The Poetry Trust is an Arts Council “Regularly Funded Organisation” that exists for the promotion of contemporary poetry. Director Naomi Jaffa, a poet herself, is an elegant and effusive advocate for the organisation. “We run a yearly programme, we run our big flagship public event the Aldeburgh Poetry festival which is 21 years old this year, and we also do a series of live events. We partner with Aldeburgh Music and we do a big poetry event in August and we run regular series here at The Cut arts centre. We’ve done a lot of education work in the last 4 years with schools and teachers. We have a learning and outreach programme, which might be with schools or different sectors of the community. So yes, it’s publishing, it’s learning, it’s prizes. We are particularly keen on new talent and developing new talent. And we mentor younger writers and run seminars and residential courses. One day we’ll be doing creative learning and the next we’ll have the best poets in the world reading with very high production values at Aldeburgh, so it’s all very exciting! That’s what we do”.
Despite her own enthusiasm for poetry, Naomi is aware that not everyone shares it, and she is actively intent on countering people’s pre-conceptions about poetry.
“We do lots of exciting and innovative projects to promote poetry because let’s not be under any illusions here, it’s not like Mozart, or a painting which is much easier, sexier, more obvious. Poetry sends a lot of people running to the hills. Lots of people think, ‘contemporary poetry, I’m not going to understand it. It’s going to be irrelevant to my life. It’s something I hated at school’. Poetry has a lot of negativity associated with it that people have to overcome if we are going to get them to read a poem. So your marketing and comms person is going to have to be very good at tackling that issue.
We are at the moment doing for example a project in North Norwich hospital with lots of contemporary poems which we love that we think people will also respond well to on the backs of loo doors, and they’re changing poetry posters every month for a year in the hospital and that is going down really well, so we are quite opportunistic. We are quite light on our feet and creative in what we do. We publish things, we publish small books and we publish a free poetry paper annually, which showcases the work that we do”.
In many ways then, the Poetry Trust is a fairly traditional organisation, growing outwards from its geographical roots in Halesworth, Suffolk. Indeed, it still suffers slightly from being identified solely as the Festival at Aldeburgh, which only takes place only once a year. In the same way that Aldeburgh Music has being trying to break out of the ghetto of being known for the Aldeburgh festival, the Poetry Trust has – as Naomi puts it – “already made giant strides to be recognised as a year round organisation. I think yes the festival is still the jewel in Aldeburgh’s crown, just as our festival is the jewel in the Poetry Trust’s crown, but I think there is a perception now that there is much more than that to both organisations”.
The Poetry Trust still has one disadvantage that Aldeburgh Music do not have to contend with: the lack of a venue, which is something Naomi says “helps create a knowledge that, ‘well, they’re there’. It gives them a physical presence and it is very valuable. And I am not saying I want a building, because I think that is one of poetry’s strengths in a way, that is doesn’t need a building, but being here in this arts centre is a relatively recent thing for us. I’ve been working for this organisation since 1993 and it wasn’t till 2003 that we moved out of our own front rooms and into a building and we were in a dungeon downstairs, and we have only been in this office for 2 ½ or 3 years now, so not that long, and it is still very important to us to have premises if you like.
With Aldeburgh Music, I don’t know, I cant speak for them, but I think that the sheer fact of having those facilities and having artists coming from all over the world year round for the amazing sort of courses that they run and the master class series and the resident series for artists and the retreat for artists is just going to prove what they are doing. I think it is easier to fundraise for what they are doing if you’ve got a building, a lot easier”.
All of these analogue practicalities have their potential parallels in the digital world. A lack of physical space can be partly be compensated for by virtual presence or the wide digital distribution of their work.
However, it is a mark of poetry’s value-for-money production values (i.e. the approach “it’s just words on a page) that it is allocated the limited funding it is. The Poetry Trust is clearly small – if feisty – in comparison to most arts organisations. All the more important then to pursue digital development and marketing.
