Judith Palmer’s summary of the current situation at the Poetry Society
July 27, 2011
I have an association with the Poetry Society going back over twenty years, first as Audience-member, then Member, then Trustee, then Chair, and most recently Director. I care passionately for the organisation, and have an unflagging commitment to its work. Its staff are responsible for carrying out outstanding work across all areas of its programme, promoting a wider and deeper appreciation of poetry.
I am not interested in finger-pointing. I’m interested in seeing the Society in good health. I’ve kept my counsel over recent events, but in light of various comments now circulating, I think it is important to outline some concerns.
It is very disappointing that the Poetry Society Board appears determined to deflect attention from their mismanagement by belittling their senior team. Taking the easy route of dismissing two professional women as having personality differences, still leaves the resignation of the (male) Finance Manager unaccounted for. Within 48 hours of getting a fantastic offer of increased funding from the Arts Council, which all the staff had worked so hard to achieve, members of the Board decided to implement serious organisational changes without discussion. The nature of the structural relationship between the Poetry Society and its magazine Poetry Review has been contested ever since 1912 when the magazine was founded under Harold Monro. Whether or not the Review Editor should have autonomy and separation from the rest of the Society’s activities was debated extensively in Board meetings before I ever worked for the organisation. When it was last tabled in 2008, a different Board rejected the proposal. In 2011, Trustees accepted the proposal by somewhat unorthodox means – via discussions that, in my view, should have happened openly according to established procedure.
The Board suddenly accepted a proposal to make significant organisational change, that diverted dramatically from our agreed programme, without even producing a business case for the shift. As the Society’s CEO I raised serious operational concerns about what was being implemented, as well as the irregular manner of its implementation. I explained that what they were rushing through could destabilise the whole organisation and jeopardise funding.
Amongst other concerns I stressed the need to involve the Arts Council in discussions, as laid out in our funding agreement, and my worries that Trustees were getting involved in day-to-day decision-making, which was confusing for all concerned. Consulting neither Finance Manager nor Director, Trustees made decisions with serious financial implications, involving entirely unnecessary expenditure. When I pointed out some procedural irregularities at a very early stage – probably inadvertent and easily moved-on from – rather than discuss the issue, a couple of Trustees seemingly preferred an entrenched position. Confidential meetings and obfuscation followed, and all attempts at discussion were rebuffed. Eventually, after several weeks of trying to unravel the position, I thought it best to resign and let the Board follow their own path. Independently, the Finance Manager decided he too, had no confidence in the Board. The Society’s President followed.
I moved on from my position as Director at the end of May. The Society was in good shape, and I left it to the good stewardship of its Trustees. I wished the Society well and started developing future projects of my own. Trustees’ actions in the weeks that followed my departure caused increasing confusion and speculation. I gather that other members of staff raised continuing concerns about the Trustees’ decision-making. Staff-members asked the Board if they could invite me back. A number of Members did likewise. I put other projects on hold, and offered to return to try to get the Society back on an even keel.
Since the issue has been raised, I feel I should address the question of legal costs head-on. I requested that Trustees consider the employment rights of all staff members, and drew their attention to their responsibility to act accordingly. Rather than accept reassurances, given in good faith, that I did not wish to pursue action, the Board adopted a bullish stance I consider wholly inappropriate. As I understand it, the Board has recently been seeking legal advice on a whole range of matters.Their legal bill is entirely the Trustees’ own responsibility.
I wish the Society well. Long may it flourish. If I can help it through its current difficulties, I offer to be part of the solution. And until then, I’ll continue writing my book.
P.S. I’m just loading up the car to go camping in Norfolk.
Judith Palmer, 27 July 2011