Thursday, 31 March 2011

The PBS and the Arts Council: Hatchet job at the RFH


On Sunday 24 January 2011 the PBS organised the Eliot prize readings at the Royal Festival Hall which seats 2,500 people. The previous year the same readings were organised at The Queen Elizabeth Hall that was packed out with about 900 people. Just a few years before that the readings were in The Bloomsbury Theatre, that has a capacity of 535 seats. The Prize had clearly outgrown the Bloomsbury, and within a year or so had outgrown the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There was a near capacity audience at the Festival Hall. That represents more than a doubling of audience with every change. The atmosphere has always been great but it had become ever more, well, festival-like.

The Arts Council sent out an observer who could not have done a better of job of stabbing the organisation in the back if she had been paid to do it. Her report was grudgingly complimentary but noted that she would not have had quite that shortlist (as if it was any business of hers to comment on it, ignoring the fact that there were two Nobel Prize winners on same list) and that a lot of people in the audience seemed to know each other, hinting that the audience was a matter of a small cabal of people pleasing themselves, a cosy little club of some 2,500 people. In other words the double doublings of the audience meant nothing to her, nor the fact that the RFH was the place that those who loved poetry would naturally flock to. All in all it was a hostile report where in reality there was only cause for celebration. Frankly, it looked like a set-up to me.

It didn't help that I recognised the name of the person submitting the report, it being someone I wouldn't particularly trust to make any judgment on poetry or indeed on much else. I won't name her here. ACE knew that the Eliot Prize was the biggest feather in the cap of the PBS. Hatchet job done.



33 comments:

Jee Leong Koh said...

Distressing news, George, even to one so far away.

Andrew Shields said...

The PBS is simply a fantastic organization and it is horrible to see its support being cut. Pretty much everything I know about the poetry publishing scene, I can trace back to being a PBS member for the past 15 years.

Christo Heyworth said...

Out here in the sticks (Blackpool, Lancashire) those who write but not write for a living do feel at times that only if one is London-based and can afford to belong to all the *right* writing clubs, such as PBS, is it ever likely that you will be "recognised". At least Bloodaxe,Inpress, The Poetry Business and Salt get to soldier on. Should poets really be on the State-payroll by proxy?

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Oh my, I wasn't sure what to think of the decision before, but this does look like a stitch-up. Why on earth should she have been surprised that people knew each other? Do not folk naturally go to events where artists they know and like are performing, and do not those of similar tastes tend to end up at the same events? As for her irrelevant opinion on the shortlist...

Penelope Shuttle said...

Your account of the sabotaging of the ACE grant to the Poetry Book Society fills me with despair,George, and I wonder how we can gain greater transparency regarding the ways in which the Arts Council decide how to distribute or withhold public monies from literature organisations. I would also like to know the identity of the person who gave a negative report on the Eliot Readings at the Royal Festival Hall this January and I would like this person to explain her decision-making process to a wider public. Perhaps it is time that the meetings of the Arts Council no longer be held behind closed doors. Best, Penny

George S said...

Christopher, very few poets live in London. I don't - I am in Norfolk, which is as much in the sticks as is Blackpool. London is far too expensive. Most live, humbly enough, where they have found some employment. I know this for a fact.

Nor is the PBS a posh writing club you have to join so you can be successful - its a book club, among other things, that offers poetry books to members at a lower price than they are available in shops. It is precisely poorer poetry readers that benefit from it.

It is, furthermore, a small organisation with one full time director and three, very hard stretched, excellent, part time staff, none of whom are at all well paid.

It is possible to make a case against state subsidy against everything, providing you don't mind being without theatres, cinemas, concert halls, and all the rest, including small scale operations of all sorts. There are people who would prefer it that way, or think they would. You might be one such, but be careful to think this through. Start by removing any form of unassociated investment in any cultural effort. People have worked themselves into the ground and made themselves ill trying to protect and expand activity in Arts Council supported organisations

You will certainly have - and from now on do have - fewer smaller valuable presses whose project has been, precisely, to engage in work far beyond London. Several publishers have been hit - Arc, Salt etc. Even Bloodaxe and Carcanet have lost money, which means fewer books. None of these are based in London.

There may be other sources of funding but we don't live in a culture in which big business, or even middle sized business, supports lower profile organisations, certainly not at times like this.

The PBS is not a parasite - it's a benefit!

George S said...

Sheenagh and Penny - There is to be a meeting on Monday at the PBS with three of the main people at ACE. I won't name anyone (and it was only a coincidence that I recognised the name as someone I had met and faintly known in a professional capacity, nobody else on the PBS board did) until that meeting is over.

