VANITY POETS TAKE ARMS AGAINST A SEA OF TROUBLES

Michael Leapman on the latest literary row post Miss Collins
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The Independent Online
STILL reeling from last week's legal punch-up between Joan Collins and her American publishers, the literary world is bracing itself for another courtroom blockbuster. The libel action by Forward Press of Peterborough against the Poetry Society promises to be just as engrossing, even if the numbers do not match up: where Ms Collins's settlement will run to more than pounds 1m, advances for poetry rarely reach three figures and in some cases only one.

Still, a writ is a writ is a writ; and what this dispute lacks in big bucks it makes up for in bile, spite and venom. Poets have a talent for mutual hatred on a scale denied to writers of plain prose, and the Poetry Society, which gets an annual Arts Council grant of pounds 147,000 has long provided a focus for some of the most passionate feuds.

The plot is a mixture of hi-tech and low insinuation. It began last spring when Poetry News, the journal of the Poetry Society, published an article "Vanity Presses and Dodgy Competitions". A vanity press is one that undertakes to publish work at the writer's expense, either by exacting a straight fee or by making it a condition of publication that each poet buys a copy of the book. The Forward Press was one of the publishers named in the article.

The Poetry Society deplores vanity publishing. "We get anxious enquiries about these kinds of organisations," says its director Chris Meade. The Poetry News article declared that for someone to seek publication from a vanity publisher is "a waste of money if not an outright con". It advised: "Steer clear of these organisations - they rarely have any interest in literature."

Last October, the society announced that it was taking poetry into the technological age by securing a presence on the Internet. By logging on to poetrysoc@bbcnc.org.uk, users worldwide can access its "Poetry News Stand", where the offending article from the magazine was for a time republished. The society also instituted a "poetry police" segment of the Net to help it "crack down on vanity presses".

The Forward Press was founded five years ago by Ian Walton, a 45-year- old print salesman, poet and twice-married father of seven. He is a member of the Poetry Society and agrees with many of its strictures about vanity publishing. His writ is based on his claim that, in him, the poetry police have fingered the wrong suspect. He is wounded by the suggestion that he is not concerned about literature.

"We've had probably a million poems sent to us in five or six years and we've got about 150,000 poets on the database. Our authors don't pay and they don't have to buy any books.

"Our poets get very little in royalties because if you sell 600 or 700 poetry books you're doing well. If you divide that between 150 people they might get enough for a couple of pints; but they appreciate it and they enjoy it. We get 150 happy letters a week and one sad one. We hope to make a small profit next year but we would make a lot more money from pornographic novels."

Among satisifed customers is Gillian Clarke, head of English at Parkstone Grammar School in Poole, Dorset, whose pupils won a pounds 500 prize in a national poetry competition run by Forward Press last year. The cheque is safely in the bank. "The girls were thrilled to see their poems in print," she says.

Michael Holland, poet and manager of a petrol station in Cheltenham, has had work published by Forward. He seems an ideal author for any publisher, vanity or not: "I'm not happy at accepting payment. If I write poetry and it pleases other people, I'm pleased. Ian has sent me cheques for poetry but I keep telling him not to. They aren't big cheques - a five here, pounds 20 there. The most I ever earned for poetry in any year was just over pounds 300."

Mr Holland comments: "Ian Walton has done more for poetry and poets in the last five or six years than the Poetry Society has done since its inception. The society panders to the inflated egos of a certain clique."

That latter opinion is shared by Auberon Waugh, editor of the Literary Review, which runs a monthly competition for poetry that rhymes. He said: "I'm unmovably opposed to the Poetry Society, which sucks up nearly all the money going to poetry and encourages a coterie of twerps to write prose and chop it up and call it poetry."

For a year Ian Walton sat on the judging panel for the Literary Review competition. "He put himself forward as a judge," says Mr Waugh. "He also published a book of winning entries but I don't recall that we got any money for it. All these small publishers say they're there to help young poets - but even if Ian Walton were a man after the main chance, there isn't much of a main chance in poetry."

Peter Sansom, who runs the Poetry Business, a publishing house, and teaches at Huddersfield University, says: "I know people who have been helped a lot by being published in their anthologies. To an extent, everyone in poetry has to find a way of subsidising what is a loss-making endeavour."

If Mr Walton shares the luck of Joan Collins, he may have found one. He insists: "We won't accept a quiet settlement because the damage has been done and we want a public retraction." Mr Meade says the society will defend the writ vigorously.

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