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Rhyme and reason

Laureate uses mail to promote poetry

Natalie Potell, poet laureate for Prince William County, VA
Natalie Potell, poet laureate for Prince William County, VA, is using the mail to promote poetry.

Natalie Potell is a firefighter, but she does more than save lives.

Potell is also the poet laureate for Prince William County, VA, where she lives and works. She writes poems and mails them to county residents that she chooses at random, aiming to lift spirits one envelope at a time.

“I try to send out letters every week,” said Potell, who has mailed more than 100 poems since becoming poet laureate last fall. “I enjoy dropping them off at the Post Office.”

Laureates are appointed by local, state and national governments around the world to promote poetry and compose poems for special events. Potell, a professional firefighter, is serving a two-year term as Prince William County’s poet laureate.

As far as Potell knows, she’s the only laureate in the United States who mails poetry. She was inspired to make mail part of her role after the death of a former pen pal.

“His nephew found our letters,” she said. “I just thought it was so amazing that letters still have the ability to mean that much to somebody.”

Stephen Young, program director at the Poetry Foundation, recently told The Washington Post that Potell is helping to educate her community about the value of poetry.

“Sometimes poetry in this country and elsewhere is thought of as academic and esoteric and gets relegated to the back shelves,” Young said. “Successful laureates have brought it back to the forefront and shown that it can be meaningful to your life outside of the classroom.”

Potell hopes that recipients are surprised “in a good way” by her efforts. “When they read [the mailed poems], I’m hoping it makes them think or reminds them to check out more poetry, or to write a letter of their own,” she said.

More than anything, she wants her letters to touch others’ lives.

“Just getting a letter in the mail really means something — more than a text message or Facebook update,” she said.

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