It won't be a case of her report being the only factor - the ACE letter isn't at all specific - but it struck me as conveniently unpleasant at a key time. The convenience may be coincidental, the unpleasantness, the sheer malice, wasn't.

Emma Lee said...

ACE Chief Executive Alan Davey in response to a comment on The Guardian today, "We received a large number of strong applications from poetry organisations. The Poetry Book Society's application included good proposals which address our goals, including the TS Eliot Prize and the public readings by the shortlisted poets. However, in our judgment, it didn't seem to have the potential to reach as many people as other applicants. As I said yesterday if we turn someone down, it's not the end of their relationship with the Arts Council, and we want to talk to the PBS – especially about how we ensure the continuation of the TS Eliot prize. We are spending more on literature overall, and our support for poetry is, I think, really strong – supporting publishers and young poets, and enabling more people to be able to experience poetry."

Good that they value the T S Eliot prize but incredibly sad they don't value the wider work PBS do.

"Don't you all just sit in a room talking to each other," is a typical, ignorant comment I've heard in arts administration circles time and time again.

George S said...

Davey is lying through his teeth. Is that why they have withdrawn funds from Arc, Salt, Enitharmon and the rest almost completely cut off Anvil and reduced both Bloodaxe and Carcanet? Supporting publishers and young poets! The man makes me sick. As does the Arts Council of England.

charles said...

A 'cabal of people pleasing themselves'. I'm sorry if the observer felt excluded, but for me the friendliness, interestedness, curiosity of the PBS people has always been welcoming. Anyone with any experience of the other big poetry prizes knows that the TSE experience is, precisely because of these qualities, infinitely more pleasurable. They have, for starters, read the books. Apart from the judges, I never met anyone involved with the Forward or Costa who gave any indication they had done so. And more important than this, for small presses the PBS seasonal choices and recommendations are hugely valuable - far more valuable, proportionally, than for the bigger presses. To get a recommendation is to get the kind of publicity a small press needs but cannot pay for, and is to sell more copies than one had dared to expect.

Anonymous said...

On the ACE website, it says that the PBS "will receive public subsidies of £113,915 in 2008/2009, £116,991 in 2009/2010, £119,548 in 2010/2011 and £111,299 in 2011/2012."

Overall, according to ACE figures, literature subsidies will rise 9.9% in real terms, from £5.9m in 2010-11 to £7.2m in 2014/15.

The total number of literature organisations receiving Arts Council funding has fallen from 59 to 53, with 16 organisations having all subsidy cut and others, such as PEN and the Ilkley Literature Festival, receiving substantial increases of 190% and 160% respectively.

The £45 membership of the PBS brings to the recipient, four 'best new poetry collection(s) of the quarter', a quarterly bulletin and 25% discount of poetry books (I assume), when purchased through them.

The earliest figures I can find for membership is 2004, when there were 2,300 members. If there are still 2000 of these, the figure for membership dues at current prices, bring £90,000, plus £120,000 = £210,000 for 2011.

With this they have to fund the £15,000 Eliot guerdon, buy 8000 books, pay their wages bill of 1 full-time and 3 part-time staff, the quarterly bulletin and all other costs (paying for any other schemes and selectors' fees etc).

The Festival Hall readings this year though, going on the available figures, should have returned them a healthy profit.

The venue is £11,500 to rent for the evening, or if they booked it all day, £17,500. The tickets were prices between £12-15 and at a full capacity of 2,500, at the lowest end of £12 a ticket, generates an amount of £30,000. The high end profit from this one event is nearly £20,000 and worst case, £10,000, which, I assume, would help pay all the costs of the poets and PBS staff working on the night.

George S said...

Thank you for the figures. The subsidy stops dead in 2011/12. Yes the RFS attendance figures were gloriously healthy and to be celebrated. In the period you refer to, however, the PBS has also had to move and refurbish, its earlier offices being no longer available. That was a large extra cost.

But I am not the figures man. I have seen the figures and what they say is that the situation was, and is, precarious. That is why the PBS has, with intense Arts Council encouragement and support, invested in a new, properly functioning pair of websites with masses of new content. There were many technical problems developing that, which were no fault of the PBS. The expansion was to start from this point, the point at which the website was set up to function as a major station for all items dealing with poetry publications and poetry books available from anywhere. That was what ACE themselves backed and urged. That is, in fact, the point at which the PBS stands and that is the very point at which ACE cut off support. Draw your own conclusions then, bearing in mind the report referred to in my blogpost on the Eliot Readings.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

The comment Emma heard - "don't you all just sit in a room talking to each other" - goes to the heart of the problem writing, not just poetry, has in getting funding. Those who award it seem conditioned to think in terms of performance and to make nothing of any other from of communication.

litrefs said...

