Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Question of Integrity

Judith Palmer, former Director of the Poetry Society, yesterday issued a lengthy statement outlining the background to her resignation and the subsequent furore and inglorious cheque-signing fest indulged in by the Poetry Society Board of Trustees.

It has become clear to me, from her account, which is freely available online, that the matter is a great deal more far-reaching in its implications than we previously considered. I urge all members to read it.

Here are some extracts which interested me particularly:
The Chair told me he’d been waiting until after the funding announcement to tell me about a proposal put to him by Fiona Sampson, the Editor of Poetry Review, a proposal that he’d been discussing with her since January without my knowledge. She requested a new working arrangement whereby she would reduce her days, work mainly from home, and report directly to the Board. I must emphasise that this was put forward as a permanent arrangement. It was initially communicated to me verbally and, a few days later, in writing.

The timing was completely unexpected. Although the relative integration / independence of the Society’s magazine Poetry Review within the Society’s activities had been a regular subject of debate throughout the Editor’s tenure, and long pre-dated my appointment, this had not been a recent subject of discussion.
In September 2008, before my time as Director of the Poetry Society, Fiona Sampson approached the Society’s Board of Trustees with a similar proposal. She requested that her fixed-term contract be made permanent and that the structure of the Society be altered to raise her status and allow her to report directly to the Board rather than continue to be managed by the Director. The Board rejected both suggestions (7 October 2008). The Arts Council was involved in the discussions, and supported the Board’s rejection of the proposal at a subsequent Board meeting I attended on 20 November 2008.

I queried with Peter Carpenter the timing of this revival of Ms Sampson’s proposal in 2011. We had only just submitted a detailed 4-year plan to the Arts Council that had been supported fully by the Board. The plan had reflected a fully-integrated Poetry Society, and this was the vision endorsed by the Arts Council. To make such a significant change now seemed to me both dishonest and dangerous. Our funding offer from the Arts Council remained only conditional.

Carpenter apologised, but explained that poets were putting pressure on him, the Board were going to split over it, and suggested that Ms Sampson would otherwise leave.
Later, there was also this:
Peter Carpenter confirmed he would “split off Poetry Review so it reports to me [Peter Carpenter]”. I feared this was the first step towards a much more profound separation of the Review from the Society.

 There was much more in Judith Palmer's statement. Please do read it.

But my chief reaction to the extracts above is, why have we had no public statement from the Editor of the Society's flagship magazine - expressing, for instance, some sadness or regret at how these events have driven the Society which funds her magazine to the potential brink of insolvency?

It must be clear to Fiona Sampson that she has lost public confidence over these and other recent revelations - now being widely discussed via email communications, social media and the national press (including this, new today) - and that her position at Poetry Review has become problematic, not least thanks to an email she sent out to a list of members of the Society immediately before the EGM last week, implying that all 'right-thinking' members should, like pro-Board poet Neil Rollinson, vote for the board, rather than against. Given the overwhelming majority who voted the opposite way at the EGM, I would suggest this is indicative of a basic mismatch in ideology and outlook between the current Editor and the membership at large. There is also the longer-term question of impartiality to be considered, regarding submissions to the magazine.

I wrote earlier on this blog about this campaign not being a witch-hunt, and I still agree with that standpoint. I would be perfectly satisfied with a public statement by Fiona Sampson which signalled some regret over what has happened and outlined her plans for the future with regards to the difficulties the Society is now facing. It is my sincere hope that one will be issued soon.


Jane Holland said...

Dear Simon

Sorry not to have published your comment but I felt it would be inappropriate to do so. I'm sure you understand it would have gone against the nature of my blog post, which was merely a request for full disclosure and not, as I say above, part of a witch-hunt. Many people are, like me, frustrated by the continuing lack of comment from key figures in a situation which has cost the Society many thousands of pounds and potentially lost it a massive ACE grant.

Best, Jx

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

This whole Poetry Society debacle is proving unbelievably divisive. All I know is that I'm on your side and Katy's side and Todd's side. I just hope that it's the same side!

Love from Simon