Tag Archives: Poetry Society

Why being bored on a Board is a Good Thing

I was a board member for the national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes for two years until February this year. In the same way as missing out on the induction training to be an Airtours entertainer in the mid nineties left me in bafflement about the true importance of the Macarena and the rules of organising darts tournaments in an all inclusive hotel in Tunisia, I had just missed out on some governance training the Apples and Snakes board had all been sent on and so had to pick up the role of a charity trustee as I went along.

For the first few meetings I thought that it was to combat wrist gnawing boredom whilst piles of mostly financial documents were pored over and fellow board members interjected with gentle questions like: “In Quarter 2, why is there an amber light on education bookings through the website?” and Robert, the unflappable and detail-filled general manager answered at length. It was clear that the board was supposed to be boring because Geraldine Collinge, the Director, was exciting and creative and filled with inspiration and ideas for spoken word in the UK. We, accountants, lecturers, DCMS and British Council employees London Council managers and poets were there to ask gentle questions and look sensible but not really to get involved, like benign peers scrutinising bills. It could not be said that we were “running” the organisation, though Julia Mlambo, the organised, strategic thinking, sensible Chair had regular meetings with Geraldine and an excellent grasp of the overview of Apples and Snakes vision.

Then, to my surprise, after Geraldine moved on and there were major Arts Council grants to bid for and funding to raise in an unfavourable climate, the board did suddenly turn into a body that Did Actual Things. There was a day of brainstorming towards a new set of mission statements, a recruitment committee appointed a new director and the gentle questioning became strong steering to avoid unnecessary risk, look for new opportunities and make a strong case to the Arts Council for being well governed and stable in this time of transition. I realised that, as one of only two board members based outside London and one of only two board members involved full time in performance poetry, I could be a voice for risks and opportunities connected to these things, as well as for poets and people outside London. All of the board members began to say more in meetings.

One board member began to sound a more urgent drum for more energy being given to fundraising, I started sitting on a hobby horse about retaining sector specific expertise within the organisation. Both of us looking out for risks as we perceived them. Julia, the Chair, steered a course between staff concerns, the company’s mission and objectives and the need to hold a secure position and convey that to the Arts Council. It was clear that concern for due process and stability was paramount throughout.

The thing that has prompted my post is incredulity that the Poetry Society trustees acted as they have in two particular areas: i) spending £24k on legal fees, when there was not even an ongoing case & when charities can get free legal advice from ACAS. I can only imagine how Christopher Beard, board member & accountant or Robert, General Manager and careful man, would have reacted to this squandering of precious reserves. It just wouldn’t have happened. What next- hiring Edelman to clean up the PR mess? ii) Although as David Morley says, it seems that there is a story behind the story of personnel clashes, the board’s bright idea to get the Poetry Review editor to report directly to them, without informing the director, seems to have been a human resources plan with the car crash factor of David Cameron hiring Andy Coulson. A plan that has led to the continuing terrible management of the whole situation. There’s an exciting plan of work for the Poetry Society to get on with, and they can’t do it until the ship has been righted and trust restored.

So, now the board has resigned , effective from 12th September, what or who next in terms of trustees? I quite agree with Jane Holland’s statement that the board should have good administrators on it, not just good poets. I’m not saying the Apples and Snakes board was perfect. It was rather toothless at times. But it did have a good set of people who were experienced in the management of strategic organisations and who knew what funders and regulatory bodies would expect in the way of management. I was glad I ticked the poet/regions box but I think more board members should have too- even more the case for the Poetry Society which would surely have more weight with more members were it not perceived to be so Londoncentric. (For my last board meeting though I had an 8 hour round trip for a one hour meeting at which not even a cup of tea was available- it is lovely when national organisations recognise that some humans exist outside the city boundary and make arrangements accordingly). It was murmured that perhaps Apples and Snakes should be looking to make more contacts with “individuals of high net worth”, so perhaps some of those much touted arts philanthropists should be approached by Poetry Society members. It may be a little more difficult to find individuals who are both poets and individuals of High Net Worth…

