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We know that the Poetry Book Society (PBS) was founded in 1953 by T. S. Eliot himself and his friends. Can you please tell our readers about the aims at the time of the foundation and how the PBS has evolved since its origin?

T S Eliot was very concerned about the sales of poetry books, because he was not only a great poet but also a publisher and a board member of Faber & Faber, which is why there is a continuing strong link between Faber & Faber and the PBS. The feeling was that something extra had to be done to promote poetry books and to try to find an audience that would be especially interested in a subscription approach to buying books. Over the years, the Society has evolved but it hasn't changed in its fundamental task, which is still to sell poetry books. We have had a very distinguished series of board members over the years and one of our chairs was the poet Philip Larkin, with Ted Hughes also acting as a board member. Our board always includes some poets, at the moment we have Gillian Clarke, Amanda Dalton, Choman Hardi, Jackie Kay, and Mark Ford, who is also an academic.

And when was the T S Eliot prize launched and why?

The T S Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society's 40th birthday. The intention was to provide a major poetry prize which would commemorate our founding poet and it has always been supported very generously by Mrs Valerie Eliot, T.S. Eliot's widow, who gives the prize directly to the winner. It's very welcome support, without it our prize would not be possible, and we also now have generous sponsorship from the British broadcaster Five.

Which is the relation between this prize and Eliot's poetry?

There is no direct relationship with Eliot's own poetry. The intention is to choose the best new single author collection of the calendar year. The four Choice books that the PBS selects once a quarter automatically go on to the shortlist, so that, having a shortlist of ten, the poet selectors have to find the other six, reading all the submissions from the publishers.
We are obviously pleased when a book that has been our Choice wins the Prize because it validates our selection process for the PBS.

How is the jury composed?

The PBS appoints a panel of judges, which are always poets because the point is that our selection is made on the basis of poets choosing the best work from other poets. We always have a chair who is usually a distinguished older poet; this year we have Douglas Dunn, who is Professor of English at St. Andrew's University. We generally have two other poets on the judges' panel; obviously, we have to have poets who don't have a new book and are not eligible for the Prize. We also would want to have at least one woman on the judging panel, and we would like to have a range of ages amongst the judges, because this tends to affect the outcome. This year, for instance, we started off with Douglas Dunn, who is a well-respected, erudite poet and academic. Then we have Paul Farley who is, if you like, a younger poet, and Carol Rumens, who is also from the older generation.

Can you please tell us about the other initiatives of the PBS besides the prize?

This year we have been engaged in two major new initiatives, both founded by the Arts Council of England.
The first initiative is called "next generation poets", which is in some way a rerunning of the promotion from 10 years ago which was called new generation poets. Again, we appointed a panel, in this case, it was a big panel, we had so many submissions that we ended up with a panel of seven judges and this was chaired by the poet laureate Andrew Motion. We had just two poets on the panel, Andrew himself and Simon Armitage, the other people were just people who are interested in poetry, and we had one member of PBS, which is one of our best members, she buys poetry every week, Marie Robertson.
They had to chose 20 poets who had published the first single author collection in the last ten years and there was no age barrier at all. Last time they had to be under 40 and it was a bit unfortunate because some very good poets don't start writing until they are a bit older. I feel it is wrong to have age discrimination.
This promotion has involved bookshop promotion, a very successful library promotion, and obviously PR. I think it is going to be over 20 events all over the country where the poets have read to an audience. It has been very successful, and I think in the long run will really help their career. The other initiative is the online poetry bookshop. This is an attempt to present a very wide range of poetry to a large audience, it is going beyond the poetry world, we have a direct feed from a book data provider and so we can offer 40000 poetry titles, all the poetry classification in the UK. It is a deliberate attempt to expand the market for poetry and it will have a lot of promotion and new material of content. We hope, over a period of time, to build up the interest in that and to get people to come back and buy poetry, in particular when they can find it especially in bookshops.

Could you talk about the relationship that connects, or should connect, young people with poetry?

