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PBS in the Press

Posted on May 05 2017

Thanks to David Whetstone at the Journal for this lovely article about the Northern Poetry Symposium and the Poetry Book Society's recent move to Newcastle. Pick up a copy of the Journal or visit their website to read more:

Newcastle Poetry Festival, organised by Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University, takes place next week with a packed programme of events at Northern Stage and Sage Gateshead.

But it begins on Tuesday with the Northern Poetry Symposium, a day of “lively debates, inspirational talks and panel discussions” to celebrate the Poetry Book Society’s first year in Newcastle.

The line-up of speakers is impressive.

It includes Susannah Herbert, the executive director of National Poetry Day (September 28 this year, with the theme of Freedom), the poetry bosses of publishers Penguin, Picador and Carcanet – and, of course, Neil Astley, founding editor of Hexham-based Bloodaxe Books – and many other poetry movers and shakers.

Diversity and digital apps will be on the agenda along with other topics affecting the poetry world and audience-expanding ideas will be discussed.

The Poetry Book Society was founded in 1953 by TS Eliot, whose work ranges from The Waste Land – modernist masterpiece or utterly impenetrable, depending on your point of view – and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which inspired the musical Cats.

Eliot and his friends and co-founders had a mission “to further the education of the people of this country by fostering and propagating the art of poetry and particularly by promoting knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment of the published work of contemporary poets”.

 

Poetry Book Society manager Alice Mullen explains how, every quarter, publishing houses submit new poetry collections. They are then read by a panel of established poets who pick their Poetry Book Society Choice, effectively the quarter’s top poetry book, and four Recommendations.

Members (for £55 a year) get the quarterly Bulletin, the Choice book and other benefits while associate members (for £18) get the Bulletin plus perks.

Although hugely respected by poetry lovers and with Arts Council funding, the Society was struggling.

“At the beginning of May last year they got in touch and said they were going into receivership,” says Sophie.

“They’re a very big part of the poetry establishment. They also ran the TS Eliot Prize (worth £20,000 and Britian’s most valuable poetry award).

“We were already very stretched but if the Poetry Book Society closed it would leave a massive hole in the poetry eco-system.

“Publishers and poetry lovers would miss the endorsements.”

Inpress Ltd, which has been based for several years in the North East, is an Arts Council-funded sales and marketing agency which represents around 40 small independent publishers around the country.

“The Poetry Book Society handed their assets to us,” says Sophie.

“We had to check we could manage it without getting into trouble and we decided, with the help of our board, that we could. And the Arts Council did give us some support in taking it over which was very kind of them.

“So for us it was quite exciting, taking part of the London-centred poetry establishment and bringing it up North.”

The thing is, how many people know?

The Wikipedia page dedicated to the TS Eliot Prize (now run by The TS Eliot Foundation) refers to the Poetry Book Society having closed.

Alice says the Northern Poetry Symposium is about “making a statement”.

“Part of our plan and commitment to the Arts Council is that we will celebrate the fact that there’s a lot going on outside London. And we will certainly be celebarting the fact that we’re based in the North East.

“These are very exciting times to be in Newcastle.

“In fact the Poetry Book Society summer Choice is On Balance by Sinéad Morrissey who has just become a professor of creative writing at Newcastle University.”

Having won the TS Eliot Prize back in 2013, the Belfast poet also completes a poetry hat-trick for the university. Fellow poets and colleagues Sean O’Brien (2007) and Jacob Polley (2016) are also past winners of the prestigious prize.

In the office now shared by Inpress Ltd and the Poetry Book Society there is much to celebrate.

Alice, who was educated at Whitley Bay High School and then Durham University, went away to work in bookselling and then for Manchester-based Carcanet Press. “It was great to come back to Newcastle,” she says.

Sophie tells a similar tale. “I was a student up here (at Newcastle University), went to London and worked in publishing and then came back.

“When the job came up at Inpress I was excited. Jobs in Newcastle involving books are few and far between.”

The Northern Poetry Symposium takes place on Tuesday when Steps in Time, a ‘poem-walk’ through Newcastle, will also be launched. Download the mobile phone app and be guided to 16 city locations chosen by poets who will tell stories and illuminate them in new ways.

The festival programme includes a series of music and poetry collaborations at Sage Gateshead, with poet Jackie Kay and musician Kathryn Tickell forming one partnership, and workshops at Newcastle University.

At Northern Stage on Thursday, County Durham poet Gillian Allnutt, who recently received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry from Her Majesty, will read from her work with fellow poet Rachael Boast.

And all this takes place in a region which is also home to New Writing North, the Northern Poetry Library (in Morpeth) and Tony Harrison, a poet you can well imagine the Vikings would have taken with them into battle despite his poems questioning and criticising war.

The celebrated poet, a gritty Yorkshireman resident in Newcastle for many years, turned 80 last weekend.

For full details about Newcastle Poetry Festival and the Northern Poetry Symposium, go to www.newcastlepoetryfestival.co.uk

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