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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Dream Jobs and Reality: Poetry in the Workplace

Chrissy Williams discusses her new line of work: digitising a century's worth of printed poetry at the Southbank Centre Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall in London. 

The first time I entered the Poetry Library as an official employee I felt like I was walking into Oz: everything suddenly turned into colour, becoming more fantastical and vivid than before.

Explaining my new job at the Poetry Library to people who have no interest in either poetry or books has been interesting: "No, you don't stamp the books in rhyme"; "No, I haven't made tea for Carol Ann Duffy"; "No, I don't take my glasses off and shake my hair out for Andrew Motion". I have a long history in editorial work (in educational, children's and mass-market reference books, videogames magazines, and even makeover "bookazines" – if you don't know what those are, you're lucky), and some people expressed surprise that I was giving up my tangible career path in favour of something they deemed to be "less ambitious". In previous editorial job interviews, when asked, "What would be your dream project?" I'd always answer, "Something to do with poetry?" and wait for the inevitable hysterical laughter. Other people, however, understood exactly what this new job would be like: heaven.

For starters, even without the poetry, the workplace is wonderful. I've got a lovely view of Somerset House and a bit of the Thames out of the window. Covent Garden's just over the bridge. There's free tea and coffee, shiny new stationery and whimsical internal emails from the Southbank Centre asking things like "Do you want to take part in our production of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "Fancy abseiling down Capital Tower?" Colleagues are all helpful, polite and friendly. My chair is comfy and adjustable. I have more staples than I know what to do with. I'm already in employment bliss.

My job title is Digitisation Coordinator and I look after the online Poetry Magazines archive at www.poetrymagazines.org.uk. For the most part, I digitise physical magazines, putting the content onto the website and proofreading it before it goes live. I'm not actually working behind the front desk though; I'm tucked away in the office (I have received the front desk training, however, and can confirm that stamping books with the big "cha-chung" date stamp is as completely thrilling as my 10-year-old self suspected it might be – "Look, Mum, I'm a li-bra-ri-an!").

The digitisation itself is very systematic work which I suppose could technically be described as "rather tedious". Everything has to be done in order, one step at a time: saving and labelling files, scanning pages, extracting text and images and reformatting them for the web, not to mention actually entering the content onto the website in tiny chunks, split into title, author, publication, poem, and so on, before proofreading the whole lot. It's odd to be so entirely governed by short, repetitive administrative tasks in a workplace that centres on a creative art, but I actually find it immensely satisfying. There's a structural purity to the tasks, and the goals in sight are obvious and attainable.

My primary concern is that each poem is reproduced faithfully, making an accurate transition from page to screen. The difference in spacing and size between two different fonts (the one in the magazine and the one on our website) can mean the difference between clarity and obscurity, so everything needs very careful attention. I've caught myself looking at poems to assess at a glance how easy they'll be to translate into online text. Formalist lyric poetry is generally no problem. Experimental free verse that dribbles down the page with multiple spaces, inconsistent tabs and an assortment of typographical oddities is the only material I deal with that brings on a sensation approximating anxiety.

In addition to the systematic entering and proofreading of work, I also generate keywords and phrases that will help our search engine locate each poem. With each piece I have to ask myself: "What would someone want to search for in order for this poem to be a useful result?" It's an interesting exercise in comparing the different ways poems communicate meaning, and I've added all sorts of keywords, from "death" and "divorce" to "tigers" and "Ben and Jerry". To look at it coldly, I'm simply assigning keywords to web pages after paying close attention to abstract data. To look at it another way, I get paid to spend a reasonable portion of my days reading poetry.

Of course, it's frustrating that the whole process is such a drawn-out one. When you combine the digitisation, uploading and proofreading processes with the business of clearing copyright with each individual poet, you can imagine how complicated it can get, especially when some of the magazines have been out of action for 30 years or more, and some of the poets dead for even longer.

The collection is building up, however, and reflects the diversity of poetry magazines, from the first ever issue of Poetry Review (published in 1912 with reviews of trifling contemporary books like Ezra Pound's Canzoni) to poetry packaged in matchboxes (Matchbox ran from 2006 to 2008).

Forthcoming additions include the bizarrely compelling 1970s magazine Strange Faeces and a 1926 copy of Oxford Poets featuring poems by W. H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis. And these don't even begin to touch the wealth of amazing poetry magazines housed within the Poetry Library's main collection.

I expect people come to the site for all sorts of reasons. Some will just want to find poems about dogs, some will want to research specific poets, others will want some help and information on getting their poems published in magazines. The site is useful for all of these purposes. Having these magazines online means people can read them even if they're not able to come into the Poetry Library itself. It's not about replacing books or magazines – we never put up issues that are too recent without the editor’s consent, as we don't want to interfere with magazine sales. In fact, the feedback we have had from editors is that their magazines having a strong online presence actually increases sales of the physical magazine. We're slowly building a digital archive in the same way that we have a physical archive in the Library – a collection that's freely accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. Imagine if we got a million pounds tomorrow, enough to hire a small army of digitisers, enough to put every archived magazine online, so that every single poetry magazine published since 1912 was right at your fingertips. You can't see, but I'm actually salivating right now at the thought.

For me, the essence of the work is simple: I've arrived at the Emerald City and been given a job by the Wizard(s). It's a daily pleasure not only to be surrounded by poems from floor to ceiling, but to have a hand in creating a home for them, making it easier for people to find, enjoy and be inspired by poetry. I fear all this has made me sound a bit idealistic. It's probably because I am.

Visit the Poetry Magazines website here: www.poetrymagazines.org.uk