Hard working and understaffed
It is only recently however that the organisation has had the funding to even recruit its first ever advertising post. Naomi says “We have severely lacked a consistent in-house expert team-player who is doing marketing and communication. One of the most crucial things that he or she could do is to define a strategy for where we want to be, who we want to be perceived by, and who we aren’t known by enough and what sort of way we get the message out. I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, I just know that we’ve spent a number of years being quite inward looking and building ourselves from the inside out and making sure that we are all compliant and robust. It is now time for looking out and to consult and one of the first things I think we are going to do this year is to run a number of survey-type dialogues with our audiences. We have a very big database with our artists, alumni, and all the poets that we have worked with over the years, with our partners and our stakeholders, and we want to ask them, ‘This is what we think we are, what do you think we are, how do you see us, if it’s different from this, how?; we’d like to do this, what do you think about this…?’ We want to be kind of outward looking and ask some questions, because I think there probably is a gap about how we think we are perceived and how we are really perceived.
“Without a marketing and comms person it has impacted our ability to cope. We’ve managed by the skin of our teeth, it’s been stressful and what we always end up doing is playing catch up. We design posters ourselves and all pitch in to get them mailed out. We’ve had freelancers come in on various days doing very discreet jobs, but no one actually feeding into our planning meetings and a sense of a team player, thinking about how what we are doing is being perceived outside these four walls. We particularly need this with the digital, online stuff. I am ok but I am certainly not completely au fait with the digital realm, I’ve got a Facebook but I don’t do much with it; I hate Twitter.
I certainly am not going to have the time to manage an online network, social networking relationships. We need someone to be constantly refreshing this. Part of the AmbITion project has been setting up a new website, it’s our first website with a CMS (a Content Management System) and we’ve never had live control over our own website before and we do now, and it needs to be a website that is very alive and it needs to be constantly refreshed and updated and with nobody here as a marketing or comms person to take the lead on that, who is going to attend to that in the same way?
The old one-two
What has been a real double whammy problem for the Poetry Trust is that not only don’t we have anyone who is really hot on IT, and digital stuff and websites in-house, but we haven’t got that marketing comms person either. And in an ideal world with all the money we need, what we would be creating is a new operations post and a marketing manager, who will additionally have digital and IT expertise. So we would be less reliant on having to ask people outside the organisation to sort things out. And the marketing comms person would obviously take a lead on making sure that the content is up to date, the dialogue and the social networking is, and if they don’t know how to do it, they can ask the operations person to sort it out, because I don’t think it is necessarily fair to expect a marketing and comms person to know about all technical issues.
It’s difficult, because you could probably get a person coming out of university who is brilliant on all the latest technology stuff, but they won’t have had any experience of working in a small organisation, in poetry, and knowing the sort of language that is needed for the different audiences. You are not going to get one person who combines everything, it’s very difficult. And of course our budget is severely limited.
All of our staffing at the moment is very “core”. Our staffing is essentially still very inadequate. But it is going to get better, although it is a problem created by technology – because the web didn’t use to be there and we didn’t have to respond to it. It has created a whole new raft of responsibility. There are whole new areas of work that didn’t exist 5 years ago that need to be attended to, that we are sort of managing”.
The 80/20 rule
It is often said that organisations spend 80% of their time doing 20% of the work needed – in the Poetry Trust’s case that means the vast majority of their time and resources on administration, and only 20% of the time promoting their excellent content that is the product of that admin. Indeed, Naomi believes the imbalance might be even more stark: “In fact, I think we probably spend 15-20% of that 80% on our creative programme and content and the rest of the time is fundraising, managing funders, reporting to funders, relationships, with the Arts Council in particular, advocating, business planning, training, attending conferences etc, etc. It’s all the business of running an arts organisation and making it viable. My stress and misery are to do with the fact I spend ever less time being involved in thinking about and having time to think about where the art form is going, how we’re doing it and also reflecting on what we have done. When we spend too little time on reflecting and learning from what we have done, because we are forever playing catch up to get to the next thing, to get to the next deadline, we don’t grow. I think if we do spend 20% of our time on promotion, that is pretty bloody good at the moment! Considering we haven’t got anyone doing it. I think our staff complement works out – in terms of everyone who is involved – as 4 full time people a week, but it isn’t. I am the only full time member of staff.
