Rumblings at the Poetry Society

The Poetry Society, based in London, exists with aim of educating the public about poetry and extending
poetry’s readership. It has multiple strings to its bow, the key ones are listed:-

  • Members get the Newsletter with poetry news and opportunities to include poetry by members;
  • Poetry Review – a mix of new poems, reviews and articles. Open to non members to submit work but  ompetition is tough and even if its intentions are otherwise, it is perceived as an elitist magazine. The current editor is under fire for dropping two (women) reviewers and publishing fewer women poets and fewer reviews of poetry by women than previous editors;
  • The Poetry Cafe – venue for poetry readings and open microphone events. Open to non members, but firmly based in London;
    Aims to increase writers’ residences for poets and the profile of poets in schools;
  • Recently created Poetry Stanzas – members can create a local poetry group under the Poetry Society banner with the Poetry Society offering advice (but not any financial assistance to, for example, organise local readings for poet who have been involved in events at the Poetry Cafe). The success of individual Stanzas relies on the dynamics of the local group and individual members;
  • Provides information on poetry courses with mentoring and criticism schemes open to members;
  • Administers the National Poetry Competition, open to anyone following the competition rules;
  • Gets Arts Council of England funding to further readership for poetry and support “new” (the Arts Council often uses “new” when it means “young” even though new poets can be of any age) poets.

On paper, the Poetry Society sounds like a good thing. In practice is has two main areas of friction. Firstly it offers members outside London very little beyond reading the newsletters and Poetry Review as there is little opportunity to get involved with either and often London-based events (ie the overwhelming majority of events organised by the Poetry Society) and the Annual General Meeting are organised with very little notice given so members outside London don’t have time or organise travel or overnight stays in order to attend. Complaints about its London-centric attitude are usually dismissed. The second area of friction is that the editor of Poetry Review doesn’t have complete control over the contents or direction of Poetry Review, but edits under the watchful eye of the Poetry Society’s Board.

I’m not a member. I have a finite amount of money to spend on poetry magazines, books and joining writers’ organisations and using any of that money towards a society whose events I can’t attend and who expects me to be a passive recipient of news and magazines isn’t going to be a priority. However, I read the story in the London Evening Standard with interest. Its tone is mischievous – the idea that there’s “no one to sign the cheques” is
patently wrong and it’s not clear whether Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, is asking for autonomy over the society or merely over Poetry Review (I’m going to assume the latter). I know some members are angry as they are struggling to find out what’s going on and there’s been no official communication from the Poetry Society itself.

Ultimately does it matter if the Poetry Society or Poetry Review’s remit changes from general education about poetry to promoting high profile poets only?

The problems most poets face are:

  • Getting their poems out in front of readers;
  • Expanding the audience for poetry (and their own poems);
  • Getting paid for writing and publishing poetry (payment is generally offered for readings, running workshops, teaching, but not actually writing or publishing which is often paid in kind with
    complimentary copies);
  • Finding markets for their work – poetry magazines struggle to find subscribers and reject 98% of what they are sent;
  • Finding a publisher – Arts Council England has cut or reduced funding to at least four publishers, one of which is closing and the others have been left to seek alternatives. If every poet who wanted to be published bought books from the publisher they wanted to be published by, poetry publishers would survive without subsidy;
  • Finding the publisher’s publicity budget is zero so poets have to do their own publicity. This also creates the Catch-22 that poetry publishers can’t afford to buy slots in ‘three for two’ offers, buy slots in prominent store locations/window displays and can’t afford to advertise so poetry books don’t sell very well, failing to create a profit from which publishers might do publicity – so poetry publishers need public subsidies and organisations like Inpress and the Poetry Book Society who help distribute poetry books to readers;
  • Lack of support from book shops for poetry;
  • Finding that as their book sales are mostly through live literature events, the sales aren’t recorded in official books sales channels so it looks as if poetry sells less than it actually does.

We have a situation where there are more writers of poetry than readers. That wouldn’t be such a problem if the “writers not readers” could be persuaded to buy poetry books and magazines and so support the organisations they blithely assume will publish them.

Chris Hamilton-Emery (of Salt Publishing) has established a new Facebook page for a British Academy of Poets, http://www.facebook.com/TheBritishAcademyOfPoets, to test out the viability of a national organisation to represent poets and the interests of poets. If you’re on Facebook, join the debate.

What do you think can be done to expand the readership for poetry? Do you think an organisation to support poets is a good idea and what areas should it focus on?

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