Circle of Laureates

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By Dan Verner

Local writer and former teacher Alice Mergler laughs frequently for someone on a mission, but she, along with others, is decidedly on one. She’s part of a group that
works to encourage the writing of poetry and to stage events where people come together to celebrate the art, the people who write it and those who appreciate it.

To that end, in 2014, Mergler, Cathy Hailey, Kathy Smaltz, Robert Scott, John Dutton, Joe DeCesare, and Paulette Garner established the Poet Laureate Circle (PLC), which grew out of the Prince William County Poet Laureate application process.

June Forte, a speech communications professor at Northern Virginia Community College, was largely responsible for the creation of the laureate position. “I knew there were poets laureate in nearby states and locales, including the National Poet Laureate sponsored by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and I thought we needed one,” she said. “I brought a proposal for the position to the Prince William Arts Council, and they approved it and formed a committee to select a poet laureate. We looked at fifteen applications for the position, which required a proposal for a project related to poetry. Our judging panel selected Robert Scott, a Prince William County
public school teacher, and Alexandra Hailey, then a college student, for our first poets laureate. It was the first such position for a county in Virginia.” (Several cities in Virginia had laureates at that time.)

Kathy Smaltz, Prince William Poet Laureate 2016-2018 (pwartscouncil.org)

Scott and Hailey were crowned at Summerfest, an arts festival at the Clearbrook Center of the Arts at Tacketts Mill, in June 2014. Prince William County school teacher Kathy Smaltz succeeded them at the festival in June 2016.

Mergler formed the Poet Laureate Circle from those who weren’t chosen to become the laureate. This group then decided to move the laureate celebration to the fall of the year and to stage it in the Hylton Center for the Performing Arts on the Prince William campus of George Mason University in Manassas.

Poets Branch Out
The Circle first sponsored “In the Company of Laureates” in 2015 at the Hylton Center, with readings, speakers and workshops. With Smaltz continuing as laureate, the PLC, along with the Clearbrook Center of the Arts, the Prince William County Arts Council and the Poetry Society of Virginia, sponsored the second “In the Company of Laureates” festival last October. In 2015, Prince William’s County Board of Supervisors proclaimed that day—the Sunday before Columbus Day every year—as “Poets Laureate Day.” As part of the program, 19 poets laureate from as far afield as Delaware, North Carolina and Maryland read from their poems and conducted workshops for about 80 people. Local poets read at an open mic in Merchant
Hall, while writers signed copies of their books in the lobby as participants looked at literary journals on display.

The Laureate Circle also hosted readings at Arts Alive! 2017, an annual arts festival presented by the Prince William County Arts Council, and held at the Hylton Performing Arts Center last September.

Antonia Kilday, a local poet and writer, noted, “The PLC is about expanding the reach and community of poetry in our area by collaborating and working with other groups. The PLC shows everyone how fun, versatile, diverse, and accessible poetry can
be. My own daughter was so inspired at Arts Alive that she wrote some poems and shared them at Spilled Ink in September.”

Laureate Circle Members Give Back
Members of the Laureate Circle are also involved with their own projects. Paulette Garner has worked with young women in the Prince William County Detention Center to inspire them to write poetry. They said they found it cathartic and “fun.” Joe
DeCesare created small journals for participants in the Circle’s booth at an Octoberfest in Old Town Manassas. In January 2015, John Dutton founded Spilled Ink, an open mic which now hosts as many as 35 writers of all ages and types, who read from a variety of writings to audiences of 40 or more at Jirani Coffeehouse in Manassas. Dutton acts as an enthusiastic and encouraging emcee for the event and is also currently working on a project that will bring poets to the 11 county libraries to
conduct workshops.

Mergler notes that the writers and those who participate in Laureate Circle events come together to encourage each other and raise the profile of poetry. She said, “Each of us has made writing poetry and mentoring other poets an important part of our lives, and we’re just getting started!”

Smiling, and with a twinkle in her eye, she leans back and adds, “With backing from groups like the Clearbrook Foundation and the Prince William County Arts Council and with our evergrowing and ongoing projects, we are seeing enthusiasm and
excitement from poets and audiences alike. This gives us the will and the energy to press forward. We know, and we are helping others realize, that poetry rules!”

And thanks to Alice Mergler and others like her, local poetry does rule as it never has before.

The Poet Laureate Circle meets the fourth Friday of the month at 6:00 p. m. at Jirani Coffeehouse in Historic Manassas. Spilled Ink follows at 7:00 p. m. Information can be found on the Spilled Ink VA Facebook page or at spilledinkva.com.

Dan Verner ([email protected]) is the author of several books (danverner.com) and was named “Best Writer in Prince William County (Virginia)” for 2014 and 2015 by readers in a “Best of Prince William” poll taken by Prince William Today.

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