Poetry Society's state funding slashed after row


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The Independent Culture

The intellectual Cyril Connolly once described poets as "jackals fighting over an empty well", in reference to their bickering over limited resources. Yesterday it became clear just how bloodthirsty the jackals have become, and just how little water there is left in the well.

The Arts Council has indefinitely suspended public funds to the Poetry Society, the charity whose aim is "to promote the study, use and enjoyment of poetry". It also publishes the influential magazine Poetry Review.

The suspension is pending the resolution of an ongoing management spat at the 102-year-old organisation which has seen a swathe of resignations and a general meeting last Friday attended by hundreds of angry members, who issued a vote of no confidence in the board of trustees.

Leading figures at the society have criticised its management and have panned the Arts Council's decision – taken earlier this year – to award it an extra £100,000 in funding from April 2012.

The problems revolve around a power struggle between two senior members, one of whom has now resigned. On Friday the society said there had been a "dysfunctional relationship" between its former director, Judith Palmer, and the current editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson. It said Ms Palmer had been overworked, and needed to delegate more.

The society's solution was to ask Ms Sampson to report directly to them instead of Ms Palmer. The latter resigned in outrage, and the society's finance director Paul Ranford, president Jo Shapcott, vice-president Gwyneth Lewis, trustee Robyn Bolam and chairman Peter Carpenter all followed suit. The organisation now says its board of trustees will be replaced in September.

The broadcaster Joan Bakewell, a Poetry Society honorary member, said: "I do feel sad that nice people who love words have fallen victim to the world's woes. I suspect poets should know better. I feel sad that many small poetry publishers had their funding axed earlier this year. Maybe the Arts Council shouldn't have put all its books in one basket."

An Arts Council spokeswoman confirmed that the July funding payment was "in abeyance" until the situation improved.

John Simmons, who is on the Poetry Society's Board of Trustees, confirmed that in the absence of the Arts Council's £78,499 quarterly grant payment, the Society was eating into its limited cash reserves of around £100,000 and was considering seeking an overdraft facility from its bank.

A Poetry Society spokeswoman said: "The last few months have been difficult for everyone but it is important now to look forward to an orderly transition to a new Board at the AGM and to work to maintain and strengthen the Poetry Society's position as a leading arts organisation." Sampson was unavailable for comment.