Well, we are all reeling. On Friday, the UK poetry world – or the bits of it that could be in central London at 5pm on a weekday in the summer holidays – turned out for an extraordinary general meeting to discuss a matter that has become known as What the Hell Has Been Going On. But if you’re reading this, you probably know that.
And you’ve probably heard the rough outline: the trustees sprung a surprise announcement at the start of the meeting, that they plan to quit, en masse, at the AGM, which has been moved forward to September. This was not on the agenda, and had very much the feel of both too little, too late, and also a sop. A curve ball, designed to deflect the meeting from its course.
The meeting duly followed its course, with revelations that knocked the audience’s socks off: literally. There were socks flying everywhere. George Szirtes sums it up admirably on his blog. In fact, there are a number of blogs where you can get, from different angles, the story of the meeting:
The Silkworms Ink account is written direct from notes taken in the meeting by Phil Brown; he had intended to live-tweet, but found that there was no signal in the room; his notes are rather forensic, as a result.
Jane Holland transforms the meeting into a hopeful New Dawn for poetry, on her blog. We shall see how it comes to pass, but in the meantime it is a very good account of the afternoon.
Jon Stone, who wasn’t there, uses his Fuselit blog to sum up wittily ‘the super-condensed story (bearing in mind it does not give equal weight to the accounts of all sides)’.
And of course, the Poetry Society members’ site is a great resource, including as it does the official statement of Paul Ranford – now known as ‘Gregory Peck’ – the finance manager, who resigned from his job because of the mismanagement that was going on.
I can’t imagine how any of this would be the least bit edifying if one wasn’t already interested and/or involved. It just feels embarrassing.
The meeting itself was arduous, hot, angry, cathartically funny, buoyant, at times ugly, at times petty, a couple of times sad, mostly mystifying, and always nervewracking. The Baroque hands shook like leaves throughout.The vote of no confidence was carried 302 to 69, with 11 abstentions.
There were sorrows, as people I’m very fond of turned up ‘on the other side’ (as they might say at Hogwarts), and normal conversation was not possible. I’m hoping some of my friends, shocked by the really quite serious revelations of the meeting (disregard for management protocols, reckless and pointless expenditure, an attempt to raise an overdraft, inquiries into valuing the premises, a compelling account of vindictiveness from ex-Chair Anne-Marie Fyfe, a crashing disregard for people who go to the wrong parties, and a complete lack of apology for any of this), were among the 11 abstentions. Matters were confused by the fact that some people were there for the inchoate purpose of “supporting” the editor of Poetry Review, who had sent out an email asking people to defend her. But defend against what? By personalising the issue – by trying to make it about whether they thought she’d “done a good job on the magazine” or not, she took attention away from the serious issues at stake. To the point where if you pointed out that there were grave irregularities going on, it became tantamount to some kind of personal disloyalty.
And here we are. Board resigns in September. Three co-opted new trustees to help sort out the mess. No Arts Council funding till it’s sorted. And lots of people still quite cross. Will the Director be reinstated? Will the current Board continue their “negotiations” until it’s to late for her to sue for constructive dismissal? And what would happen if she did? Why did they not apologise? How DARE one of them – after what they’ve been found to have done – tell the press that they think poets are “rather bloody unbalanced, and they’re glad to be shot of it”?
And here’s a thing. They Board did tell us in the meeting that the press was present. Since then there have been two newspaper articles about the EGM. One, in the Guardian, is very sneery indeed, and appears to present the narrative that we were given at the EGM: that two staff members had a dispute that they, the Board, were at a loss to resolve, and so attempted a solution, which regrettably turned out to be unwise… It really did make me think. If two staff members in a place have a “dysfunctional working relationship,” and the solution arrived at by management (or indeed trustees) gives one of them exactly what she wanted, and publicly undermines the other one, that doesn’t look like an equitable attempt at reconciliation. It looks like one person being favoured.
The other one was in Today’s Times (of course, this article takes massive exception to the fact that the membership didn’t like the trustees running up £24K of bills with Harbottle and Lewis, who happen to represent News International as well). It goes one further and actually takes personal mocking potshots at the Director, leapfrogs over sneery straight to nasty (“poets” are”petty, small-minded, incompetent bickering fanatics”), and even manages to get the “sides” of the dispute mixed up.
I almost don’t want to be writing about it, as it is so divisive, and it would be so much nicer to just get on (though Jon Stone addresses this question neatly, I think). It’s so tiring. And negative, you know, it’s summer, I’m already stressed out enough,I just want to relax a little, try and feel good about things…
It was bizarre to be waiting for my train at Victoria after all that on Friday and watching a giant screen with Sky headlines – only confusing soundless headlines – telling us that of course there are much bigger, more surreal, more horrifying things in the world than a lack of gravitas of the Poetry Society’s current trustees.
My dreams the night before had surged catastrophically around the death of Lucian Freud; the news from Norway was too horrific to take in that evening; and the next day as we tried to take it in, we read that Amy Winehouse had finished her six-year bender, and died. After that, having got my ducks in a row, I dreamt that I had to rescue baby ducklings in a sudden freeze, and there was a close-up angle-shot as one, no two, of them sank down into the blackness under the ice.