Letter from the Director: Winter 2000/1

Christina Patterson


Autumn is the busiest time of the poetry year, with National Poetry Day apparently expanding to fill the entire season. It began with some very sad news, the death of two giants on the international poetic landscape: R S Thomas and Yehuda Amichai. Indisputably Wales' leading poet, Thomas was, according to Gwyneth Lewis in the obituary she wrote for the Guardian, "able to breathe thinner air than most of us but then, he had travelled further up the mountain and commanded a rarer view. His poetry," she continued, "was not written for entertainment, but to be of use to people as they lived and died". Yehuda Amichai was Israel's most prominent poet. "I, for one," said Ted Hughes, who translated some of his work into English, "return to his poetry again and again, and always find myself shaken, as by something truly genuine and alive". Amichai's work has been translated into well over thirty languages and he was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.

On a happier note, the £10,000 Forward Prize was awarded, on the eve of National Poetry Day, to Michael Donaghy for his collection, Conjure. "It was agony having to choose a single winner," said judge John Walsh, "but Donaghy's ferociously intelligent, playful, tender prestidigitations finally magicked their way into the judges' flinty and hard-to-please hearts". The £5,000 prize for Best First Collection went to Andrew Waterhouse for In (see interview in the Winter 2000/01 issue of Poetry News) while the £1,000 award for Best Single Poem went to Tessa Biddington for 'The Death of Descartes'. Donaghy is also on the shortlist of the Whitbread Prize for poetry and the T S Eliot Prize, both announced in January.


The winner of the Poetry Society's own Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, instigated in honour of the Society's oldest member to acknowledge emerging talent on the poetry scene, was announced on 22 November. This year the prize went to Welsh poet Anna Wigley, whose striking poems about birds, animals and the natural world reflect the influence of the "natural rhapsodists" - Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig, Rilke and Michael Longley - she so admires. Judge Maura Dooley declared it "one of the most difficult prizes I've ever had to judge". The shortlisted poets were Ivy Garlitz, Martha Kapos, John Stammers, Greta Stoddart and Jonathan Treitel.


National Poetry Day got off to an early start in the city of London with a champagne breakfast with Andrew Motion, John Mole, Eva Salzman, Jane Duran and participants in the Poet in the City scheme. About seventy early risers nibbled smoked salmon bagels and Danish pastries while listening to a selection of poems both by established poets and by brave (and often very talented) readers from the floor. Meanwhile, at Canary Wharf, past winners of the Simon Elvin Young Poet Awards were celebrating their addition to the illustrious list of poets who've had their poems on view to stressed commuters as part of the 'Poems on the Underground' scheme. At 9am, about 300 school children at the Royal Festival Hall and 4,000 across the country joined in a mass performance of Patience Agbabi's poem, 'Word'. Co-ordinated by East-Side Educational Trust, who also organised "poetry raids" in schools across London, it broke the Guinness World Record for the number of people simultaneously performing a poem.


Later that morning, Andrew Motion and Alan Howarth, Minister for the Arts, joined me in attending a poetry workshop on the theme of "hope and trust" at Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park. Led by poet Lennox Carty, it aimed to encourage participation in a new Poetry Society/Childline joint poetry competition and fundraising initiative. At lunchtime, the Simon Elvin Awards ceremony took place at the Royal Festival Hall, celebrating a wealth of poetic talent amongst the under-eighteens. The winning twenty will attend a residential Arvon course taught by Kathleen Jamie and Cliff Yates. Cliff also joined Education Development Officer Jean Sprackland at the offices of Edexcel in Russell Square in launching the poetryclass project and website, www.poetryclass.net, which we began developing in March. Feedback from teachers and advisers has been extremely positive, as have the first few planning days.


In the evening, I chaired a lecture given by Sean O'Brien at the RSA on the status of contemporary poetry, 'North, South and News from Nowhere'. His characteristically thought-provoking and controversial talk included thoughts on populism, publicity and the National Curriculum, addressing the question that Auden raised, does it matter if poetry is an 'unpopular art'? Similar issues were tackled at the Poetry Society's debate at Poetry International, 'Poets 'R' Us'. Lavinia Greenlaw, Liz Lochhead, Don Paterson and Hugo Williams joined me in grappling with issues such as "Do current trends towards access and outreach compromise artists' integrity?" and "Does social inclusion lead to bad poetry?" Passions on the panel and in the audience ran high, reinforcing suspicions that this particular debate - a variation on the old populism versus elitism chestnut - will run and run...


Poetry International, at the Royal Festival Hall from 6-14 October, offered a feast for all poetry lovers, with nine days of fabulous readings, workshops and events from some of the biggest names in poetry around the world. Highlights included a 'Presiding Spirits' poetry breakfast, in which poets talked about and read work by their own presiding spirit in poetry, a selection of new translations of Dante, a wonderful Saturday night reading by Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy and Sharon Olds and an electrifying evening with Jean 'Binta' Breeze, Liz Lochhead, Dmitry Prigov and Slovenian poet, Dane Zajc. Many of the events were recorded and are available to listen to in the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall.


Does this frenzy of poetic activity lead to increased book sales? Not necessarily, it seems. Waterstone's, whose centralised buying policy has recently caused considerable controversy, is not only stocking a narrower range of poetry books, but also demanding a trade discount of 50%, rather than the current 35%. Small publishers are concerned that this will create trading conditions that are untenable and lead to lower royalties for authors. According to a recent study commissioned by the Arts Council of England, Rhyme and Reason: developing contemporary poetry, these are already pretty low for poets. The research found that the range and quality of poetry books available in bookshops is decreasing due to a number of factors, including intolerance to slow-moving stock and the fact that publishers' reps are carrying fewer poetry books than they used to. They also found that the majority of poetry purchases were made by women, people over 35 and white collar workers. I'm afraid I have to own up to all three.


2000 was a year packed with poetic activity. We hope that 2001 will be even better. I'd like to see more people reading and buying poetry, as well as writing it, and at the Poetry Society we'll be exploring ways to encourage this. We'll continue to offer high-quality readings in the BT Poetry Studio and to offer advice and information as well, of course, as our usual creative projects and education work. We're constantly finding ways to improve our service to members and welcome any suggestions you may have. Happy New Year!


Poetry News, Winter 2000/1