From what I can gather from this blog and yesterday's papers, literature's got more money and yet poetry's got less. Is that so? I know there are other sources of ACE funding, but why has poetry lost out even to prose?

Jane Tozer said...

One ray of light in the general gloom. Modern Poetry in Translation ( a likely target for the circling sharks) is out of danger. In a world where two languages vanish every month, and in a nation where language teaching is on the decline, at least someone appears to care.

East Runton Holiday Park said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
East Runton Holiday Park said...

In response to Penny's and Sheenagh's comment, I guess it would be possible that an individual could ask for a full disclosure of the findings under the Freedom of Information Act?

Here is a link on how to do it:

http://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/faqs/freedom_of_information_act_for_the_public.aspx#fA4236BFE-176B-4C39-8500-BC73EB7EE199

Anonymous said...

In response to Penny & Sheenagh's comment, I guess an individual could get a full discloure of the ACE findings under the Freedom of Information Act:

http://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/faqs/freedom_of_information_act_for_the_public.aspx#fA4236BFE-176B-4C39-8500-BC73EB7EE199

George S said...

A friend suggests we should add certain factors to Anonymous's analysis of the figures. She says:

Fascinating! Perhaps you could add to mr/ms anonymous (i am away from my pc and can't blog) that PBS also has to pay rent, taxes, audit fees, national insurance, postage, light, heating and so on! Their sums are very incomplete!

... inter alia, .as Nelson Mandela once said. (A phrase he used in the speech he made on his release from prison)

George S said...

Thank you all for your various comments. I am delighted that what surrvives has survived. I would write in support of them all - and will if asked -but it is the PBS I am concentrating on here. And Jane, while it is very good news about MPT, Arc has lost its funding. So nice to keep one of two translated hands, shame about the other getting chopped off.

Anonymous said...

The point of putting in the figures was to introduce perspective, as the PBS didn't publish them on their site, and there was no mention of how much money was being withdrawn.

I also forgot to factor into the Eliot reading figures, the substantial figure of £9000, which is 9 X £1000 for all the runner up poets, aside from the £15,000 that went to Walcott. This reduces the event to an almost break-even point.

Reading some of the responses to this, what I find interesting, is that there are numerous competing views about this cut; from it being an act of cultural vandals verging on the 'disgusting', to it being the breaking up of a powerful Machavelian po-biz in-crowd of unamed shadowy alphas wielding inordinate amounts of poetic influence, and who turn the up and coming newbies into compliant thumbs-up sheeple shit-scared of saying the wrong thing or making a wrong move in the fame-game.

Entertaining for the ordinary reader, and I'm sure that whatever happens, poetry will remain in good health. As Hill said in his recent Oxford lecture, away from the marketing and selling of it, the people who plod on writing poems, know who they are and will, essentially remain unaffected by the cut.

Anonymous said...

The readers also, should things totally collapse, will find new ways of discovering the 'best' stuff being written; though they may have to do so without the expert advice.

These things are never as bad as they seem, when we place them next to everything else happening on the planet.

George S said...

Pleased to provide you with entertainment, Anon. Why don't you call in the PBS office for an extra laugh. The problem of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans. I trust you are busily sorting out the Middle East.

Of course stuff will get written. Will it be published and distributed? I am sure if you shot half the poets in the country poetry would still be written.

It's a nice argument.

East Runton Holiday Park said...

George, can we petition, barrack, doorstep ACE? All that good work to promote poetry and make it more accessible cut overnight is simply wrong and culturally myopic. There must be enough people to start a fire and prove that this is a move which will undo so much good work.

Anonymous said...

The latest news that Salt is getting a ten year grant of £1.24 million, which amounts to a tad more than the PBS subsidy; coupled with Arts Council spokesperson Louise Wylie stating: "We're moving towards supporting new writers, and those at the beginning and middle of their career, and overall it's about a wider reach. All organisations [with regularly funded status] will be those who reach more people", plus your comments about the PBS website, indicate that Hamilton Emery's outfit is the 'winner', to some extent, at the expense of the PBS.

They've obviously sniffed the way the wind is blowing and jumped in on the side of online publishing. And fairplay to Salt, in the terms of human drama, Hamilton-Emery has certainly entertained the public with his creatively innovative approach, going close to the edge of total failure and being pulled back from the brink.

