Today we hear from two writers who have made careers in literature organisations, at times combining part-time jobs and starting their own companies! In this feature, Ed Cottrell speaks about his roles in digital content and marketing for New Writing South and Modern Poetry in Translation, while Julia Bird tells us all about how she founded Jaybird Live Literature. Both of them have some juicy advice (and jibes) – so let’s dive right in.
Name and job titles: My name is Ed Cottrell. I currently divide my time between two jobs: I am Digital and Marketing Manager at New Writing South, and Digital Content Editor at Modern Poetry in Translation magazine (MPT).
Length of time working in the arts: Almost a decade now! I’ve been working in the arts since February 2011, when I joined Writers’ Centre Norwich (now the National Centre for Writing) as Digital and Media Officer.
Could you tell us a bit about your current roles? As both my current organisations are at the small end of the scale (in terms of staff, not in terms of ambition) I am effectively a one-person marketing department for both. On a normal day, my role covers everything from website updates, to promoting magazine or ticket sales, and covering social media accounts. There are always other strands happening in the background though. At MPT, recently, we ran an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for a special issue of MPT focusing on Dead Women Poets. We’ve also been running a series of online events – the pandemic has prevented us from holding real-world readings, so we’ve had to adapt to a new way of reaching our audiences. In some unexpected ways it has been beneficial – we’ve been able to beam poets in from all round the world.
My role at New Writing South is extremely varied – it’s a literature development organisation, so our core work involves holding workshops and classes, promoting live events, and offering support and mentoring to emerging writers. We also work in partnership with a wide selection of organisations, including libraries, theatres, universities and publishers. Marketing is a big part of the role – making sure we sell tickets to our workshops and events, and making sure people know who we are. I’m also involved in planning digital projects and campaigns.
How did you get into these roles? I studied English and Comparative Literature at University of Warwick, and stayed on to do an MA there – which made me realise I am not an academic. I don’t really come from an arts family. My dad and his dad were scientists, and my mum was a teacher (quite predictably, an English teacher).
My real transferable skills don’t come from work experience. In my teens and early twenties, I played in a series of bands, so I learned naturally about using recording equipment, editing a website, using basic design software, and running events – all of which are skills I still use today. Through university, I taught myself some basic animation and film editing skills when I probably should have been working on essays, but then I had no idea how to use these skills in the real world. My first job (aside from working in pop-up kitchens and warehouses) was as Digital and Media Officer at Writers’ Centre Norwich, which I was fortunate to be offered via the Jerwood bursary scheme.
I was lucky with this first job: it offered me a direct bridge between the digital media projects I’d been doing for fun, and the literary world I was drawn to. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs since then (not all of them digitally focused) but understanding both ‘technical’ and ‘creative’ elements has remained an advantage.
What advice would you give to young people getting into arts careers? The variety of jobs in the arts are not immediately obvious – and in my experience, generalist recruitment websites are the very worst place to look, and can be quite disheartening. But don’t be disheartened.
Practically, I would recommend signing up to the arts jobs bulletin – I used to read these emails on a daily basis, for several years. It is also useful just to see the variety of jobs out there, where they are located, what the organisations do, and the pay scales you can expect at different levels of your career. This helped me map out the terrain and different jobs that were available.
A second piece of advice may be useful later on. When I first started out, I was prone to overwork and burnout. When I had a big project on – I would drop everything else in my life to focus on it. I had to work hard to shake this habit. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to sleep more, eat healthily, and remember to exercise. You are more than your job.
Find out more about New Writing South: New Writing South is the regional writer development agency for southeast England. There are lots of regional writer development agencies across England, and they often do lots of work for young or emerging writers – find your local one here. New Writing South offer training, bursaries, meetups and more for local writers.
Find out more about Modern Poetry in Translation: Founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965, MPT is the leading journal for poetry translated into English. It brings together brings the best new poetry, essays and reviews from around the world, and aims to give voice to the silenced, exiled and excluded, and create a diverse and creative community of translators, poets and readers.
Name and current job title: Julia Bird, Learning & Participation Manager at The Poetry Society
Length of time in the arts: 20+ years. Here’s my speedy post-90s English Lit degree CV:
- Work experience / internships (some voluntary, some paid) at the National Youth Music Theatre, a couple of arts centres local to where I grew up, and the marketing department of a bigger regional producing theatre
- Job #1: Education Officer in an arts centre, Gloucestershire
- Job #2: Marketing & Education Officer at the Poetry Book Society, London
- Job #3: lots of part-time different positions over a good few years at the Poetry School, London, culminating in the Head of Programmes role. I devised poetry education classes and activities for adults.
- Also Job #3: at the same time, I was the creative producer in my own company, Jaybird Live Literature.
- Current job: Learning & Participation Manager for The Poetry Society. I manage the education team to deliver work for young people (e.g. Young Poets Network!) and work on other projects for adult audiences and participants.
Could you tell us a bit about your current role? I’m going to skip back one job and talk about live literature producing, because I don’t think anyone in this series of features has done something similar yet.
Through Jaybird Live Literature, I produced eight touring poetry shows, and collaborated on a number of other literature projects including an installation at London’s Southbank Centre which had 8 million visitors.
The poetry shows were Jaybird’s speciality. We’d work with ‘page’ poets – usually three at a time – to make thematic shows of about an hour long. We did one about love, one about power, one about identity – and each set of poems would be read or recited by the poets on stage with direction, sets, subtle costuming, and a lighting and sound design to enhance their words. The shows toured to theatres and arts centres round the UK – as far down as Truro, as far up as St Andrews.
