Saturday, July 23, 2011
A New Dawn for the Poetry Society
For those who fell asleep and missed it, yesterday saw a violently contested Emergency General Meeting of the Poetry Society in London's Royal College of Surgeons, an apposite setting considering the incisive nature of the debate.
On the one hand were the c. 500-strong requisitioners, who had called for the meeting following a recent spate of Board and staff resignations, and whose prime objectives were the discovery of the truth, and if necessary, the passing of a vote of No Confidence in the board.
On the other hand were the Board of Trustees and their apologists, such as senior poet Alan Brownjohn who chastised the requisitioners for 'obscenity' and recommended the members should not pursue a motion of No Confidence.
The EGM opened with an announcement that the Board of Trustees had decided to resign en masse, but only with effect from September, so that normal business could continue while members nominate and vote for new Board members.
A member then got up and asked from the floor why we should bother to continue with the meeting and our proposed vote of No Confidence, since the Board had already resigned.
Thankfully, this transparent deflection from the true business of the meeting - to discover what the hell had been going on behind closed doors - was disregarded by the majority of members.
In initial statements from the Board, we were told that the cause of recent resignations had been a 'personality issue' between the (now former) Director and the current Editor of Poetry Review, the Society's flagship magazine, Fiona Sampson.
Three hours later, when the meeting finally closed, it had become painfully clear that this 'personality issue' was indeed the crux of the matter.
We were told as the meeting progressed that some years prior to the current dispute the Editor of Poetry Review had demanded that her contract - originally for 3 years only - be amended to a permanent contract in line with new EU laws, notwithstanding the special circumstances of working for a charitable organisation in a job already agreed by the membership as of 3 years' duration only.
This was agreed by the Board, and it was not thought important that the membership be informed of this vital change to the Editor's tenure.
It was revealed by former Finance Officer Paul Ranford that the Editor of Poetry Review later asked the Board if she could work fewer hours for less pay and also to work from home. This was also agreed, but with her pay remaining the same, for reasons that were not entirely clear to me from the Chair, Laura Bamford's explanation. The Board decided, apparently, that it was 'not possible' to lower Fiona Sampson's wage, even though the rest of her requests had been met.
Meanwhile, the Director, Judith Palmer, was busy negotiating a vastly increased grant from Arts Council England for the Poetry Society, at a time when many poetry organisations were going to the wall through reduced or withdrawn funding. That her efforts were heroic and a triumph for the Poetry Society is not in dispute.
However, John Simmons of the Board informed us that 'increased funding brought increased responsibilities' for the Director. The Trustees soon became 'concerned by stress caused by Judith's hard work' and decided, apparently without consulting her, that she 'needed to delegate more' and to take some leave. The Director was excluded from meetings at which decisions were made concerning the Editor, with the result that after the Director returned from a two week holiday she found that the Editor no longer had to report to her, but could bypass her authority and report directly to the Board.
When asked for more details about this later on, it was blithely admitted by the Chair, Laura Bamford, that some of these decisions were first discussed 'at a party'. You can imagine the astonished noises, shouts and grimaces from the membership that accompanied this candid revelation.
In response to these actions, the Director resigned. She was immediately excluded from the building, her keys removed, her email account cancelled, and staff were told not to speak to her in any way or allow her access. Naturally irate, she allegedly made a 'verbal threat' of a legal nature to members of the Board.
In response to this 'verbal threat', the Board hired Harbottle & Lewis, the firm of solicitors currently also acting for the Murdochs in the phone hacking scandal, to 'protect the Poetry Society from legal threat'.
When asked about this decision, which they admit has so far cost the Poetry Society £24,000, over a fifth of their financial reserves accumulated over the past 100 years, the Board claimed not to know that, as a charity, they could have consulted ACAS and obtained free legal advice.
Nor could they provide any explanation for their continuing use of these lawyers, considering that no actual legal threat was or has subsequently been made in writing to the Poetry Society. The Chair gave some insubstantial account of 'other' occasions of this same verbal threat, but seemed quite unable to respond in any coherent manner to an accusation by former Chair of the Poetry Society, Anne-Marie Fyfe, that 'abusive' phone calls had been made to her and the content of private emails used in an alleged attempt to intimidate the Director into dropping her 'verbal threat'.
