To June Forte, writing couldn’t be more important to the fabric of Virginia.
“Just think, Virginians wrote the country into existence,” she said.
To foster appreciation of that heritage and celebrate modern-day Virginia writing, Prince William County this spring will introduce what Forte thinks is the first county-level writer laureate program in the state. Forte — a writer, retired Pentagon communications specialist and Northern Virginia Community College communications instructor — chairs the project’s steering committee
The submission process for aspiring laureates opens this week and lasts until the end of next month. To qualify for the designation of writer laureate, which comes with an honorarium of $1,000, a writer must live in Prince William, Manassas, or Manassas Park, and must plan to live there for the next two years. He or she must submit work samples, a writing résumé and a proposal for a project that will promote the craft of writing in the county.
“This is not just an honorary title. What we really want to do is go out there and promote and expand and encourage poetry across the economic, educational and social strata, to bring poetry into the lives of people who never thought poetry was interesting,” Forte said.
The winner — who will be picked by a panel of judges from the county who are involved in areas such as academia, the military and business — will also receive a stipend of up to $1,500 to fund his or her chosen project. The position is open to all writers, not only poets.
Tackett’s Mill shopping center, whose owner plans to convert its lower level into an arts center next year, will pay the honorarium and project costs for the first writer laureate in exchange for the opportunity to host the June event at which the winner will be named. After that, the Prince William County Arts Council, a division of the Parks and Recreation Department, will be responsible for funding the biannual laureate.
Sheyna Burt, who heads the arts council, said she would like to see the program expand to include other laureates, such as a musician and a visual artist.
“I’m hoping it will say to people what I have come to learn about the county, which is that it is much deeper than we are given credit for being,” Burt said. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to change some perceptions of Prince William County. It’s not just a bedroom community. It’s a place where people are producing beautiful things.”
Forte pitched the idea of a county writer laureate to the arts council after she traveled to England in 2011. “Every tour talked about the writers and where they lived and where they slept. There were plaques on all their houses,” she said. Forte, who lives in Lake Ridge, compared the tours with those in her home town. “We don’t really value writers as much, if you look at our monuments, as we do warriors and statesmen.”
She also said politicians tend to emphasize the value of math and science when they speak about education. “In my mind, authors interpret all that stuff. You have to have somebody who can write who can explain all of that.”
Virginia and Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the city of Alexandria all have poets laureate.
The organizers of the Prince William program said the writer will not only enhance the community by teaching residents about literature but will also attract outside interest to Prince William.
“It really signals a welcome from the county to the literary and visual and performing arts communities,” Forte said. “And, in turn, when you do that, you foster economic development. That kind of community attracts companies that are paying attention to employee needs.”