How readers saved The Poetry Business in Sheffield after funding emergency

"I'm always surprised when people don't know we're here," says Ellen McLeod, manager and co-director of The Poetry Business which – challenging the idea that the UK's literary industry must be based in the capital – operates from an office on smart Campo Lane in Sheffield city centre, just behind the Anglican cathedral.

By Richard Blackledge
Monday, 29 April, 2019, 10:57

"A lot of arts organisations are in London and there's a lot of demand for funding there, so it's really important that the north is remembered and it's spread evenly."

The publisher and writer development agency was founded in 1986 on an Enterprise Allowance by the poet Peter Sansom, who remains a director alongside his wife Ann. Nationally focused, it issues books, pamphlets, audio and eBooks under the smith|doorstop imprint, edits a literary magazine called The North and runs classes, courses and competitions.

Its poets have won or been shortlisted for almost every major poetry prize, including the Forward Prize on 11 occasions and 10 Poetry Book Society awards. Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, described The Poetry Business as 'one of the most vital and vitalising literary organisations in the country'.

But last month, its projects were put in jeopardy when Arts Council England rejected an important funding bid. Ironically, this coincides with a time of great success. The organisation's ninth writing school for published poets has received a record number of applications, and an anthology chosen by the outgoing laureate Carol Ann Duffy is about to be released.

"It was an emergency, really," says Ellen, the only full-time staff member in a team of eight. "We looked at what could happen if we didn't raise the funding, and it would have meant the business would have to shrink into this much smaller version of itself. Work had been put into motion that couldn't realistically stop."

She sat down with Ann and Peter to draw up a cashflow forecast, and calculated that £14,000 needed to be found.

Peter and Ann Sansom at The Poetry Business. Picture: Chris Etchells

"To be honest, at the time, I thought 'I don't actually know if we'll be able to raise that much'," Ellen says. "It's a lot to ask for and it's not like poets have got loads of money either." 

To her relief, she had little to fear. A crowdfunding appeal attracted donations of £19,047 from 380 supporters, covering the cost of The Poetry Business' planned work and more besides. 

"Some people were really generous," Ellen reflects. "But I think some of the people who donated a lot of money aren't necessarily the wealthiest people, they just really care about the work we do."

Assistant editor Suzannah Evans agrees, saying the experience was 'very affirming'.

"Sometimes you are pottering along wondering 'Is anybody noticing we're doing all these things?' and then you have a response like that. We all felt energised by it."

Ellen says: "We're quite office-based but Ann and Peter go out into the world and do a lot of teaching - we don't see all of that. They've worked with thousands of people."

The outfit was based for 20 years in a Victorian arcade in Huddersfield, with Peter and Janet Fisher as co-directors. After Janet's retirement, the Ann took over as co-director and the team moved to Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. In 2017 the office moved the short distance to Campo Lane. 

The Poetry Business has relied on two-year Arts Council grants, which afforded more flexibility but carried a significant downside, as successful bids are never guaranteed.

"It's super risky," Ellen says. "If you time it properly it's less risky, but the process for applying for a bid is so huge. You could end up working on them all the time."

Funds raised will go towards four New Poets Prize pamphlets, the summer issue of The North and the continuation of monthly writing days in Manchester and Sheffield, as well as paying for marketing and other costs associated with publishing 25 books a year.

Titles on the way include an anthology of poems about running - "A lot of poets seem to run," says Ellen - and a pamphlet from new poet Jasmine Sims.

"It'll be business as usual for a bit longer, which is great," says Suzannah.

Following the earlier rejection, a smaller bid of less than £15,000 has been lodged with the Arts Council. A verdict is expected at the start of May.

Are there other avenues The Poetry Business could explore, given the previous crisis?

"I think the best thing we could do is work towards making the business more sustainable," says Ellen. "A lot of the work we do is quite expensive and some of it has to be funded, it's never going to make a profit. We're not a charity, either. There's only certain funders we can apply to."

Happily, poetry is in a healthy state in 2019, Ellen and Suzannah say.

"They call it the 'poetry boom', that poetry's having this revival. Any time two or more publishers are gathered together there's this talk of how we make the most of the boom, which I don't think anybody's quite worked out. Actually, how we make the most of it is to carry on doing what we're doing. There's a lot of interest, particularly from young people," says Suzannah.

"It's always amazing to see how many young writers there are," Ellen says, nodding.

Their favourite recent Poetry Business works include a pamphlet by Hera Lindsey Bird, a writer from New Zealand, and a small collection by Greg Gilbert, frontman of indie band The Delays who has terminal cancer.

“The poems are very open about his treatment and the emotional side of that," Ellen says.

The Campo Lane office has a book-lined reading room furnished with lamps and comfortable armchairs – a peaceful, stress-relieving space.

"We use poetry quite regularly as a salve," says Ellen. "You can always find the answer in a poem I think."

Suzannah concurs. "Even someone who's never read a poetry book will say, 'I'm getting married and I want a poem at my wedding'. It's those big moments, difficult or celebratory times – if they looked there a bit more they'd realise there was a poem for everything, probably."

And those in the know are already aware of publishing's flight to the regions, she says. "There are quite a few now in the North – Peepal Tree in Leeds, us and And Other Stories in Sheffield, Valley Press in Scarborough, Comma Press in Manchester and Dead Ink in Liverpool. I don't think London is the ideal place to be a creative person. You've got to have a job that pays to supplement your creativity, and that's going to take up a lot of your time."