Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Poetry Society Chaos Update

Since I first posted about the Chaos at the Poetry Society three weeks ago, quite a lot has happened. Or, rather, nothing has happened. Or, I’m not really sure. Katy’s article at Baroque in Hackney sums up pretty much all anyone knows about what’s going on. Three weeks ago, I made a low level plea to the Poetry Society, which now must seem humorous in an uncomfortable kind of way:
“...it becomes important to make some kind of statement. Not a bland statement which says nothing, but a statement which accurately and as fairly as possible tells the story...”

The Poetry Society has released two statements since, one of which said “business as usual”, and another which said, “moving forward”. Three possibilities suggest themselves to me from these statements:

1. The Poetry Society has something to hide
2. The Poetry Society is beyond useless at public relations
3. The situation is much worse even than it seems, so bad that things can’t possibly be made public

It’s hard to know which to go for. Of course, all or none could be true. I am impressed with Fiona Moore’s assessment of the situation from a public relations perspective. It won’t make happy reading for the Poetry Society, who ought to start listening before it’s too late. Into the vacuum has come a great deal of speculation, culminating yesterday with an article in the Daily Telegraph, which suggested the dispute was mainly about money. This explanation may have some truth, but it doesn’t add up. The Poetry Society received an increase in its grant from the Arts Council of England. The application must have been for specific purposes and must have been in accordance with its own stated aims and objectives. If people on the board, after receiving the grant, want to spend money on something different to what they’ve just received it for, they simply can’t do it. Unless they are “reinterpreting” what the application means, when it will still have to be generally in line with what ACE understood it to mean. This all smacks of politicking behind the scenes, people with opposing visions seeking dominance. The Telegraph suggests that ACE is becoming uneasy. If so (it is a big “if”), that’s not exactly great for staff morale, given that their jobs depend on this money, but I doubt ACE would want to pull out. I imagine the silence must be due to current sensitive negotiations between ACE and the Poetry Society and between different schools of thought within the society. Apparently there is a July deadline for a report on precisely how some of the funding will be used. That document should make interesting reading!

Lemn Sissay stepped in with a blog article a few days ago. I'm sure it's written with integrity and the best of intentions, but I also think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t really present a coherent argument. The main thrust of the article is to defend Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, the magazine of the Poetry Society. He feels that FS is being stitched up by people with a vested interest in her being removed. I guess there are a number of people who would like to see her booted out. I have no view on this, as I'm not a subcriber and haven't submitted anything for years. I think Fiona Sampson has offered the magazine strengths (translated work) and weaknesses (lack of range). But the extent of Fiona Sampson’s involvement in the current disputes is impossible to determine. Lemn Sissay says she has nothing to do with it. Other people say she is central to the arguments. People argue about these things on Facebook, on blogs, on newspaper comment sections, on the basis of facts which may not be facts. An entire discourse develops around happenings which may not have happened, figures which may not tell any story let alone a whole story, personalities which may be phantoms.

Charles Boyle summed it up well when he wrote:

I have no inside info; I don’t even have gossip. But what to me is a little bit interesting is that in the absence of hard fact, the speculation that fills the vacuum can become what a thing is about and start to influence what happens next.

Very true. But speculation requires a vacuum and the Poetry Society, in my opinion, is largely to blame for creating one. Its public statements have been evasive and cagey and the resulting speculation has led to a vast number of people joining the society simply to sign a petition calling for an EGM to get full answers. Some of the questions I have seen mooted for a potential EGM don’t seem quite adequate in that they can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and a few monosyllabic answers won’t tell us any more than the Poetry Society’s press releases. I reckon questions need to be open enough to require a thorough explanation.

I know Kate Clanchy initiated a call for names to call an EGM (around 340 are required, I believe), but I’m unsure whether that has now been derailed or not. (Actually, it's still on track. Katy EB writes in the comments, "Kate C is definitely still collecting names; anyone who wants to be on the list should email her at kateclanchy at gmail dot com. She has a barrister advising as to process and content of a possible EGM; email her for more information"). If anyone else is leading the call with an agenda set up and specific questions on the table (as required), I don’t know who it is. But I'm sure we'll find out sooner or later...

(incidentally, I don't mind comments on this, but please keep them from being abusive to individuals. I will delete comments which contain either abuse or libellous material)

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