I work for ... Chris Meade Morag McRae is PA to the director of the Poetry Society
Wednesday 08 April 1998
Having been used to the busy events schedule at the festival, I initially thought my job at the Poetry Society was terrible because there was nothing to do. But I took the opportunity to read a lot of contemporary poetry, which I know very little about, and found that I really enjoyed it. Then I saw my first reading, given by Lemn Sissay and it really excited me. I realised that as well as being entertaining, poets have a wonderful way of finding the words to express how we feel. I understood why people traditionally use poetry to mark important occasions such as weddings and funerals.
When I joined The Poetry Society it was in dire financial straights and the atmosphere was both political and difficult. The bank was threatening to call back its loan and there were huge disagreements over whether the society should move from a rambling house in Earls Court to a more practical location. When the director asked me to organise the move to Covent Garden, with just 10 days to go, I felt that at last I had a real role. I became PA to the director shortly afterwards, but the troubles weren't over yet. The Arts Council, who funded the Society, were not happy with us - they said that we had become too London-centred, failing to fulfil our remit of being a national organisation serving the needs of contemporary poetry. I agreed with their criticism, which didn't make me very popular, but whereas most of my colleagues left, I stayed on.
I was thrilled to bits when Chris was made director. From the first, I had picked him out as the best applicant on the grounds that he had submitted an intelligent and funny application. He seemed to share my ambitions for the society and, like Tony Blair at his best, he had the common touch. I was also intrigued by his striking blue eyes and the fact that he wore a bright red raincoat to the second interview.
The first week Chris was here we had a press launch for the New Generation Poets, including Don Paterson, Simon Armitage and Lavinia Greenlaw. The run-up was bedlam and Chris was rather in the way so I sent him off to get a new tie and shirt for the occasion. It was the first time I was bossy to him and it helped to break the ice.
The next major step was when we got a lottery grant to develop two floors of the building into a Poetry Cafe where people could meet, eat and encounter poetry in an informal fashion. I was very involved in the plans, liaising with lots of different people including architects and builders, but had to go on maternity leave in the middle of it. Chris was very supportive of me - people within the society hadn't always been so easy to work for.
Last January we received another lottery grant of pounds 450,000 to go ahead with Poetry Places, Chris's idea of setting up poets-in-residence in often unlikely places for six months. For example, we placed a poet called Peter Sansom at Marks and Spencer who now runs lunch-hour workshops amongst the employees, encouraging them to write poems. It works very well: people are very proud of their poems and go back to work feeling energised and excited. Everyone is now clamouring to have a poet in residence - we've even got a poet in a solicitors firm and a poetry gardener.
It's been my responsibility to administrate the project, drawing up the contracts between the poets and the places, passing on the necessary information and helping with the data base. There's a lot of paper shuffling involved but it's worthwhile because I know that we are laying down a system for the future.
The society is a small and fairly non hierarchical organisation and now very accessible to people with an interest in poetry. We all take calls from budding poets who want to get published, or people who want to be poets but don't know where to start. We try to offer advice to each person and talk about our Good Practice Code so that they are warned of some of the pitfalls of, say, paying money to get published. Chris's 12-year- old daughter Dora likes to go on phone duty when she visits and I've often heard her spontaneously asking people if they want to join the society - she's obviously hugely proud of her Dad.
I feel sad that I am the only member of staff who has lasted the pace and stayed with the society since the original move. It seems that, having gone through such horrid times, I am the person from the society's old days who is benefiting from our recent successes. It has become a privilege to work for the society and for the poets because, having re-invented ourselves, we can now channel all our energy into the business of poetry itself and the means of promoting it, which is paying off. The other day my Mum said: "I heard some poetry on the radio today" - if it's reaching her consciousness, we must be doing something right.
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