The most recent one I worked on featured the poems of Ella Frears, Will Harris and Alex MacDonald, and it was a show loosely about finding your place in the world as an adult. In devising the show, we worked with a focus group of young poets that we identified through a collaboration with The Poetry Society, and we asked them particularly about what they found beautiful. YouTubers’ bedrooms, they told us! That’s why the set for the show – called What Days We’re Having Now – was covered in fairy lights and fake Polaroids.
Could you tell us about how you got into this role? Working at the Poetry Book Society (PBS) at the same time starting to write poems myself, I went to many, many poetry readings. I started to wonder if there was a way to combine the best of what they offered with the sort of experience I’d had at the first arts centre I worked at. Small theatre companies would arrive there with a touring show whose set fitted in a suitcase, and with the barest of props and lighting designs they would create beautiful, immersive worlds on a 10ft square stage.
I’d done some freelance author tour management while I was at the PBS, so I came to the attention of the Arts Council who at that time (mid 00s) were putting money into live literature. They suggested I put together a proposal for a touring poetry show. I did, it worked, so I carried on building. The role called for a combination of skills: having an initial creative idea, the practical fundraising, budget-balancing, logistical abilities to move a show round the country, and the willingness to do a little bit of everything. I enjoyed putting a marketing plan together as much as nipping up a ladder to focus a light. I particularly enjoyed the show we did with pyrotechnics because I got to press the ‘Cue fireworks!’ button night after night.
Could you share some advice for a young person interested in getting into the arts? There have been some great answers in this series already! I’d like to add something about the financial implications of working in the arts – both how it was at the beginning for me and how it is now, and what visible and invisible advantages helped. I didn’t know anyone who worked in the arts when I first started so I didn’t have useful connections to maximise; but I did live at home for two years after university, juggling part-time arts jobs and waitressing. I could only do that because my mum and dad helped support me financially during that period. Thanks, parents! Also, student loans at the time were negligible by today’s standards, so I didn’t have that debt hanging over me as I was trying to make career decisions. Since that first part-time job however, I have worked steadily and solely in the arts, in both employed and self-employed capacities. I’m neither broke nor rich, but I am aware that I was extremely fortunate to find an affordable shared ownership housing scheme about twelve years ago so I could part buy / part rent a flat.
When I was nineteen, I did a BRILLIANT week long course at the Royal Opera House (during which I nearly met Keanu Reeves, but that’s a different story) getting introduced to a bit of dance, a bit of opera, a bit of stage management etc. A slightly jaded ROH arts administrator of about the level of seniority I am now told me that of course if I worked in the arts I’d never be able to afford anywhere to live. She couldn’t see my financial future and I can’t see yours, so I wouldn’t advise you similarly – but I would be honest about the fact that you will earn more as – for example – an accountant than an arts administrator. I am someone who has made arts world wages work through a combination of luck and canniness, and am confident I made the right career choices. The world of accountancy is much better off without me in it.
Is there anything you wish your younger self had known about working in the arts? If you want to work for an arts organisation, think about how it has to operate within certain parameters. It may be a charity with a stated charitable mission, or it may have agreements with funders to deliver this sort of work for that sort of audience(s). Your work within that organisation at whatever level will help support that purpose, so check that you share an organisation’s values before you start working for them. Work out how your skills and interests can best creatively contribute to that organisation’s goal. (If you want to work for yourself on your own projects, however, you can make those goals and interests much more personal.)
Also (accountancy jibes notwithstanding), it’s a good idea to pick up some basic budgeting skills. Any funding application you ever make will need a budget, and if you eventually want to head up a project or a department or an organisation you will need to know how to manage its money effectively. Make friends with Excel, early on.
What other jobs are there within literature organisations like Jaybird Live Literature?
There are many ways to produce live literature for the stage, but the roles that were most pertinent to the sort of work Jaybird did were –
- Creative producer: come up with the idea, raise the money to pay for it, approach the poets, work with the director to create the show, organise the tour, oversee the marketing, book the hotels, make sure everyone’s got a pizza at the end of the show.
- Director: move the poets beautifully through time and space on stage. Our main director combined theatrical training with window-dressing experience – the perfect combination for us.
- Lighting & sound designer / operator: create a lighting and sound design to enhance the show, recreate that design at every venue using a wild variety of available lights and sound equipment. Sometimes also drive the van to transport the set.
- Venue programmer: the person in the theatre or arts centre who books, pays for and helps bring in an audience for the show.
Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. Find our first careers feature with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger here, our second with Annette Brook from the Royal Society of Literature and Ali Lewis at Poetry London here, our third with Verve Festival and Press’s Stuart Bartholomew and Spread the Word’s Bobby Nayyar here, our fourth with harana poetry’s co-editors Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante here, our fifth with Hive South Yorkshire founder Vicky Morris here, and our sixth with Brent Borough of Culture Assistant Producer Dhiyandra Natalegawa here.
Ed Cottrell currently has two jobs in the arts, as Digital Content Editor at Modern Poetry in Translation and Digital and Marketing Manager at New Writing South. Alongside working in the arts he is a writer. He has been awarded the 2018 Desperate Literature prize for short fiction, is featured in Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press), and has been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize.
Julia Bird is the Learning & Participation Manager at The Poetry Society, and has worked previously in various programming, marketing and education roles at Brewery Arts in Gloucestershire, The Poetry Book Society and The Poetry School. Her independent production company Jaybird Live Literature has produced eight Arts Council-funded touring poetry shows. She has published two poetry collections, a pamphlet and a collaborative artists’ book. More details at www.juliabird.wordpress.com