Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Poetrygate": your chance to stand up and be counted

There's trouble at the Poetry Society. A few weeks ago, the President, Director and Finance Officer of the Society resigned, without explanation.

Much of the ensuing controversy has been connected to a lack of clarity from the Society following these events. The resignations have been made public, yes. But members of the Society have not been given any clear explanation for why these resignations occurred, nor been allowed any official discussion of how we move forward as a Society. It seems a reasonable request for full disclosure to be granted to the membership if these resignations are in any way connected.

The Evening Standard came up with some further information, but no more than was already privately circulating between members.

Some bloggers and other commentators are now starting to discuss the matter, but timidly, most not wishing to find themselves sidelined later for having been one of 'the hardy few', as Ms Baroque puts it, who dared discuss the matter. A recent post went up at Carrie Etter's blog and was removed after a torrent of libellous comments appeared, the debate unceremoniously erased.

Now people are beginning to draw comparisons between recent events and the Poetry Wars of the 1970s, when barricades were manned at the old Po Soc HQ and poets huddled about the braziers for six long years, warming their hands on copies of each other's Selected Works.

The Evening Standard claims that all this furore has come about because "Fiona Sampson, editor of the Poetry Review, the magazine overseen by the Society, had asked for autonomy from the director, and has been pushing the focus of the society from education to promoting high-profile poets."

I have known Fiona Sampson a number of years. She is a fine editor with excellent and pleasingly eclectic tastes in poetry. Far from being elitist, as has been suggested, she has featured both well-known and small press poets in most issues, and has encouraged greater depth in poetry criticism by commissioning long critical essays for the magazine. (A bold move, even if not all those essays turned out to be equally gripping and apposite.) Whatever has gone on behind closed doors, I feel certain Fiona Sampson will have acted with the best interests of Poetry Review at heart, and that she does not deserve the vitriol that has been aimed at her in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, of course, Poetry Review is the flagship magazine of the Poetry Society. As such, it needs to fulfil quite a broad range of objectives, only one of which is to promote high-profile poets.

In light of all this, I urge members of the Poetry Society to lend their names to the call for an Emergency General Meeting, to discuss these recent events and forge a way forward for the Board and the Membership.

The reason I ask this is that we are currently experiencing a crisis in confidence among the more professionally active members of the Society, and that crisis must be addressed, not simply ignored.

I also ask that, until we have the full facts before us, critics of the Board and the editor of Poetry Review behave in a civilised manner. There is something deeply unpleasant about the sight of an angry mob hounding one individual above all others.

Apathy gives us the government we deserve. But at least members are being given the opportunity to step up and voice their dissatisfaction. But we can't do that without 340 names.

Will yours be one of them?

To Get Involved:

Anyone who is a member of the Poetry Society and would like to sign the following petition, please email Kate at and she'll put you on the list. She will not share your contact or publicise you until the list reaches 340 when it will be handed in to the Poetry Society, along with the following message:
We, the undersigned, constituting as we believe ten percent of the members of the Poetry Society, having learnt of the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Director, the Finance Manager and the President of the Society, and in order to determine whether the Board of Trustees has their continuing confidence, require the Board to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting to provide an explanation, in the transparent and accountable manner the members  expect of its elected representatives, of the events leading to these resignations; an independently chaired forum for the statements of members and for their questions; and a detailed account of how the Board will continue the business of the Society in accordance with its stated aims and purposes.

Latest Update: more information at the Guardian. The list of signatories currently stands at 323, as of 2pm Thursday 30th June 2011.


Phil Simmons said...

Thanks for this, Jane. I'm no longer a PoSoc member - I resigned a few years back over the Londoncentric attitude of its administration, which meant that those of use living beyond the M25 Pale never got sufficient notice of General Meetings - but I've been gleaning what I can about the current spat, and it's depressingly predictable. Not all that different from the kind of political shenanigans that go on in other charities (my other area of work) too ! So, good luck with the campaign. At a time like this, with all the arts & especially poetry, under siege from beancounting politicos, a strong and united representative body is sorely needed.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

I can only conclude that you are one of the high-profile poets that everyone's been complaining about! I would like to get involved but, alas, am not a member of the Poetry Society and never have been.

Best wishes from Simon

Anonymous said...

A few questions from an innocent bystander:

1. How many outlets exist that are designed “to advance public education in the study, enjoyment and use of poetry”?

2. How many thousands of outlets exist that are designed for "promoting high-profile poets"?

3. The purpose of a general meeting would be...what? To discuss the fact that we don't have [m]any facts? Why not ask the participants to explain what happened and what should happen before convening to discuss alternatives?

The Poet Laura-eate said...

A violent lot, poets! ;-)

But I'm afraid your posting leaves me little the wiser as to what's going on and why.

I only know about the controversy surrounding the new branding at Apples and Snakes, which nobody likes, so why was money wasted on it when it could have been better spent?

Naomi Jaffa said...

Thank you for posting, Jane. I would echo your support for Fiona Sampson as an admirable editor of - in my opinion - critical acuity and informed, independent and resolutely broad tastes. Lemn Sissay has written illuminatingly on the subject on Facebook yesterday.

Kate Clanchy said...

The requisition is not about Poetry Review, or about any individual. It is about finding out why this group of resignations has happened, just when the Society was doing so well. I think everyone signing the requisition very much regrets having to do so, but does seem that many requests for information have been made to the Board, and been refused.
Please sign the requisition. Email me as above.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks for clarifying the position, Kate. It is clear the story in the Evening Standard was, perhaps not surprisingly, misleading.

My main reason for supporting this requisition of the Board has nothing to do with Poetry Review. I do not personally feel comfortable about a Poetry Society which refuses to disclose full information to its membership when something unprecedented - such as these resignations - has obviously occurred. The Poetry Society (Incorporated) is not a private body but a public one, and the general membership has a right to know why four members of the Board of the Society which they support both with annual subscriptions and by other means recently chose to resign.

Roddy said...

No members of the Board have resigned - three members of the Staff and the President have offered resignations, all of them (for different reasons) following difficult situations which have arisen between Board and Staff.

Jane Holland said...

Useful distinction. Thanks for that, Roddy. I hadn't realised those members of staff were not also on the Board.

It makes me wonder, though, how on earth they are coping when so many staff members have suddenly left.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is uncommon for a board of a charity to be pushing the staff in a different direction.

I don't understand, however, why members of staff have had to get legal advice on what they can say re: resignation. I bet the Guardian are howling at the doors of those who have resigned...

Roddy said...

Advice from the board is welcome and important. When I was a board member, for example, we discussed whether the PS should adopt National Poetry Month as opposed to NPD, which was rejected. We discussed whether Poetry News needed to be revamped and, with agreement from Board and Director, a sub-committee was set up to do so. Other things were off-limit due to PS and ACE guidelines - this included suggested changes to the Review at the time. The Review had been positively reviewed (separately from the PR, as should be the case, given the editorial independence, which differs from other designations of independence) by ACE not long before and it was accepted that the board should not advise or intervene on those issues. The current situation seems to have arisen from different interpretations of what the board can and should do. From what I've learned, I'd say that the board acted inappropriately and against the guidelines and were influenced in their actions by outside influences.