class in this photo taken in October. She won the Pulitzer Prize on Friday.
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Date published: 4/18/2006


She saw it on the Internet.

Then the phone started ringing, and the hallway outside her office got noisy. The room filled with people--hugging, congratulating, bringing flowers.

She wanted to call her mother.

But first she had to talk to an Associated Press reporter about the book that had thrown her into the spotlight.

And that was how the biggest news of Claudia Emerson's professional life unfolded yesterday.

Emerson, an associate professor of English at the University of Mary Washington, has won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

It is one of poetry's highest distinctions, and winning it puts Emerson in the company of Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Emerson won for her third and latest book of poems, "Late Wife."

It is her most personal work. In it, she writes of the dissolution of a 19-year marriage.

"I needed to make peace with it, to resolve it," she told The Free Lance-Star in October. "I knew it was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be a risk."

Later in the book, Emerson writes about finding new love, with a man who was widowed after a happy marriage. This section is addressed to Kent Ippolito, Emerson's husband of five years.

Emerson has taught composition and creative writing in the English, Linguistics and Speech Department at Mary Washington since 1998. She's on sabbatical this semester but was at the university yesterday to speak to a colleague's class.

Emerson stopped by her office and flipped on the computer. She knew Pulitzer winners were being announced and was curious to see who won.

According to a news update at 3:30 p.m., she had.

Emerson knew she'd been nominated but thought her chances were slim. Her parents were hopeful, though. Her 81-year-old mother cried when Emerson called with the news.

"She thinks it's great and I should win everything," Emerson said.

She started writing poetry at 28, while managing an out-of-the-way bookstore and delivering mail part time in her hometown of Chatham, near Danville.

Nearing 30, she went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to get a master of fine arts degree and concentrate on her craft.

It took six years to find a publisher for her first book, "Pharaoh, Pharaoh."

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William M. Anderson Jr., president of the University of Mary Washington, made this statement:

"This is a significant honor, for both Claudia and for the University of Mary Washington. We are very proud of her accomplishments and that Claudia is a member of our faculty.

"It has been apparent to anyone who has taken one of her classes or heard a reading from her works that she is an extraordinary writer, poet and teacher.

"It is gratifying to have these accomplishments acknowledged and recognized by the Pulitzer Committee."