One of the concretely positive things to come out of the Poetry Trust’s engagement with the AmbITion project has been the development of the organisation’s first CMS (Content Management System) for their website.
“It’s been a steep learning curve, and the whole business of producing the website has been difficult, but I can see it’s going to be good” says Naomi.
“We have gone through several stages in the delivery process. We are lucky enough to have had a guy who has been doing stuff freelance for the Poetry Trust for years and years and years on the IT/digital front. He was our web master and he built and ran our previous website, which was very much not a web 2.0 website. He had tailored an accessible website and continuously refined it to make it as easy as possible for us as front end users and if we have a major update such as a new programme to go up, he will probably be responsible for those big updates and there will probably be 2 or 3 of them a year. But I think it is great that now – with the new CMS – when I see there is an error or a date that needs changing or whatever I can just do it, I don’t have to send him an email and a link to the page, it is just lovely that I can change it myself, quickly, and I can see it is going to be great for us”.
“We have also installed Google Analytics as part of the new website and so we are going to use that to help optimise how people search for us on the web. So doing a new website has been very developmental for us.
“The thing is that we have wanted the new website for about 3 years and the old website was extremely serviceable but it didn’t look like us. It didn’t look like our programme, our poetry paper. It wasn’t up to our production values and it was because we employed Silk Purse to do a lot of our print design work and stage design work, but they had never got their hands on the website. The AmbITion money and the Grants for the Arts money that we got as a result of being part of AmbITion enabled us to finally get this new website designed by them and I think it looks great. Now the trick is to make sure that it’s linked as well as it can be and we log downloads and so on.
“The old website was an information website, an information centre. It didn’t necessarily invite you to go back very much, unless you were going back to find out about a date or a price. But now we are hoping that the new site will invite people to revisit it much more often.
We want to find audiences who are engaged in other contemporary cultures, because there are lots of them, who are just not going anywhere near poetry. And we think that the best way to do it, is just to glance them fleetingly, laterally, tangentially, not by trying to get people to come to one place and listen to a poet.
We think it much better to put a poem on the back of a loo door, put a poem in the underground, just take it or leave it. Snippets of a podcasts. Little snippets of lovely things that people can tell their friends, I heard this, I saw this… very much like that.
The thing is that people say lots of times ‘poetry’s not for me’. We are talking in English; we are the language animal. Good poems are just lovely things and I just think you haven’t met the right poet yet, you haven’t encountered the right poem. Tell me a bit about yourself… okay try this. And they go, ‘oh I didn’t know poems could be like this’.
“It’s like saying to you, do you like music. Well what kind of music? Some days I want to listen to Billy Holliday because I am feeling miserable and some days I want to listen to Mozart or even to the Rolling Stones, it depends on your mood and where you are at, and poems are the same.
“So how are we doing this? We are using podcasts!
We just started our first digital strand of artistic programme, which is called the Poetry Channel which is basically poetry podcasts, but not throwing a whole live event and just sticking the recording online, but actually making and curating little short broadcast quality programmes using our amazing archives because we’ve got our unique archive of live readings of poets from all over the world, going back many many years, which we’ve never done anything with, which now we have.
We are doing short documentaries and features. Nick Patrick who runs Apercu Media and is based in our building, works as an independent BBC podcast producer. He does ‘Making History’ and ‘Living Planet’ – serious programmes and he is fantastic. And he loves what we do! So he is making our podcasts and we are working very collaboratively with him. So we have ideas of what sort of subjects that good programmes could be made out of and we bring him on board and we talk to him. He has recently for example been a fly-on-the-wall auditory documentary maker at a residential seminar we ran for new writers, and there is going to be a short documentary feature 15-20 minutes long on that seminar. Which I think is going to be really good.
I interviewed Clive James, that’s going to be a podcast and so there is a whole mixture of different programmes. We are going to build a library of them really, so that’s very new for us and we hope that we will appeal to anyone anywhere!
