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.


Angela France said...

Thank you for this, Jane - for going and for writing it up so clearly.
I find the boards behaviour and excuses astonishing on so many points.
I've worked for charities for years and know something about trustees' responsibilities - this lot either didn't bother to educate themselves about the roles and responsibilities or thought they could behave however they liked.

redjim99 said...

Thanks for this Jane, I'm in France and finding information about the problems has been difficult to come by. I was shocked by the fact that the board can, and must stay until a new board is elected. I read the articles and memorandum, and it does appear so. Maybe it would take another meeting but the trustees would need notice served and more time would pass anyway.

I have worked on the board of a local charity and the difference between governance and management is not always clear. I am shocked by the boards option to take on expensive solicitors when any web search would bring up ACAS.

Dealing with staff disputes needs to be done swiftly, decisively and within the remit of laws and rules of the organisation. Any hiding or fudging only ever results in a mess, and that is what we now have hear.

I hope your call will bring and hold members together, for a better society as a result. I will keep my membership and will send an email to other European members.

Jim Barron

Phil Simmons said...

Thank you, Jane. I shall be rejoining the PoSoc in the hope of playing some small part in its reconstruction as a proper body to promote poetry and represent the interests of poets & audiences. The current, post-EGM situation is plainly still unsatisfactory (as one of my correspondents said to me yesterday, the current Board can still do a lot of damage in their time remaining), and the financial situation is particularly worrying. For one thing, my experience with ACE leads me to believe that they will be extremely reluctant to release firther funding while there is still such manifest lack of confidence in the Board, & in the mean time there will be expenses to be met, while it is very unlikely that the current Trustees are either willing or able to engage in the restructuring necessary to repair the damage they have done. This raises the nature of the PS as a charitable organisation. The Trustees are legally bound to hold the Society's finances in trust for its members and beneficiaries, & to use them in a proper and responsible way for the attainment of its charitable purposes. It is strongly arguable that unnecessary payments to expensive law firms do not square with this obligation, & the Board is therefore acting *ultra vires* in terms of the law. I have repeatedly said in my private interventions on this matter that the Charity Commission should be taking an interest in the PS's governance, & would suggest that an approach by the Requisitioners with their concerns - apparently strongly bolstered by yesterday's outcome - would be difficult to ignore. At very least, a formal indication by a large proportion of the membership that they are prepared to take action to remedy the malpractices carried out in their name should shield the Society as a body from any more drastic action the Commission might feel obliged to take if the current Trustees continue - even for only two months - to pursue their questionable conduct and further imperil the organisation's financial position and credibility.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

And to think that I once believed that poets were sensitive people! It's just as well that the board is resigning because it sounds as though they couldn't run a bath, let alone a poetry society. To me it is all too typical of the British Poetry Establishment in general - opaque, clique-ridden and totally unaccountable to the tax-paying public who are footing all their bills. If the Poetry Society ever manages to sort itself out with a brand new board plus a new editor of Poetry Review, I might even consider joining myself.

Best wishes from Simon

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Jane. A great summary. I hugely enjoyed meeting you after the EGM

Tim C said...

And what of the situation of the Poetry Review editor, whose dysfunctional relationship with the former director appears to have kicked off the whole spate of resignations, which have subsequently cost the society tens of thousands of pounds and endangered its future? Is she going as well? One feels a new broom is needed. It seems a bad idea - a very bad idea - to have one permanent incumbent in that editorial chair, whoever it is. If the board has resigned, so should the editor, who is tangled up with numerous other limbs at the heart of this utter debacle, it seems.
And hopefully the charitable plan to give the AC money to a handful of successful, very well supported and relentlessly lauded poets who do not need money from the public purse was taken out the back and firmly dealt with, and all in strict rhyme and metre too.

Penelope Shuttle said...

Thank you for your report on the PoSocEGM, and I find myself in complete accord with your analysis of the situation. It is astonishing that the Board of Trustees are clinging to 'power' despite the vote of no-confidence, and it is troubling to consider what further harm may come to the PoSoc between now and Sept.
I would also urge all to continue to support the PoSoc as it struggles to return to its role of representing and serving poets and poetry.

Clive Watkins said...

Thank you for your helpful account of the EGM. It suggests, as other accounts have done, the mismanagement which has taken place. I have been a member (with, I think, two gaps) for nearly fifty years, maintaining my membership even when it was unclear how well the PS served the interests of poetry, particularly for poets (and readers of poetry) who lived outside the ambit of London. In my mind, that question remains unresolved. I agree with Tim C that the Editor should not be on a permanent contract.

Christine Michael said...

Thank you Jane - a great summary, and some very perceptive comments too. I do agree with you about now being the time to support the Society and not turn away from it - I do not envy the new trustees as they have a very difficult job ahead and will need our support (even if we are not 'right-thinking members')! I was at the EGM too and have blogged on it here:

Frances Clarke said...

