Sarah Stewart is the Project Manager of The Written World, which is aiming to broadcast a poem on the radio from every competing nation in London 2012. Here, she talks about her path from journalism to publishing...
Full name/age/job title:
Sarah Stewart, 33, The Written World Project Manager.
The Written World is a major collaboration between BBC Radio, The Scottish Poetry Library and Creative Scotland, where we broadcast a poem from every competing Olympic nation on the radio in celebration of 2012. I’m also a freelance writer and editor and the co-director of The Lighthouse Children’s Literary Consultancy.
Please give us an overview of your average day.
Really (although I’m sure everyone says this!) no two days are the same. I might be researching poetry from Africa, working with our publicist, meeting BBC producers, trying to track down copyright holders for an old poem from Lichtenstein, writing web content, proofreading, checking in with translators... Recently I was in London at the Southbank’s huge Poetry Parnassus festival, and a couple of weeks ago I was taking a dissident poet from Turkmenistan to read at an event in Glasgow. It’s really varied.
What is the most common misconception about your job?
That poetry is something difficult or hard to relate to. In fact, there IS a poem out there for everyone – I firmly believe this! Too many people think of having to memorise poetry at school, and then associate it with a dusty, musty world that’s nothing to with them. But there is so much poetry, modern and old, that will “say something to you about your life” (to paraphrase Morrissey horribly).
What is the hardest thing about your role?
The debates we have over which poems will work for radio – especially when people passionately champion a particular poet. There is a wealth of poetry out there from almost every part of the world; the problem is that we can only select one poem from each country. That said, I’m happy when people care enough about a poem to get riled up about it…
When did you decide what you wanted to do with your life and how did you set out to achieve it?
I don’t think anyone should feel pushed into deciding what to do with their life until they’ve lived a bit of it! All I knew was that I wanted to work with words. So I didn’t go straight to university – I worked as a trainee journalist for a year at DC Thomson in Dundee. After my undergraduate degree in English Lit at Edinburgh, I moved to London, working my way up from Editorial Assistant to Editor on a range of magazines. I ended up writing for everyone from The Guardian to Mizz magazine. After interviewing Cheryl Cole for the fourth time, I realised I needed a change (sorry, Cheryl) and moved into book editing, as Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children’s Books. In 2010 I moved back to Scotland, did a Masters in Creative Writing at St Andrews and set up my literary consultancy with another former editor. When this role came up at the Scottish Poetry Library I knew it was a perfect mix for me – poetry, media and editorial skills combined.
What can you do to get a head start?
Give up your time for free. It’s tough when you need to work full-time, but volunteer with local poetry groups in the evenings if poetry’s your thing, or offer to write free reviews for local papers and magazines if you want to write. Blog. Be politely opinionated. Smile at people.
Could you describe the creative element to your job?
I’m surrounded by creativity – stacks of beautiful poetry books! But there’s also creativity in writing good web content, or in making a poem that may at first seem challenging into something interesting and fun. We’re also always looking for that elusive line that will make a great poster or an eye-catching tweet. And I write poetry myself, but I save that for the weekends…
What’s the one thing you wish you had known at the start of your career that you know now?
That the path wouldn’t be straight, and that that would be absolutely fine. I have loved the variety of my career so far.
Which organisations/websites/resources do you think would be useful for people entering your industry?
The Scottish Poetry Library has an excellent website full of resources for anyone who writes, reads, or wants to see live poetry. International poetry fans should look at the brilliant Poetry Translation Centre or Poetry International websites. For folk who want to be journalists, a good blog and a bit of work experience is key. If you want to write books, a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, a biro and notebook is all you need!
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