Poetry Emotion: Sentiments drive work of Prince William County’s youngest Poet Laureate

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Prince William County Poet Laureate Michelle Garcia Woodbridge seen at Woodbridge Senior High School's unveiling ceremony for The Origin Project on May 24, 2023. (Courtesy, Michelle Garcia. Photo by Cathy Hailey)
Michelle Garcia loved books as a child, and a love for writing quickly followed. In fact, she wrote her first nonfiction piece at age 11, memorializing the day her grandfather passed away from cancer.

“I’ve always been a writer before I was even old enough to know it,” she said. “It’s been innate for as long as I can remember.”

Garcia is currently Poet Laureate of Prince William County and, at age 23, is the youngest person in the role since the Prince William County Arts Council founded the program in 2014. She was named Poet Laureate in October 2022 and will continue for another year.

“I’ve always been sentimental, even as a kid, but poetry became a method of capturing, processing and understanding things that felt too big for someone my age to grasp,” said Garcia, who is from Lake Ridge, where her family moved when she was a toddler.

After pursuing a myriad of artistic interests as a child – including dance, theater and violin – she zoned in on writing, participating in a writing cohort with the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts while at Woodbridge High School.

She went on to Virginia Tech, graduating in 2021 with a degree in English literature and language, communication science and social inquiry, and creative writing.

Garcia said she has used poetry to express and exist since she learned how to write. She shared her poems online as a teenager. Before graduating from college, she compiled a collection of poems she had written over the years and self-published them. Her book, “Cul-de-sac Angels,” topped the Amazon bestseller list overnight for poetry by women.

She whittled down her collection and released a second edition of “Cul-de-sac Angels” in March. Her poetry weaves the nature of Shenandoah and the Northern Virginia suburbs into her visceral experience growing up.

Garcia considers Blacksburg a second home, but credits Lake Ridge for nurturing her interests. “I learned how to experiment here, and it was the perfect breeding ground for artistic passion,” she said. “I learned the value of never taking beauty for granted here.”

One of Garcia’s high school English teachers and now a mentor, Cathy Hailey, helped form the Poet Laureate Circle as a community for nominees and laureates. Hailey’s daughter, Alexandra, was one of the first two Prince William Poet Laureates. She passed away in 2018.

“I knew I wanted to involve myself in the Northern Virginia arts scene, and applying for Poet Laureate seemed like a first step in trying to do just that,” Garcia said.

The program is open to anyone 21 and over who has resided in the county for at least the prior two years and will continue their residency for the two-year term. A panel of local judges reviews the nominations and selects the honoree.

Previous poet laureates in addition to Alexandra Hailey include spoken word poet Kim B. Miller, firefighter Natalie Potell, teacher Kathy Smaltz and English teacher Dr. Robert Scott.

June Forte proposed the program to the Arts Council in 2013 as a way to recognize writers, make poetry accessible and highlight the value of poetry.

The Poet Laureate develops programs to encourage community engagement with poetry. During her first year, Garcia has performed spoken word poetry, hosted high school master classes and developed a community project that will go live before the end of the year.

Through her time as Poet Laureate, Garcia realized her passion for education, too. She hopes to inspire a love for the arts during her term and beyond – “the same love that transformed my life,” she said.

“[Art is] a way to embrace each other and make sense of humanity – which is more important now than ever before,” she added.

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