Like Helen Rickerby, I attended the February meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society, and enjoyed hearing Johanna Aitchison reading from her first collection, the excellent A Long Girl Ago. Only one thing marred the evening: the news that Creative New Zealand, the Government's arts funding agency, has halved the level of the Poetry Society's funding for 2008.
I was upset to hear this, for several reasons. The first is that it means that the Poetry Society's hard-working coordinator, Laurice Gilbert, has had her paid working hours cut right back. This is tough on her, and also means that she'll be able to put less time into updating the Society's website, arranging guest poets, promoting meetings, editing the Society's excellent newsletter a fine line, and generally advancing the cause of New Zealand poets and poetry. The Poetry Society is the only national organisation with that specific mandate, and as being a New Zealand poet is neither an easy nor a remunerative life, poets need the Poetry Society to continue its good work on their behalf.
But what bothers me most is that Creative New Zealand is completely unaccountable for this and other decisions. In the literary field, CNZ funds individual writers' projects; subsidises literary magazines and the publication of New Zealand books; and funds literary organisations. Each year, the Poetry Society applies for funding; each year, they wait; and each year, they get a reply from Creative NZ which simply advises them how much they'll be receiving. There's no explanation of how that amount is arrived at, or what factors are taken into consideration. There's no warning of an impending funding cut, and there's no consultation before the decision is taken.
Because its decision-making process is so opaque, the recipients of funding - and those who apply for funding, but are turned down - have no grounds for confidence that decisions were arrived at fairly. In the case of the Poetry Society funding, was the funding cut the right decision, based on the merits of the Poetry Society's case and of competing funding applications - or is it just that CNZ's latest crop of literature advisors don't like the Poetry Society? Only CNZ and its advisors know the answer to that, and until some transparency and accountability are brought to bear on CNZ's processes, the rest of us can do little more than speculate.
[Disclosure: Funding applications for several books in which I've been involved have been made to Creative NZ. Some have been funded; more have not. I have not applied to CNZ for funding for specific new writing projects. I am a member, but not an officeholder, of the New Zealand Poetry Society. I am the guest reader at the Poetry Society's next monthly meeting - Monday 17 March, 7.30pm, Paramount Cinema Lounge, Courtenay Place, Wellington]