‘For now, though, we need to ensure we protect as much of our cultural ecology as we can – and as things stand, every part of it is in peril. While our National Portfolio Organisations may appear to be relatively well-funded, they generally depend on very high levels of earned income, which have disappeared overnight. That, combined with relatively small levels of reserves, has meant that many National Portfolio Organisations have already been placed in real jeopardy by this crisis. Some may not survive. And while individually the failure of these organisations would be painful, collectively their loss would decimate our cultural infrastructure. Together, they employ thousands of people, commission thousands more, and support many small companies through their supply chains.’
Darren Henle y, Arts Council England Chief Executive, 31 Marc h 2020
When PN Review 252 was mailed out to subscribers a couple of months ago, Covid-19 still seemed some way off. On 11 January China announced the first death in Wuhan. Less than a week later a case was reported in Thailand. On 23 January the WHO said the outbreak did not constitute an international public emergency. Seven days later, global emergency was declared. By 6 February Europe had 30 confirmed cases.
Time seemed to accelerate, and then grind to a halt. A general sense of urgency as we were propelled towards lockdown, and then – lockdown. Now, as I write, in the fourth week of that lockdown, we seem to have stuck fast in a spell. News programmes recite alarming numbers, remind us of our ignorance of the foe that now controls us, and provide a wealth of more or less informed hypotheses and prophecies about what might happen if this, or if that, and when. Much grieving is reported, and much human kindness. Will the UK become the worst-afflicted country in Europe, will the lock-down be extended, or eased, and if so by what means? Other important news has been driven out by rumour and authoritative suppositions. The discourse of current affairs is dangerously poor in significant facts and is largely conducted in what Christine Brooke-Rose explored so tellingly in her novel Amalgamemnon (1984): non-realised tenses. Not Wordsworth’s promise, ‘something evermore about to be’, not the huge figures of the Apocalypse itself, but those invisible, minute viruses working their way like ironies through the populations of the world, adjusting consciousness and imagination.
The PN Review submissions portal has been exposed to Covid-19. Not a day passes without coronavirus poems filling it up. As one friend wrote, ‘Gather ye soapsuds while ye may.’ Even analeptically. The Times (12 April) quotes University of Glasgow Professor Gerry Carruthers, ‘Edwin Morgan would have written a fantastic poem about the coronavirus.’ ‘Edwin Morgan would have written’ – there is Brooke-Rose’s non-realised tense at work. Supposition has gathered a kind of spurious authority. The Times reflects that Morgan himself, a decade dead, is nonetheless a victim of the pandemic: celebrations of his centenary have been entirely disrupted.
Poetry magazines, so long as their printers stay in business and the post office keeps delivering, are so far the least Covid-19-vulnerable operations in the poetry world. Their lives change because editorial and design staff work remotely, and because the lockdown gives poets a tremendous opportunity to send work, and more and more work. What was an imposing backlog of submissions begins to loom in a more sinister way.
But the rest of the poetry world’s ecology is entirely changed.
Soon after lockdown was declared, a number of commercial and specialist publishers altered their forward schedules, some cancelling their spring and summer lists, some delaying lead titles. Without bookshops, the decision was logical. A number of employees were furloughed. The longer-term consequences on those companies’ schedules, cash-flow and reach will require imaginative handling. The calendar remains unhelpfully inelastic.
Certainly the wholesale cancellation of literary festivals and events has driven a coach and horses through publishers’ promotional programmes. Poetry launches and events, if they are to continue, must find new means. Publishers must invent ways of selling books in quantity in the absence of bookshops. Social media, long crucial in informing and promoting books, have rapidly to adapt and become primary sales media as well, complicating their friendly informality. The on-line launch event is one of a number of evolving tools which stand in for the physical poet, the physical audience and the physical bookseller. If poetry audiences prove (temporarily) content with on-line presentations, will readership find its way to these events? Will people buy books on line? If so, the damage to the business of contemporary poetry may be contained. It seems likely that techniques developed in this period will remain in place after restrictions are lifted. By their means we will have reached readers and writers who before we may have missed, including the disabled and deaf, and a wide international constituency. But here we too risk the use of non-realised tenses.
One fact is unarguable. As soon as the implications of the pandemic were clear, Arts Council England took immediate steps to reassure and support its always vulnerable sector. They contacted clients – individuals and org anisations – offering a well-thought-out series of initiatives (‘our Covid-19 Emergency Response Package’) to support clients’ staff and work. As a consequence, there was immediately, within the Arts sector, a sense of common cause. Having rallied us in this way, the Arts Council has continued to encourage and advise. Despite the crisis, it is possible to feel optimistic about outcomes. Guidance, blogs by members of the ‘leadership team’, suggestions of help available from local and national government, and initiatives with the BBC and others, are fully detailed. Some of clients’ reporting requirements were relaxed. It felt – it feels – as though we are collaborating, however different our enterprises, in a joined-up campaign. It includes National Portfolio Organisations and new initiatives.