THE St David’sDay announcement that Welsh poet and educator Sophie McKeand is to become the new Young People’s Laureate of Wales was met by much applause on social media.
Despite Sophie’s (uncharacteristic) loss for words during the surprise phone call just before Christmas, it takes little imagination to see why Literature Wales chose her for the role.
Sophie’s love of working with young people is rooted in her personal experience: “I hated school but loved books. I was reading reading reading but not the stuff I was supposed to read.
“I actually felt like poetry was irrelevant to me. It was only when I went back to university that I started to understand it.”
Aged 28, Sophie left behind the security (and tedium) of her job in sales and sold the house where she and her eight-year-old daughter lived. They moved to North Wales and Sophie began a degree in English and Creative Writing, while earning what she could by copy-writing on the side.
More than 12 years have passed since those days of writing copy for wrought-iron manuals, and Sophie revels in her U-turn of lifestyle. As a full-time freelancer she has not just created her own award-winning poetry, but has also worked tirelessly to encourage creativity among communities through workshops and gigs.
Sophie is a great believer in sticking at it: “It hasn’t been one of those stories where a teenager wrote a Shakespearean sonnet and became a legendary poet. For me it’s a craft and I’ve just kept learning how to write.”
“Slogging your guts out for 10 years is such a truer representation of life, rather than having someone suddenly pop into everyone’s consciousness as a success.”
Here our conversation turned into a screening of Shia LaBoeuf’s Just Do It speech, which Sophie insisted I watch (with a great deal of amusement). Amid the laughter she picked out one particular line: you should get to the point where anyone else would quit and you’re not going to stop there.
It is this emphasis on willpower against the odds that Sophie wants to highlight as Young People’s Laureate. “If children are being pegged as difficult and written off by the system, it’s not that they are not bright,” she insists. “We mustn’t let them be funnelled in a certain way, and instead need to ask: why are they struggling?”
On taking up the two-year role in April, Sophie intends to use her time to encourage young people’s initiatives in a sustainable way. She gives various examples of these, including Voicebox – a popular collective of poets on the North Wales poetry scene.
It was this sort of event that first boosted Sophie’s confidence in her early stages as a poet. After pushing herself to travel up to Liverpool’s Dead Good Poets’ Society, she used to perform her poetry in a big netted skirt to hide her trembling knees and memorised all her lines to avoid letting the audience see her nervous hands holding notes.
A while later (and tired of commuting to Liverpool), Sophie and her partner Andy founded a poetry event closer to home: The Absurd. She feels that a performance element may be more accessible in allowing young people to engage with poetry and believes performance poetry might benefit from being stitched into Welsh theatres.
Sophie has always hugely valued collaboration, and her enthusiasm for National Theatre Wales TEAM is especially infectious. Critical Chinwag is a scheme in which NTW funds play tickets for TEAM members and friends (as well as a few post-theatre drinks) so they can discuss the drama and blog about it.
Sophie is considering how involvement in theatre might help performance poetry: “If it can be stitched into theatre then that might be a way for it to gain a little more funding.”
She continues: “I hope to create as many diverse opportunities as possible. I want to let young people take control of things and help promote what they want to do. The arts need to be out of that ivory tower; everyone is uniquely gifted.”
The Night Out Young Promoters Scheme is another initiative that Sophie intends to boost. She describes it as a project supporting young people to host arts events in their community, which might not necessarily see much theatre in the area.
Sophie’s passionate confidence in the arts’ potential to help people is inspiring. “I get a bit philosophical, but I genuinely believe the way to change the world is through the arts.
“The arts doesn’t change the world in itself, but it does change the individual. Every time somebody starts to engage and learns how to express themselves you can see that bit of confidence grow, and they just walk that little bit taller.”
Check out Sophie McKeand’s Young Ones to Watch: