Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Week Two of Poetrygate

Today's official message in the ongoing Poetry Society scandal - now five resignations, no explanations - came from Laura Bamford, Acting Chair of the Board of Trustees:

The Poetry Society (Incorporated)
Company Number 01557657

NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN  that a General Meeting  of the above-named company will be held in Lecture Theatre 1, The Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE on Friday 22 July 2011 at 2.00pm for the following purpose:
To outline the future strategy of The Poetry Society and to receive members’ input

Dated 30 June 2011
By order of the Board

Laura Bamford
Acting Chair

Yes, we wanted a meeting. But no, this is not the one we wanted. We want to know WHY five people have now resigned from the Staff and the Board of Trustees of the Poetry Society. Not what the Board hopes to achieve in the aftermath of those resignations.

Fascinating though it will be to 'outline the future strategy' and deliver our input as members, there does not appear to be any room for manoeuvre in the Agenda of this General Meeting. 

And why on earth is this being called a GM, not an EGM? Is that so the Board can look as though it is not bowing to any external pressure by calling this meeting, but has done so of its own sweet accord in order to be helpful to the membership?

Members need to be aware that this is rapidly becoming a game of rock-paper-scissors. We hold out paper, they go for scissors. We produce scissors, they show us a rock. 

I, for one, intend to stick to my original purpose in signing the list of members who require an EGM to be called by the Poetry Society. 

And that is not only to ask for full and frank disclosure of the events leading up to the recent resignations of four Staff members and now the Chair of the Board of Trustees, so that I may be confident that everything has been done in accordance with the rules of the Society, but also to ask why so many of our administrators felt the need to resign.

These are questions that must be asked of the Board. Nothing less than the whole, unadulterated truth can be accepted.

I would strongly urge any remaining members who have not yet given their names to Kate Clanchy in support of an EGM to do so now, so we may get to the bottom of this travesty of democracy as soon as possible.


Anne said...

I agree with you about what we need to know. I don't interpret the call for a meeting as *unequivocally* hostile to the unhappy members who have our own agenda. It may just be hasty. But we should extract maximum value from the meeting they have scheduled.

Jane Holland said...

I see this as an attempt to sabotage our desire to get at the truth. This is their choice of meeting, their choice of agenda. Not ours.

Yes, we need to extract what good we can from it. But we should not accept a possibly poisoned olive branch as a substitute for our pursuing our original agenda. It would be too easy for the Board to refuse to answer any questions which did not fit their pre-stated - and therefore agreed - Agenda.

To walk into such a meeting with trust and optimism in our hearts is to walk out of it afterwards with no answers, but plenty of unwanted flannel.

Roddy said...

We'll need to wait and see what this meeting is - it may actually be the EGM called for and wording may change when the requisition is delivered. Who knows whether the board decided on this (in which case we should be sceptical) or whether the new Interim Director has called this to announce a return to an 'as we were' as per the funding application etc.

What I don't agree on is the call for 'full disclosure' - first, there may be legal reasons why this can't be done; secondly, because they were resignations and not sackings, the Board are not bound to talk of why people left - even if they know. Lastly (as a former board member), I do think the Board needs some privacy - though meetings are minuted, these minutes are not made public. People need to be able to discuss topics which might be controversial in board meetings.

The focus needs to be on what happened in terms of whether the board conducted itself by the rules and whether it was unduly influenced by others outside the board.

Anne said...

To walk into such a meeting with trust and optimism in our hearts is to walk out of it afterwards with no answers, but plenty of unwanted flannel.
LOL. It's more like opening a door without knowing what's behind it.

Jane Holland said...

Roddy, what concerns me is that none of those who have resigned have spoken about their decision, to the best of my knowledge. This might not seem odd in the case of one or even two resignations, but five?

Is it normal for staff or Board members of any Society to be bound to secrecy or choose not to speak at all in this kind of situation? Wouldn't most resignations come with a reason of some kind?

That is what concerns me.

Roddy said...

Two of those who have resigned - the Finance and Education employees, would not be expected to make any statement as to their resignation. Their reasons for leaving may or may not be connected with trouble at the Society - with fifteen or so mostly young staff, you get turnover. As I understand it, one wasn't enjoying the job, the other had been looking to move on anyway. But they may well have been influenced by what seemed to have become a tug of war between certain factions.

