Friday, July 29, 2011

On Warwick Castle

I'm off on my holidays soon, so here's a poem post instead of prose
- apologies for the lack of formatting; no time to do the proper indents here - and please be aware that comments may not appear until after I return.

Catch you all on the flipside!

On Warwick Castle - a 25 page poem - was written during my year-long tenure as Warwick Poet Laureate and published as a pamphlet by Nine Arches Press in 2008. Many thanks to them!

This is the first page. And yes, that's my own made-up Middle English.

On Warwick Castle

One year floods rose,
one year they fought in the snows,
one year hail fell, according to the Cantos
(Canto IX, to be precise)
and that year there were metal-tipped arrows
loosed from embrasures
and hot pitch
dropped out of diabolic machicolations
and other fourteenth century garrison defences
and holes cut for cannon
and two dank side rooms in Guy's Tower -
one possibly a bedchamber
the other reserved for calls of nature -
and down it went.

And þa mudde þær wæs so thicce
þæt wuden patens motan we weren
Forþæt ure feet he may not stynk

And the old man bent with his shovel
under that filthy drop
and there were many flies there
and a breathless heat in the white tents before battle
and a young boy with his skull dented by a mattock
and the want & the waste of it
and still the rallying cry 'For Warwick!'

the half-pint at dusk for the regular staff
and the brass-eyed army of cleaners, steady
in trainers and flip-flops
with steaming mops and buckets
come to wash it all off, swabbing down the turrets
from courtyard to dungeon, from parapet
to parapet, from Royal Weekend
to lavatory block.

An Open Letter from Kate Clanchy

Extract from an open letter by poet Kate Clanchy, being circulated late Thursday night.

You can read the full text of her letter directly at the members' Poetry Society website, where you can read many other things and also be directed to a Petition to reinstate the very talented Judith Palmer as Director of the Poetry Society.

"Poets are easy to poke fun at. Their lives' work may well be shorter than a cook-book, and have fewer readers. Their art-form is notoriously ill paid. And they fuss, almost by definition, about things which seem incomprehensibly small to outsiders: scansion, line-endings, reviews, precedence. They fuss with each other too, again over goods which may seem petty: a professorship, an editorship, a review.

All this can make for a difficult atmosphere at parties: a paranoia of poets, our Poet Laureate once proposed as our collective noun. But I’ve always maintained that the paranoia was only skin-deep. I was treated very generously as a new poet, and I have always told other new poets that they will be treated generously too. In particular, I’ve always laughed at the notion of a ‘London-based cabal’, and a sinister group ‘in control’ of prizes and publications. I’ve always pointed out, for example, that prize juries rotate, and so does the editorship of our central Journal, Poetry Review. If your work is not the taste of one judge or editor, it might be to the next’s.

I went into the work of organising a Requisition to find out what was going on at the Poetry Society in this same spirit: I thought that something very poetical and principled, something to do with an ampersand, would be found to be the problem, and that everything would be sorted well before I collected my 300 signatures.

I have been horribly disappointed: at each turn, with each anguished email and late-night strange phone-call, I have found out more and more things that seem to have come straight from the imaginings of a paranoid poet. For example, that the Editorship of Poetry Review doesn’t rotate at all, any more. The Editor’s post was made permanent in 2008, and no one was told. Now, this may be one of those facts that seems incredibly petty to outsiders, but to poets, it’s like being told that driving licenses have only been given out through one instructor for the last 3 years, and no one thought that to know this was any of a learner-driver's business. Poetry Review is a gate-keeper magazine. The keys can’t stay with one person."

Read the rest of Kate's letter ...

Sign the petition.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Petition to Reinstate the Former Director of the Poetry Society

Please find a petition here to reinstate Judith Palmer as Director of the Poetry Society.

Just to be clear, Kate Clanchy sent me this link today, and also writes:
This petition is being put forward by George Szirtes, and is signed in the first instance by Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Jo Shapcott and Liz Lochhead. It doesn't come from me, or the Requisition team, though we are all keen to sign.

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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Preparing Your Poems for Submission

The Mslexia poetry competition has now closed, but you can still send your poems to the magazine as part of their rolling submission themes, or just subscribe. Mslexia is a fantastic resource for writers, both male and female, though it is of course primarily aimed at women writers.

Meanwhile, the third part of my poetry workshop is up on the site.

It's about Preparing your Poems for Submission, and is intended for those getting ready to submit a new batch of work to a magazine or publishing house.

