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Guest Post From Judith Palmer

Eyewear is glad to post below a letter sent in from former Director of the Poetry Society Judith Palmer, in response to yesterday's Battle Royale post.

From Judith Palmer

Dear Todd,

I don’t think we’ve ever met: so you may have jumped to some wrong suppositions when you suggest the Poetry Review Editor and I had ‘diametrically opposed viewpoints for the future direction of the Poetry Society’. The geometrical positioning is far from polar.

My policy was always that the Poetry Society should aim to reflect all poetries for all audiences. We employed different strategies to reach different constituencies, and hoped to build bridges between the different areas of our programme. A participant in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, for example, might aspire to be published one day in Poetry Review. A visitor to Trafalgar Square who read our new commissions around the Christmas Tree, might go on to explore membership, and become a more regular reader of contemporary poetry.

Poetry Review has always been a central part of the Poetry Society’s activities, with its own editorial independence, which has never been threatened. There’s an agreement going back over 30 years that the Review publishes the 3 winning poems from the Society’s National Poetry Competition once a year – hardly an arduous imposition (with recent winners including Helen Dunmore, John Stammers, Matthew Sweeney and Ian Pindar).

When I commissioned our Poetry Society Annual Lectures, the Review was given first refusal on publishing the texts. It was free to decline, but chose to take up the offer. Last year, I commissioned Les Murray, and this year CK Williams. The Annual Lecture has just toured for the first time, taking in three venues, thanks to partnerships the Society established with the Universities of Newcastle, London and Liverpool.

If the inclusion of Society-generated material from Williams, Murray, Dunmore, Stammers, Sweeney and Pindar, serves as evidence of a watering-down campaign by the Poetry Society, I don’t think readers of the Review have got much to fear from the poetic Trading Standards Institute.

Perhaps it would be instructive to take a look at a few of the other poets involved in the Poetry Society’s artistic programme (excluding Poetry Review) over the past two years, and check them for wateriness. Convenient as it is for scaremongers to paint the Review as battling the forces of PoSoc mediocrity and populist flimflam, the evidence suggests otherwise.

National Poetry Competition judges: Neil Rollinson, Ruth Padel, George Szirtes, Jackie Kay, Colette Bryce, John Glenday, Deryn Rees-Jones, Sinead Morrissey and Daljit Nagra.

New commissions from poets including Pauline Stainer, Simon Armitage, Roger McGough, John Mole, Katrina Porteous, Ian McMillan, Andy Croft, Peter Samson, John Agard, Kit Wright, Philip Gross and Kevin Crossley-Holland.

National Poetry Day Live! Our live public performances at the Southbank Centre brought together on the same stage John Hegley, Carol Ann Duffy, Lemn Sissay, Selima Hill, Valerie Laws, Anjan Saha; Luke Kennard, Jane Draycott, Caroline Bird, Ross Sutherland, Fiona Sampson, Robin Robertson and Ian Duhig.

Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, our performance for the reopening of the Swan Theatre featured Jackie Kay, Jo Shapcott, Jay Bernard and Kayo Chingonyi. Our Edwin Morgan tribute at Poetry International combined Richard Price, Roddy Lumsden and Bill Manhire.

The new Young Poets Network website has commissioned poets including Clare Pollard, Inua Ellams, Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Matthew Sweeney, Benjamin Zephaniah, Helen Mort, Alex Pryce and Amy Key.

The Ted Hughes Award has gone to Alice Oswald and Kaite O’Reilly, from shortlists including Christopher Reid, Martin Figura, Paul Farley, Chris Agee, and Katharine Towers.

Just a handful more of the many names to have recently performed, written or acted as judges for the Poetry Society: Mimi Khalvati, Stephen Romer, Stephen Watts, Ziba Karbassi, Alison Croggon, Robert Gray, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Nikki Blaze, Vona Groarke, Linda Chase, Dorothea Smartt, Ruth Fainlight, Jane Yeh, Joelle Taylor, Elaine Feinstein, Sam Riviere, Glyn Maxwell, Jenny Hval, Sarah Howe, Andrew Motion, Swithun Cooper, Imtiaz Dharker, Dannie Abse and Gillian Clarke. And that’s before we even begin to talk about the education programme.