He is certainly more transparent, in terms of being upfront and open to anserwing questions from us, the public, about exactly how much his organisations gets from the taxpayer. It will be interesting now to see if it goes to his head.

But aside from all this, the one thing I would like to say, is that for all the poetically political argy bargy, your good self is, out of all the poets online, the most open in respect of letting anyone appear here without pre-moderating the debate.

It's clear that most poets with an online presence, are more disposed to practice in a self-sealed bubble, allowing only praise to appear on their sites, engineering any robust discussion void. I have always respected you for not doing this. OK, it makes for ding-dongs now and again, but this is far better than the tepid blurbistic marketing-speak that passes for discussion in most forums.

The problem is new voices are being conditioned to shut-up and not let their true selves out, because of this default pre-mod mode in which it is made silently clear to anyone starting out, what is the 'right' response. The net was touted at the beginning of the noughties, as a great democratic page where we all could publish and learn equally, but one by one the poets who ended up controlling the admin panes of poetry discussion forums, often by total fluke, got to enforce their idea of what is 'acceptable' 'offenive' etc, and now there is only yourself and Rob Mackenzie who are open to unregulated talk.

I'm past being influenced by this unfortunate state of affairs, as I have managed to get myself barred from most poetry forums, for one trangression or another, that in all reality, don't amount to a hill of beans, and in most cases boil down to upsetting the one person with the mouse-control power to publish comments, about poetry. In a few cases I have been out of order, got carried away and acted like an idiot, but so what, it's only words and we all have to learn.

I just hope Salt get a chat gaffe on the go, that is moderated by non participating objective non-poets, as there's an opportunity there because the rest fo the poetry village has closed itself to this kind of forum.

Whether they will or not I dunno. I posted a congratulatory comment, outlining these thoughts, and they chose not to publish it, so who knows.

fallgrief said...

To avoid any overtones of sarcasm I'll point out first off that this is a genuine question: What does the PBS do to support young poets? The Faber New Poets scheme seems to me like a good entry level step for encouraging young poets trying to break in, whereas (admittedly from the outside) the PBS just seems like a book club which picks out books for people who can't seem to find anything to read themselves. And I'm not entirely convinced of the argument that PBS helps poorer poetry readers: I'm one, and I certainly can't afford the membership fee.
So then, back to the original (honest) question - What does PBS do for young poets?

George S said...

Have a look at the website, fallgrief. Here is the link: http://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/

Of course books (it is the Poetry Book Society) are the main concern, but any poet with a book is eligible for Choice, Recommendation and listing, all of which sell books (see Charles's comment above, he is a publisher). The books are selected by two poets who are invited by the Director They alternate, always one male, one female, always one older, one younger. Younger poets have certainly been Choices and Recommendations. Check the back catalogue.

Then try clicking on projects. The TS Eliot Prize Shadowing Scheme is aimed at young poets still at school. The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets is directed at those people who haev not yet had a book, and plenty of young poets are eligible for that. There are also regular Pamphlet Selections, made by younger poets.

There is the Children's Poetry Bookshelf.

Then try clicking Poetry Portal, which is full of news and reviews, much like a magazine. And there are articles listed in the left hand column, including those helping people to promote their own work. There is a feature on Ten New Poets, on Poetry Shows. The Ten New Poets are young.

The winner of the National Poetry Competition, of which I was one of the three judges, is announced under News. The winner was Paul Adrian, aged 24, with his first published poem. That's young, I'd say.

Then there is a Members' Area which has even more things in.

Is that something of an answer? I hope so. The websites are new, or rather newly updated.

Do please have a look.

George S said...

fallgrief, I forgot to address the issue of costs. Like all book clubs (in that part of the PBS) you get a set of selected books under price (see my comment above on the selectors), but you also get cut price deals on other books. Look at a PBS Bulletin for the list. Check out Andrea Holland's comment over at the Facebook discussion here: http://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=161243437265543&id=701556533

Good luck with it all, and with your own writing.

afharrold said...

From where I'm sitting it looks like Anonymous fell for an April Fool's joke over on Salt's blog.

George S said...

It looks like it, afh. If only...

Anonymous said...

George, Paul Adrian is born in 1984 so he can't be 24 - or is that at the time of the judging? That quibble aside, what an excellent poem.

George S said...

Ah, 26 then, Anon. The number 24 stuck in my head.

Anonymous said...

Poetic sincerity occassioned by a misgrasped, imaginary reality, resulting in an authentic response I have wanted to articulate for a while. Now That's What I call The Basis Of Poetry, the grain and grease of it; the mistake that makes it appear, and also, giving you all a laugh coz it makes me look daft.

Des