Saturday, 23 July 2011

But can't we all just get along?

For those outside the poetry sphere, yesterday's Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) of members of the Poetry Society was the fraught and emotional conclusion to months of upheaval, rumour and bitterness that has so far cost over £24,000 in legal fees and several people's jobs. I wasn't there, although K & I were represented by a proxy, Andy Ching, who voted on our behalf. A full summary of the whole affair as it unfolded can be read here, and a summary of the meeting at Silkworms.

If you want the super-condensed story (bearing in mind it does not give equal weight to the accounts of all sides), it is this: in April, the board of trustees of the Poetry Society went behind the Director's back, circumventing proper procedure, in order to make special arrangements to benefit one member of staff (the editor of Poetry Review). Their subsequent handling of the fallout was so incompetent that it resulted in a wave of resignations, mounting rumours of an elitist conspiracy and a legal bill that could have been cut considerably if they hadn't opted for, of all people, Rupert Murdoch's lawyers. A campaign sparked by Roddy Lumsden, but ultimately led by Kate Clanchy, gathered the support of over 400 members and eventually forced the details out into the open. The board have now resigned and will be replaced in September. They apparently see themselves as innocents strung out to dry by 'bloody unbalanced' poets. During the time in which they hoped to keep everything a closely guarded secret, other staff at the Poetry Society were threatened with the sack if they told anyone anything about it and were excluded from the decision-making process.

Behind this is the still-cloudy issue of why the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, wanted these beneficial arrangements, ie. working from home, the option to report to the board and not the director, reduced hours. Let's take into account: (a) that her post was recently made permanent, without an official announcement, thus ending the practice of rotating editors of the journal every few years; (b) that she is a high profile poet herself who, it was pointed out by Private Eye, featured Ruth Padel in Poetry Review in roughly the same period Padel gave her a stand-up review in a broadsheet paper and was judging a prize in which she was shortlisted; (c) that she had requested these arrangements from the previous Poetry Society director and the previous Poetry Society board.

You can see, working it through logically with even a scintilla of cynicism, where the rumours of an elitist conspiracy spring from. Lacking any alternative innocent explanation, it looks an awful lot like an attempt to take Poetry Review out of the hands of the Poetry Society, which funds it, and under the complete control of the editor and her other high-profile friends, who are not averse, as we know, to a bit of log-rolling. But we just don't know for sure and probably never will.

Now, to the heading of this post.

I've noticed, over the period that this has unfolded, that one strong, sometimes wearily whispered, point of view is that this is all so much terrible hoo-hah. How hilarious and silly it is that anyone is getting their knickers in a twist over this. Or, in some cases, how deeply depressing and absurd it is that people should be getting emotional - and relationships breaking down - because of some sort of faction war or territorial conflict.

Consider the position of Todd Swift, who initially offered to stand as a proxy but withdrew, and closed his membership with the Poetry Society, because of his disillusionment with the situation. I mention Todd partly because the first time I ever saw him in the flesh, he expressed a similar disillusionment with British poetry in general, and said that he wanted to see us all put aside our differences and support each other. In recent blog posts on the situation, he has said:

"... there is nothing sadder than seeing the rebel angels (the poets) falling out among themselves."

It's easy to sympathise with this sentiment. There certainly is something terribly sad about all these events and - let's be honest - we look like chumps.

But on the other hand, it is a sentimental position to take. Poets are not, alas, rebel angels. They are human beings. And when human beings form meaningful groups, there will be friction. Where there is power, there will be the constant temptation to abuse it. Where there is kinship, there will be factionism and at least some degree of nepotism. There is no rising above it. There is no handing over the reins to sensible people who will sort everything out and leave you nothing to worry about. The only healthy approach is to have our battles out in the open, in an honest and straightforward way, and to constantly monitor the situation and check ourselves, and to never take for granted periods of relative calm.

If you see a group with a membership as large as the Poetry Society, or British Poetry in general, who are apparently united in cause and entirely friendly, all you are seeing is an effective kind of dictatorship, where the dissenters have more to gain by keeping quiet than speaking up, such is the balance of power. Think of the relationship between Murdoch and our politicians.

And yes, of course, this is far more of a serious problem when it's a structure that carries a whole society, but just because the stakes in poetry are relatively small doesn't mean this kind of thing doesn't matter on a personal level. Coindentally, this was illustrated perfectly in an episode of Dexter I was watching last night. It portrayed a social unit far smaller than a contingent of poets - a single family. On the surface, they were charitable, loving, happy. Out of sight of the rest of the world, the father was a monster.

In this case, people might not be living under the roof of a tyrant, but there are jobs at stake, as well as people's shot at a kind of self-worth and a direction. Of course there will be friction and falling out, and clashing visions, and folly. Of course.

So sorry, this is how it has to be: you have your dust-up, you take the risk of looking silly and petty, you try to learn and forgive and you move on. If you attempt to hold onto an appearance of dignity and an unblemished record, all you do is drive all that conflict into an ever more secret and soul-corrupting place, where people are quietly chewed up and never allowed to speak about it.

This is why it's entirely disingenuous of Carol Ann Duffy to state that "there's little competitiveness in the poetry world". This is why, tedious as it is, you have to bring yourself to care about the bumbling about that goes on in the shadows, and sometimes you even have to take sides, and risk looking like you've jumped the gun when the full story emerges later. In this case, if people hadn't supported Kate Clanchy's endeavours, and if people hadn't sympathised with the director of the Poetry Society to the extent of wanting an explanation, that full story might not have emerged. Sorry, but it does matter. We ain't all sweetness and light and should never pretend to be.


Sheenagh Pugh said...

Yup. I'll "get along" with them when they stop misapplying my money. I don't pay subs for them to hire expensive lawyers when (a) they shouldn't have needed lawyers in the first place if they'd followed proper procedure and (b) they could have got free legal advice from ACAS. Instead they have spent a fifth of the society's reserves to no good end and are apparently contemplating an overdraft. So much for the ACE grabt.

Lindy Barbour said...

I agree with everything you have said here about the kinds of feelings and actions that arise in human groups. I would add to this, however, that we humans have, over time, established principles of fairness, and processes of good employment practice that help to guide organisations and contain the inevitable difficulties that arise from time to time. These principles and processes seem to have been flouted in a high handed and arrogant manner.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I don't work in poetry but I follow it. I have met both of the two main protagonists briefly and the difference in professionalism was enormous. I have now read about twenty accounts on the web and agree that the 'rebel' poets did very well to force the Board's resignation. If there is material to the contrary I've yet to read it.

David Floyd said...

I think the fact the Poetry Society is a membership organisation of poets has made an astonishing piece of darkly farcical theatre but ultimately it's an astonishing bit of charity trusteeship.

I'm a trustee of two charities and a non-executive director of another not for profit company.

Not all judgements on procedure are clear cut but I'm unable to imagine any circumstances where it would be appropriate for a board of trustees to remove a chunk of an employee's management responsibilities without discussing it with them first.

I think you could spend an awful lot more than £24,000 without even managing to generate a plausible suggestion.

nliu said...

Good to see (the beginning of) an end to this rubbish. Too bad they didn't have the grace to quit on the spot.

The captcha word I had to type to post this was "fackin". Perfect.