In a questionnaire, Apples and Snakes staff said they did not know what the role of the board was and that they rarely saw us at events. It seems that even greater transparency for a board’s work may be useful, for the Poetry Society lot even more so after all this. Their trustees seem to be presiding over a PR disaster, the like of which probably isn’t covered in those governance classes. Still, it does seem that sending the new cohort on a few might not go amiss…

It shouldn’t be forgotten that trustees do valuable work for nothing and can bring immense value to an organisation, as surely, the Poetry Society board did until they got in over their heads in a tricky situation. It can’t have been pleasant. I was most often on the Apples and Snakes board a mixture of bored and frustrated and fascinated at the workings of a national literature organisation. I think I’ve generally been more useful in life being a poet or promoter or workshop facilitator- but then, at least I was also a voice for people who are a bit underrepresented in the running of such organisations. May many more of those come forward for the Poetry Society- it really, really needs them.

Four Possible Futures For Performance Poetry

This week I was asked by someone writing for a Uni newspaper to write a bit about performance and slam poetry and about how I “saw the the future for performance poetry in Britain”. I realised that my view of it’s future had shifted quite a lot since the change of government and shake up of Arts Council funding. How realistic are any of these scenarios?

1. It continues as a grass roots activity with small, enthusiastic audiences and occasional break out performers impact on other fields: eg Hip hop or stand up comedy.

-In most cities there are at least one or two regular events where performance poetry is part or all of the line up. Still, even the most marginal sports (ice hockey say with average attendances of 5000 attract many, many times larger audiences.)

2. It gets more funding and support as a non commercial art form, is used more widely as an educational tool, and borrows platforms and values from subsidised theatre and theatre venues – whilst also developing its own reflective practice and criticism.

-It feels like this is the way things were heading pre Funding crises. Things like the “Lit Up” initiative were spearheading a spread into larger venues. Artists like Inua Ellams, Polar Bear, Molly Naylor and Zena Edwards were working in ways and forums also used in experimental theatre. Aisle 16 & others continued getting Escalator East funding to take shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and many poets worked on Creative Partnerships projects in schools. Apples and Snakes continues to advocate for the medium- & the Arts Council sees it’s funding of an Olympic S
Am project as a strategy to widen it’s educational use. Much less money around than there was though- & the Poetry Society seems to be having a bit of a meltdown over a division between how much they should focus on widening poetry participation through education. A reflective practice among artists and critics would be nice though. Universities might have been pulled in in an era of more humantities research, but that seems likely to be delayed some years now.

3. It breaks out into the mainstream like stand up comedy and becomes a commercial art form supported by British versions of the visionary Russell Simmons of Def Jam in the U.S.

-Yeah right. As many performance poets as non performance poets seem perfectly happy to play for small audiences and not “sell out”.

4. It diversifies and re integrates into other art forms in the way it used to in the early 80s and you get performance poets valued in music, comedy, traditional literary events, academia and even the corporate world.

-Personally I think the diverse portfolio of work that the Saturday Live (Radio 4) poets do is a good example of this. It may not quite fulfil my dream of a mainstream platform promoting greater inclusivity, but a reminder that poets can write accessibly and to order on a wide variety of issues (as also done by Ian McMillan on Radio 5 in the 90s), it means that you can see performance poets in sports arenas, health conferences, er…supermarkets, Literary festivals (as the novelty act though). Live in forlorn hope that Carol Ann Duffy might include performance poets in things sometimes….sigh.

Not included in these scenarios though is the melting pot/melting poet most commonly, not exclusively working in London. Crossing page/performance boundaries. As likely to be found in post in a literary residency as in a one person show in Edinburgh (Helen Mort for example) and less likely to reject out of hand the occasional label of “performance poet”. Their future is more closely tied to the general poetry funding/audience situation in the country (hence, a but precarious but probably safely subsidised to a degree for the foreseeable future).

Or none of the above?