Claudia Emerson was born in Chatham, Virginia, in 1957. Although Chatham is the county seat in the largest county in Virginia in geographical area, its population was only about fourteen hundred in the 2000 census. The surrounding countryside is largely made up of farms, whose primary crop was tobacco for most of the twentieth century, and tobacco-farming culture still permeates the town. Despite its size, the town has a rich history that extends back before the American Revolution. It also has a tradition of fostering the arts, especially the literary arts, and has been home to a number of nationally known writers and editors, including the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Emerson attended Chatham Hall, a girls’ boarding school, and graduated from the University of Virginia with a B.A. in English in 1979. She married, and the couple lived in or near Chatham for much of the next two decades. Emerson worked as a part-time rural mail carrier, branch librarian, and clerk in a used book store until she entered the M.F.A. program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She imagined at first that she might use the degree (which she earned in 1991) to become an editor, but during the program, she was encouraged to develop as a poet. The result was her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh.
After the success of Pharaoh, Pharaoh and as her marriage began to founder, Emerson returned to Chatham Hall as academic dean (1996-1998). Her second volume, Pinion, was written after her divorce. In 1998, she took a teaching position at University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg, Virginia, where she became professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry. In 2000, she married musician Kent Ippolito, whose wife had died of lung cancer. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Late Wife addresses her divorce and remarriage. Her fourth volume, Figure Studies, uses a girls’ boarding school not unlike Chatham Hall to examine gender issues, including how girls are taught to be girls.