After a series of unexplained resignations, the Poetry Society conducts a little business.
By Michelene Wandor.
I SAT IN THE coffee place, almost at the bottom of Kingsway and doodled.
ponder picnics procedure plan poems psychophancy poetry plaints plangent proper play perform peruse pontificate politics politic palpable perquisite perks post scriptum persona paean prologue prolong parking placate public ponder pond pool ploughshare possible probably probity past present pentagram pristine palaver pander pandemonium participle palimpsest parliament parlous print publication purse pagoda petty pert pelt part pong prang pad palette palatable panfry prelate perfection prepare preponderance pirates plagiarism picky prorogue personify patrol palate persists plague pestilential partridges peartrees piffle pretenders persiflage pub pickled penury psychotic purblind plot piratical privileged pushy power pall pram partner piffle peck prissy pretentious poseur
I looked round. A couple sat at a nearby table. He was balding, slightly paunchy, baggy jeans. She had a Stevie Smith haircut, loose, comfortable trousers and sweater. Were they poets? Did it matter?
Well, it did. On the other side of the urban thoroughfare, in the Royal College of Surgeons, visitors awaited an unusual operation. The body involved was the Poetry Society. There was a problem with its upper part, the Board of Trustees. There we gathered together, the grey and the good, the curly haired and the straitened, the wordsmiths and the wannabes.
The meeting conflated an Annual with an Extraordinary General Meeting. The latter was ‘requisitioned’ by more than ten percent of the Society’s membership to get explanations of internal disputes over recent months. These have been covered with a mixture of amusement, dismay and relish by some of the national press. What, poets get het up about employment issues? Surely this must just be a clash of ‘personalities’ in the office?
WHILE THAT MAY BE true to an extent, such ‘clashes’ are serious when they involve issues of power, responsibility and accountability. And that’s obviously what’s happened here. Although there have been bespoke websites, tweets galore and emails flying round the ether, it has been very difficult indeed to get to the nub of what started it all off. What was clear before the meeting was that the working relationship between Director Judith Palmer and Fiona Sampson, Editor of Poetry Review (the quarterly magazine published by the Society), had broken down. The trustees had been told? become aware? of this, and they made a series of decisions (some at a party, others at apparently secretive get-togethers) which affected job descriptions and accountability, without consulting and/or informing the Director, who then (was forced to?) resign(ed). Matters became very acrimonious, and, according to a trade union official (he didn’t identify which union) at the meeting, steps were taken which might well constitute ‘constructive dismissal’. The director was excluded from her office, while the editor began working from home (though not on ‘gardening leave’).
The larger part of the meeting last Friday, 22 July, was devoted to challenging the board about their very clear mishandling of the position of the director, entailing expenditure of what may end up as around £30,000 in, apparently, unnecessary legal fees. The director had made only a verbal threat to sue. My conclusion about the ‘mishandling’ and the ‘unnecessary’ expenditure is drawn not simply from my reading of circulated information and from comments in the meeting, but in particular from the most cogent statement made by Paul Ranford, the finance manager of the Society, who resigned his job as a result of what has happened. Among the array of prominent poets who resigned from various honorary posts, his is a staff job. Of all those involved, he seems to be the one who encompassed and understood the staffing problems, the mismanagement, the failures of the board and the financial quicksands. To compound matters, the director had been responsible for winning a substantial increase in Arts Council money. The Council, perturbed at the fracas, is holding onto the money until it is sure it can be properly managed.
A vote of No Confidence in the board was called for, and passed overwhelmingly, 302 to 69.
However, a certain amount of pre-emptive action had already been taken. In her opening address, Laura Bamford, the Acting Chair, announced the Board’s intention to resign, making way in an orderly, procedural fashion, for a new Board to be elected by the members by early September. It was a bloodless coup, following implicit admissions of culpability, but it didn’t forestall tranches of searching questions from the floor.
SO WHERE ARE WE left? In a week when daytime TV ran the riveting courtroom drama of the House of Commons Select Committee versus Murdoch-Brooks, we could be heartened by this cameo mirror-image of concern for democracy and accountability among poets. Indeed, it is more than a parallel. The excessive amount of money spent on legal fees – that £30,000 – went to Harbottle and Lewis, the Murdoch lawyers. To them that have, shall be given.
This has been a rare moment of public protest among atomised artists, as all writers are. Secretive and informal abuses of power have been made public and – to a degree – atoned for. It’s not over yet. Although there will be a new Board in place, and hopefully much improved management, will anything further happen between now and September? Three co-opted members from the meeting have joined the current Board, in anticipation of the changing governance. Will the director be reinstated? Will there be repercussions for the editor, whose job, following EU employment law, was made permanent? Although Poetry Review has been edited in the past for varying periods of time, it has never been a lifetime post. How will staff accountability function within the Poetry Society’s hierarchy? Will the finance manager get his job back? Does he want it? Membership constitutes the second largest source of income, and publications the third largest amount of expenditure. Accountability is, therefore, crucial.
The dissection was over. The meeting dispersed, the Board and the bored. We’d had rowdy moments, incisive comments. The poets left, prêt-à-manger.
The Poetry Society Members’ Site fills in all the gaps; in particular, it has the statement from the former finance manager of the Poetry Society, which is essential reading.
Michelene Wandor’s two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. She performs with the Siena Ensemble and reports regularly for The Fortnightly Review.