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From Chem Lab To Laureate

Mary McElveen takes challenge as city’s second ever official poet.

Mary McElveen had been writing since the eighth grade, and wanted to continue honing her craft in college. “Unfortunately, I had a very strong-minded chemistry teacher in high school who said, ‘You know, if you go to college you’ll be far better off if you start with Science,’” she said. “And then there’s a little of that Catholic guilt that says you should never do anything that’s too easy.”

Writing came easily to her; math and chemistry were more challenging. So she majored in chemistry at Mount Saint Agnes College in Baltimore and eventually became a high-school chemistry teacher at Robinson Secondary in Fairfax — slowly drawing familiar parallels between her challenging profession and her true passion.

“What you’re doing in science, basically, is looking for patterns. Looking at things from different directions, and seeing how they fit together,” she said.

“Poetry is sort of the same way.”

This month, McElveen was appointed as only the second recognized Poet Laureate for the City of Alexandria. The Old Town resident said she was one of 18 applicants for the vacant position, last held by the late Jean Elliott, who died in 1999.

There is, naturally, something poetic about McElveen succeeding Elliott. After McElveen’s family relocated to Alexandria in 1999, they attended Sunday services at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House on S. Fairfax Street — Elliot’s former church. “The first Sunday that we went to that church, the announcement was made that she had died the day before and that she had left her house to the church,” recalled McElveen.

A dedicated volunteer for the church, she frequently worked in the converted office space over the last several years.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Jean Eliot’s old house,” said McElveen.

THE CITY’S SEARCH for a new Poet Laureate was instigated by Councilman Ludwig Gaines in 2004, who sent a memorandum to City officials asking them to consider appointing someone new to the vacant position. “A Poet Laureate would serve as an official resource available to commemorate for present enjoyment, as well as posterity, the city’s history and historic events, installations, groundbreakings and public dedications,” he wrote.

When the call went out for a new Laureate, McElveen’s daughter Sarah passed the advertisement along to her mother. She had a considerable archive of writing — poems, essays and stories — that had been crafted over the years on her own and with the help of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, which offered her a chance to work with other writers to develop material and broaden her horizons.

“She’s so multi-talented,” said Mary Moriarty, a friend of McElveen’s and a chairperson in the English department at West Springfield High School. “She has such a good read on people and what’s going on around her.”

The poetry McElveen submitted for the Laureate competition include humorous observations about corporate culture to autobiographical stories of anxiety to recollections of her daughters Sarah and Kay. . “When you’re writing poetry, you’re writing about yourself,” she said. “Someone once told me that when you have children, it’s like having your heart walk around outside of your body for the rest of your life. In a way, poetry is like taking your brain, putting it out there and letting it walk around.”

So there’s a little biology in poetry — just like there’s plenty of chemistry.

“Poetry is about getting everything down to the bare minimum. Getting things down to the best possible word. And doing things in a pattern,” she said. “It’s all tied together. I do it to explain myself to me.”

WHEN WORD BEGAN to spread about her appointment as Alexandria’s Poet Laureate, McElveen was exposed to a myriad of reactions — from “I didn’t know you even wrote poetry!” to “What’s a poet laureate?”

“I tell them I’m an advocate for literacy,” she said. “To some extent, I think that’s why they selected me. They were asking for ideas to market poetry, to encourage poetry in the city. If there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s ideas.”

Indeed, along with her fluid prose and captivating style, McElveen may have separated herself from the pack by virtue of her passion for literature and language. She talks about bringing poetry back into the schools, having students memorize famous works. She talks about beginning a traditional “Burns Dinner” in town — a January feast of haggis, scotch and lyrics dedicated to Scottish poet Robert Burns. She even speaks about potential synergy between local businesses and poets, such as having postcards with a photo of a business on one side and a poem on the other.

More importantly, she wants to help facilitate the surging popularity of poetry, which has been bolstered by everything from pop culture to hip-hop music. “The more music you have in the world, the more poetry there is in the world,” she said.

As Laureate, Mary McElveen wants to leave her mark on society in a way she never would have been able to in a high-school Science classroom.

“I never had anything I could point to and say, ‘Hey, I accomplished that,’” she said. “My family would hate me for saying this, because they hate when I say it…but this is a great obituary item.”