Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Poetry Society: 6 months in

Regular readers of the Soapbox will remember that earlier this year I joined the Poetry Society. I've always had misgivings about this particular organisation, and promised to keep Soapbox readers updated on whether or not I got my money's worth from being a member. 6 months into my membership, I think it's time to assess the state of the union.

What have I got from the Poetry Society so far? And what’s missing?

The first sign that I was a bona fide Poetry Society member was the issue of Poetry News that dropped through my letterbox back in February. The Society's broadsheet comes out four times a year and is Society members' window on the work the Society does nationally as an advocate for the art of poetry.

As a news sheet, it has strengths and weaknesses. Coverage of the death of Seamus Heaney, as you might expect, was thorough, sensitive and had suitable gravitas to it. But the Society seems a little selective as to what it considers ‘news’: the plagiarism scandals, for instance, haven't merited a footnote.

I was half tempted to go through my first issue, circle every unfamiliar word in red ink, and write a blog article headed “Words I didn't understand in Poetry News.” There were a lot of them – and this bothered me.

Like many poets, I'm largely self-taught. My academic schooling in poetry culminated in O-level English Literature, and what knowledge I've acquired since has been entirely from reading poems myself and talking about them, or reading about them in the journals and websites that I follow. I don't have the luxury of a literature degree or a creative writing qualification. One of the most important things a group like the Poetry Society should do is educate its members. It shouldn't assume that its members are already experts and that it doesn't need to explain what it is talking about.

Happily, I've had no difficulty understanding subsequent editions of Poetry News. And I have learned stuff about poets, and poems, that I didn't know before.

Poetry Review, the Society's journal, is a different kettle of fish. Among my literary friends, it has a reputation for being mainly interested in intellectual, ‘difficult’ poetry. I have to admit that the poems so far haven't been anything like as ‘difficult’ as I was expecting. But for the most part it is the articles about poetry that I've found far more interesting, and which for me justify the existence of the magazine. These, and the National Poetry Competition winners, which are reproduced in full and discussed in detail, giving first-rate insight into the workings of one of the biggest poetry competitions in the UK.

The Society was given a human face when I decided to join our regional group, or Stanza. This meets once a month in York to critique poems, and organises occasional events to raise the profile of our local poets. Our Stanza rep, the indefatigable Carole Bromley, runs the monthly critique sessions. She's a natural, thoughtful hostess and I very much appreciate the effort she put into making me welcome as a new Stanza member. She’s also an excellent critique group leader, with an “iron-fist-in-velvet-glove” approach that makes the sessions fast-paced, lively, and very high quality.

It was a huge privilege for me to be invited to join the York Stanza poets at their recent showcase at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe. As a newcomer, I could very easily have been passed over in favour of better established names. But this is a truly egalitarian group; my brief membership was no barrier to me taking part alongside everybody else. There were 10 of us performing on the night, in the end; just a 5-6 minute slot each, but I was in the company of poets who have made regular appearances on the prize winners' lists for the Bridport, the Keats-Shelley and other ‘premier league’ poetry competitions. It's a real tribute to the success of the Stanza that I was allowed to feel I had every right to be standing up there in such august company, even if I doubted it myself occasionally!

Now that I have a book of my own to tout, the literary life is all about networking. This should be something that the Poetry Society can facilitate better than anybody. The Stanza, of course, is a great place to get to know poets who are at the top of their game, to share ideas and inspiration and to help me work towards the distant goal of Poetry Collection No. 2. But if it weren't for the Stanza, I have say that the Society is giving me no help at all with the networking I need to do to get myself established as a poet. That's despite the promises that it will host member profiles on its website, showcase members' books, give us opportunities to take part in national events, etc. All such enquiries I've made so far have come to naught. In fact, my emails to the Society don't even get a reply.

So I guess the jury's still out as to whether the Society is worth it. At the moment, I'd suggest probably yes, but that's purely because of the Stanza and the opportunities it has afforded me (which are as much down to Carole herself as the Poetry Society). Other than that, I get the feeling that the Society isn't all that interested in me. And that's a real shame.

It's another 6 months before my membership comes up for renewal. If the Society can convince me in that time that it isn't only interested in the academic, the highbrow and the London-centric, then I'll be only too happy to renew. But I'll be honest. It's still got a bit of a hill to climb.