Both Jo Shapcott and Peter Carpenter made statements about why they were resigning - Jo stating she felt she had been in the post too long and Peter citing pressures with his day job. We might feel that these weren't the full stories, but they were the reasons they chose to give and any questioning over their decisions will revert back to those reasons - they chose not to say if there were further concerns.

There are many reasons why Peter Carpenter might have resigned - it might be that he is busy with his job, or that he is just tired of the situation and the effort, or that he has been pressured to resign, or that he feels an EGM might push him out. We will never know.

As to Judith, I can't recall if she made any public statement, but I think it's well known that she disagreed with the Board over certain proposed changes and a stand off ensued that led to her resigning.

Much of the speculation now is over what these proposed changes were and whether they may still be brought into play. I don't think they will be. There will still be discussion about whether the PR editor should continue indefinitely when the PS had planned to keep things fresh by having the option for a new editor every few years, and there are still some pressing for the PS and the PR to become more independent.

In the meantime, I have faith in the Interim Director who has been brought in to resolve these issues - she seems to be a highly experienced administrator. The requisition will lead either to a separate meeting which will question the integrity of the board in recent months or to a General Meeting which will incorporate this issue.

To get to 'the whole unadulterated truth' about this situation, you would need to discuss the outside influences who were involved in setting off this chain of events. And that's a can of worms which is unlikely to be opened in any public place.

Roddy said...

Also, the biggest myth in this whole thing is the suggestion that Fiona Sampson has said Poetry Review should be more about 'high profile' poets. This is a Chinese whisper - as I understand it, certain interested parties have suggested that the Poetry Society (not the Review) needs to be more about supporting established poets and to spend less time on education etc which is a different criticism.

Anonymous said...

Did Sampson get her contract changed so she wouldn't have to renew or leave, and if so how was that allowed to happen. Doesn't it smack of appalling bad faith even if it was legal. How could the board let that happen? or were they threatened with legal action or employment tribunal? I'd like to know - I've been paying my dues in both fees and taxes, through many different editors, and my understanding is that it has always traditionally been a magazine that changed editorial direction every few years. Not one person's sinecure. What's wrong with wanting the facts to come out about this?

And why did Judith Palmer say she was taking legal advice about what she was allowed to say if - as Roddy suggests -there's nothing behind it and she was simply looking to move? Has she been bullied or gagged?

I think there's a hell of a lot to discuss.

pat jourdan said...

The minute I am told not to lift stones to find out what's underneath them, I know summat's up.
And the minute lawyers get involved, that's summat squared to the power of xxxxx.
I have this childish need to ask questions and have somehow not acquired an adult's capacity to look the other way.
That's what keeps me writing.

Shedman said...

I hear the wise counsel of Roddy but the fence he's sitting on doesn't feel safe enough for me to climb up beside him. I find myself with Pat Jourdan lifting up stones to find out what's underneath.

I've just experienced the censorship of a poem I wrote for an educational centre (of all places) where the questions What? Why? When? How? Where? and Who? were removed because they were thought too inflammatory. That Kipling's honest serving men were so readily traduced is a trending symptom of our society.

Let's get our hands dirty and lift those stones. Ask those questions. The whole shenanigans has raised doubts about all governance, direction and management at the society.

Members need answers not paternalism.

Roddy said...

Just to be clear - I didn't say that Judith was 'looking to move'. That comment was about another member of staff who had decided to look for a new job.

John, I'm not sitting on a fence (I'd never be able to drag you out of your shed to join me on any fence!) - I just thought I'd offer an overview as I see it in response to Jane's post.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

This Poetry Society fracas is becoming almost as intriguing as the Ruth Padel saga. Please keep us posted!

Best wishes from Simon

Anonymous said...

