Bless them, and god save them. I mean the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust. Both organisations – the PBS through their seasonal recommendations, the PT through their Aldeburgh first-collection prize and invitations to read at the Aldeburgh festival – have done far more to enable the books I publish to gain readers than the Arts Council (of England; ACE) has ever done. Without them, life will be harder. Without them, the job of spreading the word about poetry books of quality will be even more monopolised by the publicity and marketing departments of the bigger publishers. I am dumbstruck (obviously not literally) by the slashing of their funding. And I’m angry too about the slash to Arc, more dedicated and more adventurous than we deserve.
There’s been a buzz of anger, analysis, comment, on Facebook and other forums, about the poetry cuts. The poets’ world – I generalise – is a vociferous, inbred subculture, the Habsburgs without the power or wealth, and when it hits the news all the factions parade; this is one of the things that puts me off, the lack of generosity, and of interest in writing outside their chosen territory, but it comes perhaps from always having to fight from a tight corner.
On the other hand. I spoke the other day with a writer who’d been sent an email asking him to sign something in support of the PBS, and he knew nothing about why he’d been asked; he’d been getting on with his writing; often he’s without paid employment, and the jobs he does get are minimally paid; and he’ll sign but he’s ambivalent. Why should publishers and administrators be publicly funded? Writers starve in garrets, duck and dive, why (I’m on my own here, not voicing him) shouldn’t publishers? The phrase ‘dependency culture’ gets used. The arguments are obvious: in a consumer, profit-led culture, minority interests need a leg up, and if my man writes well and his work deserves more than tucking under the mattress, even if only a few hundred readers are going to enjoy it, then some help is needed; and I’d like to believe that the society I’m part of values good writing enough to pay it a bit more than lip-service. But I do share his ambivalence. The whole point of writing is independence and subversion. Taking the tax-payer’s coin is compromising.
On the third hand, it’s the end of the financial year, and I’ve been totting up figures. Not bad, not good. Not even a token gesture towards what I could earn a living from, the authors neither, but just about enough – that tricky line – for me to kid myself that this addiction is worth continuing (and in the past few weeks I’ve committed to two books I’d go to the wall for). And I’m indecently proud of the books I’ve published (among them, Josipovici, David Markson, Christopher Reid, Francis Ponge, a couple of first-book poets out of nowhere who both got PBS recommendations; check the website). But – isn’t this considered a barrier, something hard to to admit to? – I too need help. I can write, edit, design, typeset, and occasionally schmooze, but I can’t sell these books in the numbers they deserve. Give me money, give me expertise; talk to me.
There are fourth hands and fifth hands and onwards. This isn’t binary. It’s about writing, and reading too, and that strange thing called publishing, strange because it’s conflicted, always mediating between the intimacy of the writer’s desk and the hullabaloo of the marketplace, and how these things are part – and, yes, are enabled to be part, but this doesn’t have to be the binary thing of getting or not getting ACE funding – of the lives we choose to live.
Golly, it’s Monday already, and today the PBS meets with ACE. If I were picking teams for any such argument, I’d claim George Szirtes first – grounded, articulate, passionate. Alan Davey, the ACE chief exec, doesn’t stand a chance. But the purse strings are in his clammy hands.