I hope it's useful, and many thanks to Mslexia for the opportunity to run this new series of workshops on their website, which you must visit if you're a writer of any kind. It has fabulous resources which are absolutely free. 

"Try not to revise your poetry where reading aloud is impossible (in an office environment, for instance, or on public transport).

Reading aloud is about more than the sound of your voice. It impacts on your body too, your facial expression and gestures, the way you hold yourself.

When reading a poem silently, it’s easy to ignore the sounds and rhythms, and make changes based purely on line length or other cosmetic considerations. That's not to say these are unimportant. But the two should work in tandem."

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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Resignation from Embrace Books

Yesterday afternoon, I resigned as Executive Editor for Embrace Books, the popular fiction imprint of Salt Publishing.

I wish all the writers there long and successful careers, and have thoroughly enjoyed the process of running a small independent fiction imprint, from commissioning writers through to helping to promote their books.

I've learnt a vast amount about writing and editing fiction from my work at Embrace Books. Editing is not a job for the faint-hearted, nor indeed the brutally honest. I had to develop skills as an editor that I'd never needed before as a writer - like being tactful, for instance!

It's also challenged me to grow in social terms. Being an editor isn't all about staring at a computer screen for hours or scribbling on manuscripts. Writers can get away with that kind of isolated lifestyle but editors can't. Needing to go out and meet authors in person, do the rounds at the London Book Fair, write long chatty emails, talk at conferences, and generally behave like a normal social creature has been immensely good for me. In fact, I may never slink back into my cave again!

I shall be concentrating on my own writing from now on, largely as Victoria Lamb, and can only hope it has benefited from a year spent on the other side of the desk.

Many heartfelt thanks, meanwhile, to all the lovely authors with whom I've worked at Embrace, and to the team at Salt who supported me in my work there. It's been an amazing year!

Friday, July 15, 2011

SOLD! My Tudor Witch series is acquired by Random House Children's Books.

It's been a fantastic, fast-moving day here. My agent phoned at around lunchtime to say that a publishing deal was on the table for my Tudor Witch Young Adult series. I discussed the finer details with him, hung up, and tried not to get too excited about the whole thing - though of course I was!

I tinkered with one of my manuscripts and answered a few emails, tidied my desk, sauntered out for a coffee, occasionally glanced at my inbox.

Then I got the very exciting call I'd been waiting for from my agent.

Random House Children's Books have acquired the first book, WITCHSTRUCK, and the next two books in the series. The series should launch next summer under the name Victoria Lamb, a few months after the publication of my first adult Tudor novel, THE QUEEN'S SECRET, with Transworld, also part of the Random House Group.

I'm hugely pleased and want to thank everyone who's been so supportive of my efforts on Facebook and Twitter and here on Raw Light over the past year. I know it can get confusing when I keep posting under different names, and people have been very patient and understanding about that.

I'm really looking forward to meeting the team at RHCB now. Which I shall do later this summer. And I expect a Victoria Lamb website and blog will be launching in the autumn.

To quote one of my favourite films, Almost Famous, "It's all happening!"

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Guardian takes up the Poetrygate story again

You can find more on the Poetrygate scandal in today's Guardian.

Great photo.

Will it work, though? The Guardian reports:

"I have a horrible feeling they are wriggling," said Clanchy. "It's really difficult to get 10% of the Poetry Society together. It's like herding cats. But here we are, and they have to listen."
Herding cats. That's an image to take away with you.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Red Wheelbarrow Gang

Photo: Roderic Vincent
Today, at 3.30pm, poetry history will be has now been made. [Updated with photo at 16.40]

A shiny red wheelbarrow - thanks for the concept, William Carlos Williams! - will arrive at the Poetry Society HQ in Betterton Street, London, this afternoon.

It will contain the following official requisition to which well over 400 Poetry Society members have now put their names:
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, in these extraordinary circumstances, the Board of Trustees has our continuing confidence, require the Board to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting, with a Chair elected by that meeting, to provide an explanation of the practices, policies and changes in policy which led to these resignations, and to answer questions on this matter from the floor. In order to avoid unreasonable expense to the Society, we require the Extraordinary General Meeting to be held before or instead of the General Meeting called by the Society at 2pm on 22 July 2011.
Feeling is strong, expectation is high. If you haven't a clue what all this kerfuffle is about, Ms Baroque in Hackney has made several good stabs at an overview.

To join the intrepid gang delivering this historic demand, meet up at the Cross Keys pub in Endell Street at 3.15pm today, Tuesday 5th July 2011.