Nick says these are Radio 4 quality and at the moment the Independent are quite interested in the idea of showcasing them on their online site. But they want the partnership with Independent to be visible, which is fine and we’ll talk about it. It is great because they get 160,000 hits a month and we’d like that because we are not going to get 160,000 hits a month. That’s where we need our marketing and comms person to jump straight in and really think big and find ways of driving people to these podcasts, otherwise the world will not know they exist, and they can be as beautiful as they are but they are no good to us if they are not being listened to by loads and loads of people. That’s the aim now.
“And actually I’m not that keen on recordings of live performances, because if I wasn’t there, yes I can hear it’s electrifying in some ways, but if I am going to listen to this as a seminal version of this piece of music I’d sort of prefer if they used the technology you get in a studio. I think if you listen to a live piece, you probably don’t go back to it in the same way that if something is tailored to the medium, i.e. pre-recorded, perfected, like I hope our Poetry Podcasts are going to be; then you will want to re- listen to them.
However, when it comes to live events, I still think we need them; I wouldn’t want to do the cliché and throw the baby out with the bath water and lose something that I think is still something very very special, the live event where you are in the same room and space as a poet who is talking about, introducing and reading his or her experience and own work. Because there is something very magical about this very simple thing. One person, words out of their head, out of the mouth into the ears, heads, hearts of 250 people whatever it is at the festival, and everyone is experiencing the same thing and everyone is processing it in their own individual way, it’s an energy that you cant possibly get in isolation, but that’s fine. That’s the premier bit, but not everyone can get there. And for them we have what technology can give us, in the podcasts.
I think how much money we raise will dictate how many podcasts we can make and how much capacity we have here in the organisation and how often we can do things to promote them, whether it is an e-newsletter, on Facebook, Twitter etc. One of the things we have omitted to do so far on our podcasts page is to ask ‘we’d really like to hear what you think’, to start that online comments page and start responding to other people’s comments instead of them emailing us direct. I would like that to be encouraged and get forums up and running, and I would like the people out there to start having conversations about our stuff. We started doing this years and years ago. I would start a thread going and I would come away from a festival and make a comment and get several things going, but then it petered out very quickly, but perhaps we were ahead of the game; I am talking 6-7 years ago when we first started it. And people weren’t using their computers in the same way that they are now. But I think the important thing is for us to bear this in mind now, that this is a two way dialogue”.
Safety of data, ease of access.
There have been some very practical additions that the Poetry Trust’s funding from the Art Council’s AmbITion programme have given them.
“Previous to AmbITion, we didn’t have a server, and we were all backing things up individually onto memory sticks and it was pretty haphazard, and the most worrying aspect was all the email stuff because we couldn’t back those up at all.
So the most important improvement was the introduction of a proper Windows server, which we’ve now got. And also, basic things like increased memory on some of the machines. We got ourselves better equipped. The next step, which was fantastic and has changed my life, is what they call a terminal server. Basically it allows full remote access by anyone working for the Poetry Trust and it means I can do my emails remotely. I can go into the shared area, I can do documents, I can work from anywhere and so can anyone else with login privileges. It is just fantastic and it means I don’t come back after working for 3 days in London to 120 emails, I can do them on the go. I can also get hold of documents I need to get hold of. And one of the things when we employ people on a freelance basis or for short term contracts, we can actually attract, potentially, a bigger range of people and possibly a higher calibre of person if they can work remotely. Quite a lot of the work can be done remotely if they can access to the information they need, so it is a brilliant thing and it seems to work really easily. So that’s been great”.
“We have also bought the design package Quark, which is fantastic. Because we are so cash-strapped and because we don’t have unlimited money to outsource designers we do an awful lot, thanks to Dean really who just happens to be quite good at it, we do an awful lot of design in-house. Posters, hand bills, ads, that sort of thing, and so he needed a software programme. He’s happy with Quark, and we got it at such a good rate, a charity rate, which we didn’t know about, which is great, and we got Adobe Photoshop and we bought some of the other software we have long wanted, which is really super”.