It seems to me that it is very important that children should read and enjoy poetry. Poetry shouldn't just be something that you have to study at school, which is boring and makes you never want to read it again. I think for young children it can often be very good fun and a lot of the books available are fantastic, with wonderful illustrations. Children instinctively respond to rhyme and rhythm, so it's not hard for them to enjoy it. It seems to me important that there should be as much encouragement as possible for poetry to be read in schools and for children to have poetry books at home. We have a small scheme now, called the Children's Poetry Bookshelf, which is actually very good but it is too small and so I am currently applying for quite a large amount of funding, to considerably expand the scheme. At the moment all the members are teachers and we would like to expand the number of teachers considerably, and also to recruit parents and grandparents, and also libraries. We are working on the project now and hope to relaunch it during 2005.

Do you think that young people are eager for words and poetry? What do you think about young people?

I think there is a feeling among teenagers that poetry is something you studied at school and it's a bit dead, actually, but I think if you can expand it out to include lyrics and a wider range of poetry that is more appealing to them, then you are talking about a different proposition. There is a lot of work to be done in that area, but there has been a big resurgence in Britain in fiction writing for teenagers. It's obviously partly the commercial side, the Harry Potter phenomenon, but on the other hand it's just that, suddenly, publishers have found a better market, and there's a lot of fiction, good fiction, published for teenagers now. I think poetry hasn't really caught up with this yet and so if we can get this Children's Poetry Bookshelf relaunch working well, then in a year's time I would like to be thinking about launching a teenage poetry book club. We'd have to think about it very carefully, it's really a tricky market. Adults - that's the way things work - will still pay the membership, but we will have to appeal very directly to the teenagers themselves to make it work. I think the key to that it is probably going to be through a website that works very well. We would also need active participation in the selection process by the teenagers, we have to make them part of the panel or something like that, I haven't worked all the details out yet but that's what I think we need to do.

What do you think about the cultural situation in the UK?

I think at the moment the situation poetry is in is indicative of a lot of other kinds of writing involving a group of people. The poetry audience is inward-looking. They are very enthusiastic in their support for poetry, but there are not all that many of them, so I think that for poetry it's important to reach out and to be more inclusive. We need to involve more people, a wider range of people, and this is why the government is very interested in social inclusion. I think it's important to find a wider audience for all the arts. And in a funny sort of way literature in general, ie fiction, is doing much better in this country, there is a wider readership, it's became, perhaps, more 'trendy' to read more. I don't know for sure but I think promoting poetry can be done. It's a question of broadening the audience, there has been quite a lot of successful work on this that has been funded by the Arts Council in the performing arts, in theatre, music and ballet. Literature is a very small part of this, and it's important we should benefit from it. And it's important to get out of London, and have events in different places and in a way we are in a quite a good position to do this because we have a national membership. Our office is in London, but because we are a mail order organisation our members are all over the country, and we hope to find new members internationally as well through our new PBS website, www.poetrybooks.co.uk.

In which other countries have you found a better cultural situation, if you did?

There is certainly more support for culture by the government in a number of European countries, I don't know in detail, but France and Germany, which I do know something about, both support culture and the arts in general much more actively. At the moment this is quite a hot issue actually in the UK, how much government support there should be for the arts, and, going forward, we face a possible reduction of our funding. I don't know how this would affect us specifically as an organisation, but it's going to affect the Arts Council and how much money they have to hand out, so it's a big issue right now, I think.

Do you agree with the statement that the understanding and the integration among peoples and nations can be realised only through culture?

I don't know about realised only through culture but I certainly think that culture is an important way of doing it. I suppose at the moment we are fortunate through an accident of history in that we speak the language which has become the international language, for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, so, in a way, I think is important that we approach things in a very international way. Also, I think that some of the recent technical developments, particularly the Internet, have given us all a completely different way of communicating and developing internationally that has made it all so easy and so cheap... I'm a great believer in what a website can do connect people across the world.

Interview by Enrica Rota