Tuesday 28 February 2012

The Poetry Society and Poetry Review

I haven’t written about the Poetry Society since its AGM in September voted in a new board.  There hasn’t been much to discuss except gossip, some of which was well-founded.  No doubt a lot of hard work was going on in the background.  Roger McGough was chosen as president, which seemed a thoroughly positive move.

Enough to say that the new board’s declaration, just before Christmas, about looking forward to continuing work with both the director, Judith Palmer, and the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, seemed unrealistic in the face of what looked to outsiders like a stalemate, with Sampson working from home.  However the Arts Council must have been satisfied with the new board’s governance - early this year it released the funding withheld since last summer.

Two of the board’s members, Polly Clark and Edward Mackay, weren’t happy, and resigned in December.  The first PoSoc members/voters heard of this was when Clark announced it on her blog in February, because PoSoc hadn’t.  Two new members have now been co-opted: Neil Reeder and Jon Sayers, who were candidates in the election at the AGM.  The board needs a communications strategy - lack of openness was one of the problems last summer.  
The trigger for writing this now is Fiona Sampson’s resignation from Poetry Review a few days ago.  This appears to have come about suddenly since PoSoc are going to appoint a guest editor for the summer issue, presumably to fill the gap while they are hiring. [Update, 29 Feb: guest editor is George Szirtes.]

There’s been discussion on Facebook about the editorship (by people who know a lot more about editing poetry magazines than I do).  But I think common sense is sufficient qualification to talk about most aspects, so I’m going to.

Should PR continue to be edited by just one person? I’d answer that with a resounding No. For two main reasons.  First, the quality and nature of the magazine. Multiple editors should bring editorial breadth and minimise bias; also reduce perceptions of bias.  (The fact that this didn’t happen with Potts & Herd doesn’t mean it’s not possible.)   It’s OK, in fact expected, for any other poetry magazine to be biased; but the national one’s different.  There’s so much variety in contemporary poetry, UK and international, to represent.  PR should also keep its readers up to date with the thriving UK poetry scene, especially small presses - addressing the bias in major prizes and mainstream literary media.  And I’d love it if PR commissioned a few good, accessible pieces on poetics, a subject PN Review does better.     

Second, efficiency.  No-one can deal sensibly with 60,000 poems a year and the burden of expectations of a wide-ranging membership.  All poetry editors must have a masochistic streak, but to expect one person to take on all that is madness. 

There’s no doubt that whatever the difficulties in her editorship, Sampson produced an interesting magazine with an international perspective, and brought some good new poets to light.   I wonder how she managed this while reading every poem submitted, which apparently she did. 

It’s no coincidence that the most efficient magazine I know, and one of the nicest, Smiths Knoll, has two editors.  Of course PR is a much bigger enterprise, but the principle’s the same.  I once asked Michael Laskey how they manage to return people’s poems within a fortnight, and his answer had a lot to do with two people sharing the work: taking it in turns for the bulk of the reading, and then making final decisions together.  In that situation, backlog-inducing events such as illness or holidays aren’t such a strain.  And becoming misanthropic is perhaps less likely. 

To prevent blandness or fallings-out, a duo / trio could take it in turns to lead for each issue.  Another option, which I fancy, would be more like the Magma model: a panel of editorial consultants, from whom a couple of editors would be chosen for each issue.  This model would also make diversity easier: gender, background, ethnicity, age, interests, taste. 

The main snag with a plural editorship might be cost... Maybe PoSoc could move away from a salary model to paying per issue; and supplementing with volunteers.  Maybe they should start an editorial training programme (The Rialto’s about to do something like that, with its new Arts Council funding).  That might be one internship nobody would have ethical problems with.  It would help with sifting the poems, which seems to me an entirely acceptable thing to do. 

The editors will need not just the usual skills, but some softer qualities too.  What’s known as interpersonal skills: for getting on with other Poetry Society staff, with whom they have to share resources, and with the Poetry World.  Independence of mind, open-mindedness, and a love of poetry powerful enough to get them through their editorial term.  (I nearly added sense of humour, but this was starting to read like a lonely hearts ad.)

There’s surely near-consensus on limiting the editors’ term.  People mention 3 or 5 years as a good span.  It needs to be long enough for the editors to realise whatever their distinctive vision is.  Changes in an editorial team/board could be staggered.  Standing down may not be enforceable in law (though payment per issue might change that), but weight of opinion would probably be enough for most people. 

These editors need to be thick-skinned enough to cope with serious pressure (according to the Guardian, Sampson had death threats!) but not so thick-skinned they’d get dictator syndrome.  The latest example of this is in Senegal, whose president was responsible for a constitution allowing himself two terms only, but has now managed to arrange standing for a third.  The BBC reported on Sunday:

A crowd at a polling station in the capital, Dakar, booed Mr Wade as he cast his vote.  They could be heard shouting: “Get out, old man!”

What poetry editor would want to experience that?


  1. I'm not sure having more editors solves the problem of processing large numbers of poems. Speaking as 25% of the editorial team of Brittle Star, I think - in terms of total amount of person time expended, it would be far more efficient with one editor.

    And it's not unrealistic for one person to read 60,000 poems per year - to the extent they need to in order to make a decision - if they're paid to do it as a substantial part of a full time job.

    I think you're right, though, that having more people involved could make for a more interesting product.

    That said, as I stopped subscribing to Poetry Review over ten years ago, I'm not sure I'm really the constituency the Poetry Society needs to worry about responding to.

  2. David, part of me thinks I should defer to your much greater expertise, but another part wants to argue… I feel it has to be possible for more editors to deal faster with lots of poems, as in the Smiths Knoll model. Different magazines have a different ethos, of course, and it would depend on how one wanted to organise the reading and the decision-making. That’s one reason why I suggested a different editor might take the lead for each issue; less need for consensus. (Also less risk of blandness, though Brittle Star with its team of 4 isn’t at all bland; but then you don’t have a large membership and national status to think about too.)

    Good point about constituency. I wonder what the age break-down of subscribers is. I stopped subscribing about two years ago. I like to rotate my subscriptions, reading other stuff in the Poetry Library, and I discovered that it’s possible to belong to PoSoc without subscribing to PR.

    I didn’t even start to address the question of how far PR should offer its readers what they want, and how far attempt to lead their taste. Income may be one consideration here, I suppose. When I wrote about PoSoc last summer, I looked at their accounts, which don’t break down income further than ‘membership and publications’ so one can’t work out the economics of PR itself.

  3. grahaeme barrasford young11 March 2012 at 12:58

    I tend to agree that if PR continues to be considered the pinnacle of poetry publishing in the UK - not necessarily true (I stopped my sub after an issue full of work by 'name' poets that any halfway decent small mag would have rejected) and which in itself is condescending to all other editors whose skills are belittled simply because they're not PR's editor - it either needs to be edited by a duo or even a trio, and for whoever they are to be changed regularly. The rotating Magma model doesn't seem to me to work because it takes too long to understand each set of editors' bias, but it's fine for Magma because that is not a 'national' publication.