Twenty years ago, when I became Director of the Poetry Book Society, there were real questions about the society's future. It seemed to have lost touch with the youthful audiences crammed into poetry readings. The membership was static. The quarterly Choices, though still well regarded by publishers and poets, did not attract much interest in the media. Was there a way, I began to wonder, of working the PBS's quarterly selections into an annual poetry prize? There was no equivalent of the Booker Prize in the poetry world, but on the other hand, could a critically rigorous poetry prize make headlines and attract new members to the PBS?
The idea might not have progressed much further had I not, at the suggestion of Matthew Evans, who was then Managing Director of Faber, written to Eliot's widow, Mrs Valerie Eliot. With some temerity, as I had no clear idea how the PBS might do it, I asked if she would consider allowing the PBS to organise an annual poetry prize named after her husband? With remarkable vision Mrs Eliot promptly replied that she was delighted by the idea of the proposed T S Eliot Prize and, furthermore, that she would provide the prize money!
With the name of one the greatest poets of the twentieth century lending weight to the plan, it no longer seemed impossible for an executive team of two to raise the vast sum (for the PBS) that its administration would require. In truth, without the indomitable energy of Martha Whittome (nee Smart) it would have remained impossible. We wrote dozens of letters and soon discovered the harsh realities of fund-raising.
Eventually, through a fortunate introduction, we discovered the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The PBS will always be indebted to Esmée Fairbairn for providing a large slice of the money needed to meet the costs of the new prize - ongoing support that continued for several years. The Arts Council of England, as it then was, also helped with both funding and advice. We had another piece of good luck when Martyn Goff, long-standing administrator of the Booker Prize, agreed to join the PBS board, thus providing an authority in the arcane etiquette of prize administration that was hitherto lacking.
Weaving the T S Eliot Prize into the operations of the PBS required structural changes in the membership and in the role of the selectors. Different categories of membership were created. The quarterly Choices of the PBS selectors, appointed each year, were automatically included in the Prize shortlist of ten collections. The whole membership of the PBS was given one vote to cast in the final judging. Most of the rules and arrangements for the first prize have survived unchanged as the prize has grown in scale and importance. I wish we'd thought of some of the successful innovations of recent years - the shadowing scheme for schools and the reading groups are both brilliant ideas.
Sitting in the vast audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the shortlist Readings for the 2009 prize, I was struck by another improvement. With a limited experience of how to stage manage a prize, I had found inspiration across the channel in the smoky Parisian restaurant where the Prix Goncourt is judged. Consequently, the shortlist Readings for the first prizes were combined with the presentation in cramped fume-filled venues. Ciaran Carson received his prize in the Chelsea Arts Club; Paul Muldoon in the Polish Hearth Club.
From the confines of these bohemian beginnings the shortlist Readings have sensibly escaped to become a unique annual event for British poetry. Looking around me at a huge sea of rapt faces, I was relieved that my successors had the good sense to scrap my Goncourt fantasies.
This said, I'm convinced the growing success of the prize lies in the original objective of Eliot and his fellow founders of the Poetry Book Society: to encourage and support the best work of contemporary poets through the judgements of other poets, scholars and critics. Poets want to win the T S Eliot Prize because it can be seen as the judgement of their peers and hundreds of people flock to the shortlist Readings on the South Bank because it remains the only important prize that does not glamorise its judgements with spurious celebrity.
Brian Perman was Director of the Poetry Book Society from 1992-4. His career in book publishing spanned 40 years during which time he worked for Hutchinson, William Heinemann, Simon and Schuster and Booktrust. He lives in Cornwall, and is a trustee of Outside In, an organisation dedicated to exploring and promoting world literature and children's books in translation.