Roddy - come on mate, you strongly implied that the resignation of Judith Palmer had little or nothing to do with the matter(s) in hand, when you (almost certainly) know they do.
I'm not sure what your stake is in this, but most of us want simply to know the truth. There are other issues - like nepotism, the nasty taste of self-interest, personal backbiting etc - which may come out alongside all this, but what we want essentially is some clarity as members about what has happened behind the scenes.
You can't really be wanting to put sticks in those spokes, can you?
The problem here is that many of us *know* quite a lot about what's been happening in Poetry Review and Poetry Society , but are holding it back so that the basic issue of democracy and transparency does not become infected by other quite nasty things.
That's fair enough isn't it?

Anne said...

Roddy, you say that both Jo Shapcott and Peter Carpenter made statements about their resignations: do you have links, please? Or can you point us to something in print?

Unlike Anonymous, I don't "know" anything about what's been going on! It is incredibly frustrating. A lot of money is at stake, which needs spending wisely - there's precious little anywhere else for poetry.

Roddy said...

Anne, the statements about resignations were made on the PS website. I imagine they are still there - check their Media section.

To the anonymous poster - no I did not imply that Judith's resignation had 'little or nothing' to do with recent events. Here's my quote again from above: "it's well known that she disagreed with the Board over certain proposed changes and a stand off ensued that led to her resigning."

I'm more interested in greasing wheels than putting spokes in them. As to what my stake is in this, I've been involved with the PS for 13 years in various ways. I want to support them. Like a lot of people you seem to 'know' what's happening but want an admission of what's happening. But that's not going to happen is it? Because a lot of what has happened has been behind the scenes (some of it rightly so) and a lot of it is based on hearsay. And there are legal issues.

What I want, personally, is for the board to go in full (I'm sorry for those who were not in favour of the proposed changes I disagree with), to have a new Director (it's probably too late now to bring Judith back) and a new Review editor. I like Fiona personally, and she's a very good poet and teacher. I believe she was the right person for the job back in '04 when I and others (in co-ed pairs) also applied.

But I don't agree with any more separation of the Review from the PS. And I think the Review should have a new editor relatively frequently to keep it fresh. And that's overdue.

Anne said...

Thanks, Roddy. I found Jo's "statement", but couldn't spot Peter Carpenter's. There was a sentence about his resignation, but no personal statement. Perhaps I need a magnifying glass.

What a sorry business. I hope the forthcoming meeting will make things clearer. They are going to "outline future strategy". We also need somebody from the board to tell us - without prejudicing any delicate negotiations or employee confidentiality - just in general terms what has gone wrong. If there are legal proceedings pending the members have a right to know about that too.

If the board stands down en masse, or is voted off, anyone offering themselves for re-election can tell us in their manifesto why they deserve our confidence. There are some good people on there, but we don't know who's done what.

Anonymous said...

Roddy, that's much better, thank you. And incidentally I agree with you about all of it. I also think the PS and PR should remain linked and that attempts to unbind them were made not for the good of poetry and its promotion but for the self-promotion and self-advancement of one or two individuals.
I'd also like - as a PS member - to know by what means the quite appalling decision to make the job one person's sinecure was allowed to pass, who went along with that dreadful decision, and how it was pushed through.
Someone should open a FOI on this.
I too thought Sampson was the right person at the time, but a new editor is indeed overdue. The magazine is stagnant and nepotistic, and is little more than a shop window for a caucus of prestige poets, all of whom are extremely good, but who could send their toenail-clippings to Fiona and she'd publish them.
I don;t get any sense of a critical culture left in PR - it's all puff and promotion, and most reviews are like reading back-cover blurb.
The focus on translation used to be good, but now it's hived off into special supplements while the big cheeses of British poetry expatiate on the centre pages.
As for confidentiality, it's often the case in seedy businesses like this that those with a story to tell are silenced or threatened. If that's happened then we need to smoke it out, or it will happen again.

Eva Salzman said...

"....Palmer reluctantly (sic) handed in her resignation two week ago,...."

There has been no statement from Peter Carpenter that I can find anywhere.

There are common denominators in the online discussions and reports that ring true, from what we know.

However, the stuff about PR publishing new or established poets is beside the point and this red herring and any other at the EGM should be immediately thrown back in, so that the focus remains on organisational changes and reallocation of funds enacted following receipt of Arts Council grant.