The blessing and curse of email
Not everything about the progress of digital development is poetry in motion for Naomi, however. She is sceptical of Facebook, worried about people who “seem to spend their whole lives online” and has a love-hate relationship with email…. “Already I do 90% of communication by email and it worries me. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s oppressive. I don’t know where I would be without it, and I am aware that I fall prey to it because they feel like they are immediate because they have just come into your inbox and they are easy to deal with very quickly. So I tend to get very easily diverted to do emails, which actually takes time away from bigger more reflective pieces of work that require more reflection and I am quite bad at disciplining myself. I don’t have a noise coming up to tell me when a new email has come in, but, I find it quite hard to turn Outlook off for a morning and just concentrate on a document that I have to write because, I can feel them popping in and needing attending. It’s very bad, and I get itchy when I have been away and I haven’t been checking my emails, because there is this sense that they seem to demand instant attention and it’s not true; it’s a habit thing.
But I think email is fantastic. I don’t know where we were without it. In the days when I was inviting poets from other sides of the world to the festival by airmail, and not even knowing if I had the right address, or it was going via a publisher it could take easily 6 weeks back by an airmail letter to know whether a poet was coming and you didn’t have a phone number and you had no way of contacting them quickly, and you can just do it now. And I can get a reply from a poet in America the same day, it’s fantastic. It’s a light touch thing, you can ask quick questions, get quick answers and it’s not intrusive the way phone calls are intrusive and it’s basically fantastic. But I do spend a lot of my time doing emails and I think the filing of emails and the being on top of emails and how you find things again is really demanding”.
Naomi has a radical and innovative suggestion of utilising email, online networking and shared applications to create liaison between the different organisations in the poetry sector in the UK.
There is £330,000 left that is unspent from a project called Planet Poetry that the Arts Council is currently working out what to do with, because it didn’t work out at the consortium in London. And one of the things that the organiser has suggested to the Arts Council is that if they want to promote and raise the status of poetry in the UK, actually, the problem is that we’ve got a handful of these smaller organisations, the Poetry Trust, The Poetry Book Society, The Poetry School, The Poetry Business, Apples and Snakes… The Poetry Society is the biggest, who do have a marketing department, but it’s very small and it’s very un-joined up. But if you constructed an annual calendar and said, what are the major festivals, the major prizes, initiatives etc in poetry and you then employed a cultural media specialist company who had a steering committee made up of some of the main people from the main poetry organisations, and they had a brief, that was to raise the profile and they would hang it on these mainstream events, then it could be more central. And there could be a UK Poetry branding opportunity, call it what you will. We are all desperately trying to promote our own things, crossing over in our emails, not liaising with dates all sorts of things. No joined up, centralised thinking. Poetry is actually small enough that it could really benefit from something like that. Because we don’t all have marketing officers, not full time ones. We are about to have a part time one for a year; hello, how’s that going to work for anyone thinking that they want to throw their future in for the Poetry Trust; are they going to move house for a three day a week, one year contract? I don’t think so. But that is all we can afford at the moment. To me it would make a lot of sense and digital marketing would be a big part of that, but it would want to have some centralised Arts Council marketing.
Not all offices are as well equipped as the Poetry Trust’s…
Naomi has a particular suggestion for the Arts Council: I was very surprised to learn that Arts Council officers cannot download or listen to any creative digital content on their work machines at the Arts Council; websites like YouTube are barred. So our Arts Council officer has not been able to download our podcasts, or see our new website. She has to do it on her home machine. And you know the Arts Council is investing hundreds and thousands of pounds in digital development and audience development via digital channels and they are giving these organisations, us, to do this and they can’t see what we are doing with the money.
If I was to bench mark what we do, I have aspirations to do something equivalent to what the incredible Poetry Foundation is doing in America. Now the Poetry Foundation is very very lucky because they got left $188 million by an heiress, so they are very happy. They are doing incredible things on the internet, with daily and weekly podcasts etc and it’s fantastic and it’s just proof as to what you can do when you have go the people and the money to do it. And it is great! But I don’t know anyone who is employing anyone with the calibre of Nick Patrick to make podcasts about poetry and calling it the Poetry Channel, so that’s one area in which I’m glad to see we can claim to be leading in digital technology.