I admit it – I thought it might be fun to get over a thousand people to knit a Dylan Thomas poem to celebrate the Society’s centenary. The project received no public funding, was created entirely on volunteer goodwill, and has toured extensively round the country, from St Andrews to Much Wenlock, Manchester to Swansea, Liverpool to Bridlington, taking in the British Library, Southbank Centre and the V&A. Poets including Paul Farley, Anne Stevenson, Stephen Knight, Penelope Shuttle, Maurice Riordan, John Hartley Williams, Julia Copus and Menna Elfyn contributed short essays about ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’; while knitters were introduced to related poems by Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Emily Dickinson and Gwyneth Lewis.

And through these Poetry Society initiatives, over three million people read, wrote or listened to more poems in the past 12 months.

The town’s not small, and there’s plenty of room for all.




Judith, thank you for your letter, which is very interesting. I suppose what Poetry Society members might be confused by, in the light of your positive comments, is, why, given the brilliant and inclusive work you have done, you resigned. The resignation of several key people has made it appear that there is some sort of rift or crisis. Unfortunately, confusion can only result from there being no official explanation. I am not asking for one from you, of course. As for us never meeting, that is too bad. I would have loved to contribute to one of your projects, but was never approached. One of the reasons I let my membership lapse, I suppose, was the sense I didn't feel included. Which seems an odd thing for such an active promoter of poetry to feel.
Anonymous said…
Hi Todd - With the extra 31% funding increase from the Arts Council we had just secured, we were going to have been able to extend our projects further to work with yet more poets - and who knows - you might have been next. Sorry not to have had the opportunity to work with you. Did you submit to the Review? best Judith
Anonymous said…
Very well put Judith, its just a shame people don't do their homework before commenting on what is clearly an non-elitist, extensive and inexhastiblly energetic society.
Anonymous - I did my homework - my comments about the Poetry Society were about what people were saying - not what I myself though. However, there is a real issue at stake of proper governance, and no one is debating whether the Society, in some ways, does good things.
RudeBoy Noah said…
Perfect day for such a letter Quatorze Juillet/Bastille Day! Can we have more guest/posts/letters? How come this one happened today of all days?! Love it!
Ask your friends Todd! E.g. Fiona Sampson who has been "silent in public" all along I suppose.
Thanks for your ever present presence it is a present!
Merci beaucoup.
A good coup indeed.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your message, Todd. Yes, I was sure you had been published in Poetry Review.

As far as the Society was concerned, we always tried to consider the balance of what we did in the round, across all our programmes. If you were published in the Review - the Poetry Society's magazine - you had indeed been very much a part of the Society's activities. Very glad to hear it! best Judith
Anonymous said…
So where are the non-mainstream, experimental, visual, post-avant, Language, linguistically innovative or whatever you choose to call them then? Once again, noticeable by their absence.

Sorry, but you do not represent all poetries, Judith. Never have done.
Anonymous said…
I take 'anonymous' 2.22's point. Although that hasn't been a dominant strand, we managed a few things involving writers such as Allen Fisher, Sean Bonney, Jeff Hilson and Valerie Laws, we were working with SJ Fowler/Maintenant and were glad to do more. Judith Dean had a long residency in the Poetry Cafe making experimental interventions. Poetry News regularly includes articles about concrete /visual/ found/ inter-disciplinary work; and much of the successful Foyle Young Poets' work is astoundingly innovative, definitely not bowing to any one tradition. Our Edwin Morgan tribute came out of respect and passion for the linguistically innovative.

Don't scare the horses, but the knitted poem was trying to mix the experimental and lyric traditions. Knitters never knew what the final poem was going to be - they only knew the letter they were responsible for. You should have seen the Thomas poem when it was laid out deconstructed into its component letters. It was pure Cobbing.

The theme of National Poetry Day 2011 is 'games'. The theme was chosen with linguistic invention in mind, and there's still time before NPD on 6 October to contact (err someone??) at the Society with ideas.

I didn't say we represented all poetries, I said it was our aim to try.

Best, Judith
Anonymous said…
Judith I dont understand your argument. You are clearly wrong.

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