Kate Clanchy on paranoid poets
Poets are easy to poke fun at. Their lives’ work may well be shorter than a cook-book, and have fewer readers. Their art-form is notoriously ill paid. And they fuss, almost by definition, about things which seem incomprehensibly small to outsiders: scansion, line-endings, reviews, precedence. They fuss with each other too, again over goods which may seem petty: a professorship, an editorship, a review.
All this can make for a difficult atmosphere at parties: a paranoia of poets, our Poet Laureate once proposed as our collective noun. But I’ve always maintained that the paranoia was only skin-deep. I was treated very generously as a new poet, and I have always told other new poets that they will be treated generously too. In particular, I’ve always laughed at the notion of a ‘London-based cabal’, and a sinister group ‘in control’ of prizes and publications. I’ve always pointed out, for example, that prize juries rotate, and so does the editorship of our central Journal, Poetry Review. If your work is not the taste of one judge or editor, it might be to the next’s.
I went into the work of organising a Requisition to find out what was going on at the Poetry Society in this same spirit: I thought that something very poetical and principled, something to do with an ampersand, would be found to be the problem, and that everything would be sorted well before I collected my 300 signatures.
I have been horribly disappointed: at each turn, with each anguished email and late-night strange phone-call, I have found out more and more things that seem to have come straight from the imaginings of a paranoid poet. For example, that the Editorship of Poetry Review doesn’t rotate at all, any more. The Editor’s post was made permanent in 2008, and no one was told. Now, this may be one of those facts that seems incredibly petty to outsiders, but to poets, it’s like being told that driving licenses have only been given out through one instructor for the last 3 years, and no one thought that to know this was any of a learner-driver’s business. Poetry Review is a gate-keeper magazine. The keys can’t stay with one person.
Then I found out that the whole Poetry Society schism was also based on Poetry Review. The editor had been lobbying for years to be able to work separately from the Society, and suddenly this year she was granted her wish. In order to gratify it, the Board met confidentially, changed the Director’s job description, by-passed staff and funders and, when the Director protested, pushed her to resign and threw her out the building. When they realised they had actually broken a number of laws by doing this, they started a search for ‘something on the Director’, and hired very expensive lawyers who racked up huge bills – all without the Director having taken any legal action herself.
Why? Why on earth would a group of apparently good citizens do this to a reputable Society, established for 100 years, and a Director who had just won a record uplift in funding from ACE? How could this destruction possibly be worth while in order to win better conditions for just one employee, and for the magazine which is just one part of the Society’s work? What was the impulse behind it?
And what could be the worst possible answer? Whispers from a London-based cabal, of course, of the sort I have never believed in. But at the EGM which our requisition succeeded in calling, that was the answer I got. The Acting Chair said that the relationship between the Editor and the Director, though it hadn’t been the subject of any official grievance, or caused concern to funders, was ‘causing public comment’. I asked about the comment, and was not only told that it had not been written down, but also that it had not been ‘open’ to Poetry Society members. The Chair told me: ‘You obviously weren’t at that party’.
No, we weren’t at that party, we scruffy, regional poets in the hall. We are, as the Guardian kindly pointed out, not party-animals but beardy, older, in sensible shoes. So easy to poke fun at. But 507 difficult, paranoid people did get together to find out what was going on. And I believe 1000 will sign the petition currently being put forward by George Szirtes, asking the Poetry Society to roll back and start again. I also believe that it will, and that a new, better, less paranoid Society will rise from what looks more and more like ashes. But then, I’m a very optimistic person, or I’d never have tried to rally a group of poets.