Letter from the Director – Summer 2006

Jules Mann

Read Mark Robinson's response here

This Spring my diary included a trip to Newcastle for the culmination of our Poetry Laboratory in the North East – a conference for poets and scientists exploring language and expression of ideas. I decided to make the most of my travelling route by stopping off along the way to meet with people working in interesting ways with poetry. Leeds was the first stop, where I heard all about Andrew Wilson's latest work with mobile phone poems, following on from the (sadly now finished) Leeds citypoems project where from different parts of the city you could call up poems related to that place on your handset. Andy's company, Blink Media, is now working on a similar project with poet Ann Sansom for Manchester Literature Festival – you'll have to attend this October to experience the results. From what I hear, mobile phone companies have the perfect delivery mechanism in place and are starved for content. It would be wonderful if this technology can provide ways for poetry to infiltrate everyday life.

Next stop Middlesbrough, a quick walk around the town centre and a peek through the hoardings at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, aka MIMA, opening this year. Then off with Poetry Society Stanza rep Andy Croft, who had gathered an impressive group of poets and publishers from Tees Valley (south of Newcastle). I'd just like to put in a plug here for Sam's Café in Middlesbrough – a wonderful poetry-friendly place! Seventeen of us gathered and discussed the merits (and criticisms) of Poetry Society membership, funding worries, profile-raising issues for poets, and publishing concerns. I came away extremely fired up about this poetry community with its palpable network of support for writers and indeed for each other. Coincidentally, Jackie Litherland writes about poetry in County Durham for this issue's 'Regional Roundup', so don't miss her expert overview. HHowever, may I add a few neighbouring organisations I met, notably the publishers Mudfog (publishing Tees Valley writers and currently looking for younger writers), Biscuit, Smokestack, Arrowhead, Iron and Ek Zuban press. I also met poets who run venues and writing groups, including the Hogarth Poets, The Write Room, and Company of Strangers.

Of course, I imagine similar vibrant poetry communities all around Britain, and hope to visit other Stanza reps en route to future poetry events outside London.

Last stop Newcastle, where we were graciously hosted by the Newcastle Lit & Phil Society in their fabulous library space. While here we met the Blue Room Poets organisers, and discovered to our delight that one of our Foyle Young Poets winners, Ella Thompson, was due to appear on their stage later that week! Thanks to our North East Poetry Society members who attended our meetings and readings; it was a pleasure to meet and talk with you.

Our next big gathering is at Ledbury Festival on 8 July, where we hope to see hundreds of you! In one day you can meet the editor of Poetry Review, listen to readings by two of our National Poetry Competition 2005 judges (Bernardine Evaristo and Alison Brackenbury), and enjoy a 'Naming Your Place' event by our Chair, President and a Vice President: Ruth Padel, Jo Shapcott and Sean O'Brien.

One issue that has been percolating up recently is the concern over funding cuts to small but long-running 'institutions' of local poetry – not only Colpitts and Blue Room Poets but many of the small publishers from Tees Valley have seen a decline of support which means that they pour their own money in to keep events going for the local community. I doubt that this funding decline is only afflicting the art form of poetry, but it does beg the question of whether poetry as a typically 'poor cousin' in the funding hierarchy is maintaining its relative position. If it's just a sign that new, vibrant poetry groups are forming and (out of necessity) taking a piece of the pie, then that's one thing. But if poetry's funding position is eroding overall, this is deeply worrying. The Poetry Society is dedicated to helping poets and poetry thrive in Britain, and whilst we cannot do it by funding individual poets / venues /publishers ourselves, we certainly do it by listening to concerns and raising issues for the sector as a whole when appropriate. To be continued…

Dates to mark in your diary: Under the Influence at London Review Bookshop, on 20 July (Peter Porter) and again 21 September (Helen Dunmore); National Poetry Day on 5 October, with this year's theme of 'Identity'; a Nottingham conference on Poetry and Place Names on 14 October; the Society's AGM on 15 November and our annual lecture on 9 January with Dame Gillian Beer, both at St Giles-in-the-Fields ('The Poets' Church').