Bravo Jane, great call for action. I'm with you!

Eva Salzman said...

I've left this note in several places, but in keeping this board in place this also means that Judith Palmer could only protect herself at the exepnse of the Society, since this period before they leave is when she'd have to put case for constructive dismissal. This is an impossible situation and we were told discussions were happening. Frankly, apologies should be issued and she should be brought back under circumstances as suits.

Remember if she did return, she'd return to exactly the situation she'd left: the one enforced on everyone since the board decided en masse to stay on. And this is apart from any other damage that may be done.

And why is it that Sampson and Palmer were the only names, mentioned, members of board as mentioned in Ranford's letter were brought o account by name? Why was this board protected by anonymity when the most serious problems, like this sum of money, were their responsibility. THe whole thing stinks, frankly. The Guardian article likewise shored up this perception of two women's "cat-fight: in their piece. For shame all around.

When I mention this elsewhere, someone listed board members but where were the queries as to who exactly bullied and treated staff unprofessionally? Could this not be symptomatic of a climate leading to resignations? BUt no, it's a cat-fight between two women.

Meanwhile, what about Trustee's liabilities for money spent in unauthorised ways? Neither has this been settled. And, again, I'm saying this at different sites, this is exactly why PR, lawyers and faciliators were paid, and job done. And why not since apparently they can get away with this.

Neither Judith Palmer nor Ranford nor any other requisitioners who fought hard not from some petty and personal grievance as surely can be see now, but out of a sense that something is deeply wrong....what about these people and their jobs and their future? People talk about a bright future but how can this happen when so many things have still to be addressed? Maybe it's just me but I'm deeply troubled and despondent about this.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks to everyone who has left messages here. I've been out most of the day so couldn't keep up. But I'll have a careful read through later (with a glass of wine!) and respond where appropriate.

Eva, I do agree with you, and it bugs the hell out of me. But there was a real air of obstruction and non-denial denial and Officio-Talk at the meeting. Questions were asked and answers either could not be given - 'for legal reasons'; the perfect stonewalling response - or were flim-flamed and shuffled about in a series of verbal ellipses, often with nonsensical replies tagged onto coughs, hesitations, shrugs, hand gestures and general avoidance of giving a straight answer.

To say we were frustrated is to put it very mildly indeed. People were ANGRY. And rightly so.

I'm not sure what the next move is, or even if the requisitioners at large have the energy or stomach for a second strike. It was such an exhausting and emotionally draining process, I can't imagine many would willingly drag themselves through it again without a sure indication of success.

However - and this is a big however - if someone smart and savvy about the law and constitutions is able to come up with a way to circumvent the lengthy wait until the Board properly resigns in September, during which time they may be merrily spending every last dusty farthing in the Poetry Society vault and perhaps shredding documents of a sensitive nature that will then never be available to us, then I will be happy to lend myself to any such campaign. But it had better have a high chance of succeeding. Because people are angry, yes, but they are also very tired.

Martina Evans said...

First of all many thanks for such clear and detailed account. Jane and Eva, I also am very worried as I don't think Judith will be coming back. I don't think she feels she can in the present circumstances. I asked Kate last night when Judith would need to return. Kate said Monday. What can we do to support and help her with so little time?
Apart from the loss to the Poetry Society, it is dreadful to think that it should end like this for Judith after everything she's been through.

Pat Jourdan said...

Two comments (from a wide choice)-
1 It showed the underlying attitude of the Board (I note the use of abstract terms like this, it should be a list of responsible names) that The Chair, Laura Bamford, could not name the staff at Poetry HQ. Ten people, apparently, but not deemed worth remembering.
2 Very little was/is said about Fiona Sampson and why the Editorship was settled as being forever /and ever /and ever. If she cannot be removed, she could be 'diluted' by adding a board of three other editors. Too much permanent and private power is going to gradually ossify the magazine.And absolutely no one bothered to tell us. That is an insult.

Jane Holland said...

I see your point re the editorship, Pat, but would be loath to see the editorial structure go that way. The best magazines are indubitably those with a single commanding intelligence and taste. To 'dilute' her power would also dilute the magazine's impact.

Perhaps Fiona Sampson will see her position as untenable after these revelations and the blogosphere storm surrounding them. I for one would not wish to continue as editor in such conditions, however well-paid the job.

Eva Salzman said...

The issue of length of editorship length should be discussed, but right now surely the primary concern must be current governance. questions of liability for funds if illicitly spent and some kind of justice for those who resigned or departed out of principle, and therefore seem to me to be exactly who we'd want running the place. Does anyone know if someone from charities commission was at the EGM? Thanks to all who attended this meeting for those of us who couldn't attend.