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This item is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

In late July I wrote to Boyd Tonkin at the Independent about the crises at the Poetry Society (PS) and the Poetry Book Society (PBS). PS imploded shortly after receiving news of a 31 per cent increase in its annual funding; PBS, its future funding cut, was bleeding to death.

At the time, Tonkin was concerned with another story only sketchily reported in the press. Macmillan, Britain's fifth largest publishing company, founded in 1843 and now a province of the Holtzbrinck empire, cooperating with Serious Fraud Office investigations, agreed to pay costs and £11,263,852.28, the proceeds of unlawful activity. This came to light when a bribery bid failed, reported in new-speak as 'an attempt by an agent to pay a sum of money with the view in mind of persuading the award of a World Bank funded tender to supply educational materials in Southern Sudan'. The agent's attempt made it possible for the SFO to examine the firm's earlier activities in Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia between 2002 and 2009. Macmillan withdrew from further tendering in the area.

'Inducements' and 'commissions' are common practice in these and other areas with large development budgets. Boyd Tonkin wrote on 29 July, 'Wherever officials are poorly paid, their careers fragile and the custom ingrained, overt or covert bribery may thrive. Infinitely worse things have happened in Rwanda, or South Sudan. That doesn't absolve Macmillan, but it does raise the question of how British publishers will fare overseas in the future.' And he risks playing devil's advocate: 'other people do it, so why shouldn't we? In practice, if a provider of first-rate textbooks quits a corruption-prone market and leaves the field open for inferior rivals, the black-and-white of the ethics seminar may blur.' This was the fifth and largest Civil Settlement action by the SFO. Earlier ones include Balfour Beatty plc (October 2008, £2.25 million), AMEC plc (October 2009, £4.95 million), M W Kellogg Ltd (February 2011, £7 million) and DePuy International Ltd (April 2011, £4.83 million).

Little things seem awfully large to interested parties. Though there is no work for the SFO at the PS or the PBS, clarification is needed if the first is to continue in annual receipt of £360,000 of public funding and the second to survive at all. Shortly after the PS received the endorsement of the Arts Council, the Board advised the successful Director that basic structural changes were being made in the operation without consultation. The situation became untenable, the Director resigned, followed by Vice-Presidents, President, Board members, the Finance Manager and other staff. Kate Clanchy organised a 'grass roots' movement among PS members, an emergency general meeting was called, the Board tendered its resignation, and something like a popular will prevailed. On 16 August, Sean O'Brien, Don Paterson, and Anne Stevenson resigned as Honorary Vice-Presidents, and Anne Jenkins, John Richmond and Jacqui Rowe resigned as Trustees in preparation for the now depleted Board's statement mysteriously dated 17 and 18 August.

In it the retiring Board announced that it had re-installed the Director whose resignation it had originally catalysed, expressing delight at her return. Under her leadership 'the Poetry Society's acclaimed artistic and educational programmes were expanded and audience reach extended dramatically. During the two and a half years she led the Society, membership reached its highest ever levels, turnover increased by 23%, and participation in adult and young people's competitions doubled.' Not only that, 'She built a terrific staff team, forged links with new partners nationally and internationally, and attracted many new funders and supporters to the organisation.' And, 'We have confidence in her vision and continuing professionalism, and that these qualities will stand the society in good stead.' The Board added an unconditional apology for 'decisions, statements or actions that may have contributed to the current difficulties'.

So why was she forced out? 'The Board suggests an enquiry may be helpful to ensure that best practice in governance will prevail in the future. We ask the incoming Board, who will be elected at the AGM on 14 September 2011, to take this forward.' This may not be the end of the story. And when the Board adds, 'This is not, and has never been, a dispute about the funding or editorial policy of Poetry Review', we wonder what, then, the catalyst was. There are several mysteries; a new Board will have its work cut out for it.

When I came to Britain as an undergraduate, I subscribed to the PBS and received as my first book a collection by R.S. Thomas. When I became a publisher the importance of the PBS was clear: its imprimatur carried a new author, a new book, to a money-where-mouth-is readership. Its Bulletin was an important resource for readers and students, and when it launched the T.S. Eliot Prize it became the focus of one of the 'main streams' of contemporary British poetry.

PBS had no problems of governance: as an arts operation, however one assesses the selections and recommendations, the PBS has for decades done well an important job, promoting the reading of poetry. At the PBS today the news is bad. The Arts Council cut its funding, then seemed supportive of a limited application to Grants for the Arts. This application has failed also. Without funding for next year the board must ask the mortal question: can the PBS continue at all? If not, it will need to be put down. If elegies for this visionary operation are required in future, the loss to poetry's ecology will be real.

This item is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

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