Former Finance Officer, Paul Ranford, a man of great integrity, stood up and confirmed that he had been asked about overdraft possibilities and also if 22 Betterton Street, the current Poetry Society London headquarters, had been valued. The obvious inference to be drawn from such questions is that the Board was preparing for a protracted legal battle which would eat into or perhaps entirely consume the Society reserves to such an extent that further sources of revenue would be necessary for the Society to continue functioning.
By the way, if I was on the Board, I'd want to ask Colman Getty for a refund on the additional £3000's worth of PR advice they also allegedly sought. This whole fiasco, after all, has been a PR disaster.
Eventually, a motion of No Confidence was called for by Laurie Smith and a simple show of hands asked for. Various shenanigans were then immediately put in play by pro-Board members to delay and confuse the voting procedure. Once these had been dealt with, we moved to a poll vote, which resulted in a resounding victory for the requisitioners of 302 votes for the motion, 69 against, and 11 abstentions.
The membership was so exhausted by this stage that the news that the requisitioners' motion had been carried - and easily too, after all the manipulative games and obstructions of the preceding weeks - was received with complete silence.
The Board was then presented with the names of four members willing to stand as interim Board members. Despite the fact that the Board have resigned and undergone a vote of No Confidence from 302 members present at the meeting or represented by proxy, under our own constitutional rules they are apparently required to stay in office for the next few months at least, and also to make their own decision on which three of these four members should be allowed to join the Board as co-opted and additional members.
There were repeated and very loud and passionate calls for some of the Board at least to step down immediately, and therefore make room for more members to be co-opted on. The Board absolutely declined to do so, however, and showed no observable remorse for their actions.
And now to my title for this blog post.
I have entitled this 'A New Dawn for the Poetry Society' because I know that many members feel utterly betrayed by what has happened. They either feel betrayed by a Board of Trustees who have been reckless and cavalier with our very meagre resources, or they feel betrayed by the requisitioners themselves, for daring to call this Board to account for its actions, thereby highlighting to the outside world that the Poetry Society is unable to govern itself appropriately.
We cannot pretend that potentially far-reaching divisions have not been created by this scandal, nor can we hope that people will soon forget who took which side in this, and why. We cannot ignore the sad fact that ACE has apparently decided to withhold the successful grant bid put together by the now departed Director until it is convinced of the Poetry Society's fitness to govern itself and continue in its proper business of promoting poetry to the nation. Even with a vote of No Confidence carried, and the Board on its (treacle-slow) way out the door, poets cannot hope to escape this unscathed.
But we will soon have a new Board to elect, and a new chance to impress Arts Council England that our house is back in order.
I therefore urge everyone involved in poetry in the UK not to allow this dispute to continue on after this week, with ordinary members discouraged from renewing their membership or becoming involved in governance and decision-making, and non-member poets considering the Poetry Society a mismanaged collective of egos whose interests are too far from their own to make any difference to their world.
There may be, and certainly has been recently, some truth to the latter. But this is no time for apathy and disaffection, or for giving up and walking away from the Society. This is an opportunity for a new lease of life for the Society, and for a new openness and transparency in the Society's dealings that can only benefit us all.
It's also an opportunity for us to see ourselves as a collective of committed individuals with a common cause rather than many different people pulling in different directions and getting nowhere. Many of us have come together as one for this issue. Let's not drift apart again, but stay together and see what we can achieve en masse.
So get involved and stay involved. Even if you don't intend to stand for Board nomination - and we need nominees with sound administration skills and expertise rather than good poets - do at least make sure you keep renewing your membership, that you visit your local Stanza group, that you read, write and support poetry at all levels - and don't lose touch with any new acquaintances you may have made over this requisition.
We know now that we all care about poetry deeply enough to come together at a time of crisis, some of us at great cost and from opposite ends of the country.
Even if we were on different 'sides' yesterday, let's put those divisions away now, and use our collective energy to achieve something wonderful together.