When Claudia Emerson returns to the post office in rural Chatham, Va., she is greeted by a former co-worker who pokes fun.
"If you had stayed on," her friend always says to her, "you'd have had a full-time route by now."
After toiling as a part-time postal worker and used book store owner in Southern Virginia, Emerson became a Pulitzer Prize winning poet.
She was the guest lecturer at the 26th annual B. Christopher Bothe memorial lecture at McDaniel College in Westminster Wednesday.
The lecture series invites an accomplished poet to campus for a reading and discussion. Bothe, a 1972 McDaniel College graduate, was a poet, award-winning journalist and printer who died in 1984.
Bothe's family and friends endowed the lecture in his memory in 1987.
Emerson, in her laid back southern drawl, discussed her path from postal worker to poet to tenured professor at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.
She's not afraid to share her struggles along the way. Emerson's first husband cheated on her, the used book store failed to generate customers and she struggled to cope with the recent death of her brother and father.
Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize for "Late Wife: Poems," a collection of writings about the death of her current husband's first wife.
Kent Ippolito, her husband, is a bluegrass/folk/jazz musician in Fredericksburg, Va.
They combined for a song at the end of the reading, a tongue-in-cheek ditty about how Emerson felt when she discovered her first husband's lover.
Emerson sang. Ippolito played the guitar.
"If I were Taylor Swift," she said after the performance, "I would be jumping around right now."
Decades ago, Emerson fancied herself a song and short story writer after graduating from the University of Virginia.
Reading poetry changed all that. She began to think in metaphors. She made the switch.
"I was writing like a house on fire in my late 20s when I started to write a poem every day," she said.
Once, while traveling along Interstate 81, she drove past a house that was, in fact, on fire. It made her think of the cancer ravaging her brother's body. She wrote a poem about it, one of a collection about the death of her father and brother.
Not everything in Emerson's works are downcast. Emerson is an avid swimmer and a former lifeguard who intensely watched her patrons and whistled every aquatic misgiving. She was afraid she would have to jump in and save someone drowning.
Emerson once encountered a young lifeguard who was not nearly as attentive as she would have preferred.
So Emerson wrote about her, poking fun at her for being more interested in a hangnail and her split ends than her pool duties.
Onlookers laughed during the reading, which came mere moments after their speculative silence when she read some of her deep, poignant poems.
McDaniel English professor Kathy Mangan, who picks the poets for the series, said next year's poet would have much to live up to after this year's reading.
"I pity the 27th poet [in the series]," she said.