PR has long had creative autonomy from the Society which is as it should be. It also depends on the Society's resources including wo/man power, equipment, space and funds raised, the management of which is the responsibility of the Board and the Director, as it should be too from where I'm standing.

The board's handling of the call for EGM alone raises many questions, if there weren't enough already. At this point, regardless of ins and outs, wouldn't it be prudent and show integrity for those currently in situ to offer to step down? Of course they may then be re-elected.

Indeed, I can't help but speculate on reasons for resignations in light of precisely this point-of-view.

Eva Salzman said...



I was interested in your comment

"That Kipling's honest serving men were so readily traduced is a trending symptom of our society."

because that so accords with my view of the times. Just what the HELL is going on, I keep thinking.

Roddy said...

"PR has long had creative autonomy from the Society which is as it should be. It also depends on the Society's resources including wo/man power, equipment, space and funds raised, the management of which is the responsibility of the Board and the Director, as it should be too from where I'm standing."

Exactly - I agree with what Eva said. Fingers crossed.

Eva Salzman said...

Why is too late to invite back the Director? This seems like cutting one's nose to spite one's face!

If it is true that undue influences have hobbled the ability to govern the Society with terms of the grant contravened, surely the Director should be invited back to administer these funds raised under auspices of those who've resigned.

It's not true that Poetry Review has published only established poets and I don't like the tone of personal attacks on a magazine that has been clearly well-edited. (Proof of my so-called bias for either "side" can be found readily by the way.) Peter Forbes was an aditor for many years. So were others. Nevertheless I too think the job shouldn't be permanent but still this is a red herring.

Going down this road distracts from the main issue of governance as per the Director and the Board's ability to function and administer all that for which they're responsible. The Board and the Director. Not the Board alone.

Anonymous said...

Join the Wheel barrow of signatures,
gathering at the cross keys pub at 3.30pm today tuesday 5th july and going to the Poetry Society Offices.
Its only a 50 yd walk but needs to be seen to be done in the open with support

Anonymous said...

Eva, the bit about toenail-clippings was a joke, and as the mention of nepotism was subjective and therefore I'll withdraw it. The mention of stagnation was also subjective, but I'll hold to it.

They weren't personal attacks - I said I thought the editor was the best choice at the time (and I know several of the other candidates), but I now think that that editorial legacy has been jeopardised, as have the reputations both of the society and the magazine.

I appreciate the need to keep 'red herrings' out of the issue, but we also, I think, need to realise - and to be told - how entangled all these things are.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and nothing is isolated from anything else here. If we don;t ask for information, how can we expect to be told?

That's why I'll be pushing that barrow.

Jane Holland said...

I fail to see why people are not free to criticise any particular regime in terms like the ones used above. If you're an institution, especially with charitable status, it should be possible for members to openly and freely discuss how that body is being run. And if you're the editor of a prominent magazine, I don't see that people need to be afraid to discuss how you edit in case such comments are deemed libellous or a 'personal attack'.

As far as I'm concerned, everything said on this thread so far has been fair comment or at least within the bounds of what is acceptable in discussions of this kind. I haven't seen any 'personal attacks'. Any criticisms have been made in terms of working practices, not as ad hominem attacks.


Eva Salzman said...

I misspoke implying there were personal attacks here, or perhaps didn't speak clearly enough so apologies. Let me explain my fears in making this too personal AND even in focusing on editor's tenure right NOW, important as this is.

Already the interim Director appointed by the Board still in place about whom there are queries have cleverly usurped the AGM agenda simply in not calling it the EGM many requested. That this meeting fails to address members' concerns is no accident I feel. I think it's a strategy, and more clever tactics can be built on loss of focus on main issue which now must be resignations and board.

At this meeting, any crossfire about new poets or not in magazine and even the question of editoris' tenure (except insofar as disagreements on this point may be behind some resignations) would be an an excellent distraction from the main matter: resignations and Board's governance including its handling of requisition and possibly hobbling Director's ability to do her job.

PR editor's tenure is an issue that can't be settled at this meeting and I'm seeing clever enough tactics to feel it'll be all too easy to sidestep many questions or to make the right noises to keep happy many who are less cynical/realistic (take your pick) than I am.