Every day, somewhere in Prince William County, two residents receive an unusual piece of mail: a greeting card containing the same handwritten poem. "A gift, a love gift / Utterly unasked for / By a sky ..." as Sylvia Plath wrote in "Poppies in October" — one of the poems that has been sent. The next day, two more people will get a different poem. The lines of verse are selected and transcribed by local resident Natalie Potell, who began a two-year stint as the county's poet laureate in October, becoming the fourth person to hold that position since 2014.
Potell, a 32-year-old Fairfax County firefighter, says part of the inspiration for this project came from having a pen pal for a decade, who passed away last summer. “Getting something in the mail that’s not a bill, that’s not junk mail — it really means something,” she says. “You actually had to touch it with your hand, you had to write it, you had to lick the back of an envelope and get the stamp.”
She doesn’t know if any of the more than 100 poems she has sent have sparked the imaginations of their recipients. And that is by design. While Potell writes on the envelopes that the poem comes from the county’s poet laureate, she doesn’t include a return address because she doesn’t want people to feel pressure to respond. “I want it to be truly random,” she says. “Read it. Enjoy it or don’t enjoy it.”
Potell’s interpretation of her role is a far cry from how the job of a poet laureate was originally conceived. Beginning in 17th-century England, a poet laureate would write verse for historic occasions. “Annus Mirabilis,” an epic poem from the first person to hold the title, John Dryden, has more than a thousand lines of verse — about nautical battles, the Great Fire of London and other noteworthy events in 1666. In the United States, the role of national poet laureate grew from the Library of Congress’s consultant of poetry; the first was Joseph Auslander in 1937.
In modern times, the role has taken on a more educational slant. “The work that a poet laureate does highlights poetry and its value in a public sphere,” says Stephen Young, program director at the Poetry Foundation. “Sometimes poetry in this country and elsewhere is thought of as academic and esoteric and gets relegated to the back shelves. Successful laureates have brought it back to the forefront and shown that it can be meaningful to your life outside of the classroom.”
Rita Dove, now 66, says that when she started her two-year term as U.S. poet laureate in 1993, it “was more of an honorific than it was a job. Nothing much was expected for you beyond planning a reading series at the Library of Congress. I thought that because they had chosen someone as young as I was that meant they wanted me to do something, and I couldn’t imagine just sitting there.”
The commonwealth of Virginia has had a poet laureate since about a year before the country had one. Dozens of states similarly have their own, as do some cities (the District, for instance, has had two intermittently since the 1980s, and the neighboring city of Takoma Park, Md., has had someone in the role since 2005). Prince William was the first Virginia county to create the role, which comes with a $500 annual honorarium. (Arlington County has since followed suit.) The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has even made a holiday of it, proclaiming the Sunday before Columbus Day to be Poet Laureate Day.
The idea for the position came from Prince William resident and writer June Forte after a trip to the United Kingdom. “I took note how well they recognized their literary people, with statues, with plaques on doors,” she says, likening the treatment of authors across the pond to the reverence Americans show for military heroes. The Prince William County arts council picks the poet laureate from applicants who must have lived in the county for two years, contributed to the local poetry scene or written poetry of merit, and provided poetry samples, which need not be published. Teaching experience is a plus.
Potell has been writing poetry since she was a kid, and increased her output in high school. As a firefighter, “you meet people in some of the worst moments of their lives,” she says. “Phrases or ideas will pop into my head about what I just experienced.” She keeps a notebook in her locker to jot them down. But it’s only recently that she has begun to infuse her work with literary references to the actual job. In “father sees last picture of son in tunnel,” her poem about a New York firefighter who died on Sept. 11, 2001, she writes that “when you’re moving towards fire / fire is all you know.”
To find the verses for her greeting cards, Potell scours poetry books and searches online. She needs poems on the short to medium side, so people will be more inclined to read them. Sometimes they’ll be classics, though many of the poems that most moved her during transcription have been by living poets, such as Louise Erdrich, Yusef Komunyakaa and Rupi Kaur. She uses digital address directories to randomly choose recipients. “I know how good I feel when I get words out of me and on paper — you can breathe a little easier,” she says. “I thought, if I feel that way about writing poetry, maybe someone else will feel that way about writing it, or reading it, or feeling inspired to do something creative. I’m hoping that sending out these poems, people will think, ‘I haven’t thought about writing for a while.’ ”
If some previous laureates are any indication, she may be sending out poems long after her tenure ends. Robert Scott is still working on the project he started as county poet laureate five years ago. His goal is to collect 10,000 poems from residents, with plans to display them in schools. He has about 7,800 now, including thousands from children as well as “police officers and bank clerks and plumbers, too.”
Across the country, interest in poetry is increasing: A National Endowment for the Arts study found that 12 percent of American adults read poetry in 2017, up from less than 7 percent in 2012. In January, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a $2.2 million grant to bolster projects by local poets laureate and poetry organizations. Prince William is expanding its efforts as well, with plans to add another laureate. The county’s program also includes a circle of all poet laureate applicants, who meet to expand offerings for literary arts and make their proposed projects a reality. One project, Spilled Ink, an open-mic night every fourth Friday of the month for people to share their writing, recently added an additional evening. Alice Mergler, secretary of the county’s arts council and the coordinator of the program, says that Prince William will have a junior poet laureate in the spring after receiving so many poems from younger writers.
As far as Dove is concerned, “the more, the merrier.” She recalls visiting grade schools and feeling frustrated that “I could only do it one time in this place and I thought, ‘Who is going to keep them interested?’ because they were. At the local level, that can happen.”
Rachel Kurzius is the senior editor of DCist.