Manchester-based poetry publisher Carcanet Press is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Founder and m.d. Michael Schmidt speaks to us about the highs and lows of the press' history and plans for the future.
How have past 50 years gone and what have been biggest successes?
In 50 years we have gone from nowhere to being an internationally respected poetry and literature publishing house, still quite small in size, still able to take risks on new writing and new directions in writing, both in English and translation. And being deeply-rooted in the Anglophone tradition, we are fascinated by the classics and how they affect the poetry and readership of the present: new editions, new versions, new approaches. Our first audiobook is being released to mark the Jubilee and it’s Jenny Lewis’s feminine take on the traditionally macho Gilgamesh Epic. Gilgamesh Retold. It will be followed by Jane Draycott’s celebrated translation of the Middle-English poem Pearl.
Our biggest successes, I would say, have been our discovery and promotion of outstanding poets, most recently Sinead Morrissey, Kei Miller, Vahni Capildeo, Tara Bergin, Sujata Bhatt, and from abroad the poems of Bill Manhire, Chinua Achebe, Lorna Goodison… One of our darker horses, a remarkably inventive poet called Ned Denny, won the Seamus Heaney Prize this year. We are able to make decisions and back a poet even if they don’t immediately get airborn. Though it’s nice when they do. We have also brought a number of major figures back into play and kept them there—Elizabeth Jennings, Edwin Morgan, the poetry of Muriel Spark and James K. Baxter.
What have been biggest struggles and how have you overcome them?
The principal struggles have been to do with money and funding the press. We overcame them by working closely with the Arts Council and, in 1983, finding a champion to underwrite us in the form of Robert Gavron. Kate Gavron remains our Chair and our ‘unwobbling pivot’. When the IRA bomb of 1996 destroyed our offices, we found the world was filled with good will towards Carcanet and this was and remains sustaining.
To what would you attribute the long-standing success of Carcanet?
We have editorially re-invented ourselves more than once, taking risks and going in directions where my literary judgement led me in disregard of my taste and also (as always) in disregard of marketing considerations. Carcanet has had some remarkable people working in it, editorially and in other areas. From the time when Peter Jones and I set the press going in Oxford in 1969, it has been a magnet for committed talent: writers, editors, advisers. So the success has been due to a core continuity of energy and effort and this wonderful community of intelligences with good work to offer and compelling ideas.
The Carcanet team
Would you say any time in recent years has been a pivotal moment for the business? If so, what would that be?
Carcanet did not exactly change direction in 1987 but when we took on the poetry of John Ashbery there was, as it were, a second direction running parallel to, and occasionally colliding with, the first. I became much more interested in experimental writing—not the kind that has its being wholly within the walls of universities and is the fruit of literary theory, but the kind that grew out of an experience of language at fruitful odds with convention and sometimes with itself—so there was the New York School, and some of the poets we already published began to loom larger for me—Christopher Middleton, Edwin Morgan. It was a wonderful time: I think writers like the great Irish poet Eavan Boland, whom we have published since 1987, felt more at home in this broadening list. I know I did, too: all sort of temptations could be succumbed to with a sense of righteousness rather than sin. This did not lessen my commitment to the original direction, which still seems to me crucial; but there was a sense that the whole choir was now singing its harmonies and dissonances. The main thing has been to try to avoid the merely academic, poetry hijacked by theory, just as in early years the tact was to avoid poetry that had been hijacked by fashion.
What do you predict your standout titles for this year will be?
Still to come: Kei Miller's In Nearby Bushes (August), Mimi Khalvati's Afterwardness (October), Elizabeth Jennings' New Selected Poems, Carol Rumens' Smart Devices, (November), and Julia Blackburn and Jeff Fisher's The Woman Who Always Loved Picasso (December).
How are you planning on marking the anniversary? Do you have any publishing plans? (POS material, discounts/sales?)
We have lots of partying plans (see below)! In publishing terms we are thrilled to have major new books from some of our key writers: Mimi Khalvati, Kei Miller, Elizabeth Jennings, Yves Bonnefoy, Gabriel Josipovici, Caroline Bird, Sinead Morrissey and Matthew Welton. We are also developing our translation lists in new directions and we are featuring four first collections. The Jubilee book is edited by my dear quondam-colleague Robyn Marsack and is entitled Fifty-Fifty, consisting of letters to and from key authors and contributors over the years, a history of Carcanet which is also a history of contemporary poetry and contemporary publishing, laced with gossip and one-liners.
In terms of social media we are developing a line in single poet, single poem YouTube films, and across platforms we will be sharing excerpts from our history with #Carcanet50. We have a phenomenally ambitious programme of events, involving the trade wherever possible.
Carcanet at 50: Poetry Ireland
Join Carcanet to celebrate 50 years of Carcanet in Ireland, with an afternoon symposium followed by evening readings with music, at Poetry Ireland, Dublin. Two panels will explore Carcanet’s core Irish poets and Irish poetry beyond Ireland. Confirmed speakers include Carcanet poets Sinéad Morrissey, Tara Bergin, John F. Deane, Mary O’Malley, Martina Evans and Moya Cannon; Gerry Smith and John McAuliffe of The Irish Times, Sarah Byrne of The Well Review and Colette Bryce.
In November the press will celebrate in its home of Manchester over the weekend of 21st to 24th, opening with the Annual John Rylands Reading at the Rylands Library with readings from Kei Miller, Sinéad Morrissey and Matthew Welton on Thursday 21st November. This evening reading will be accompanied by a Collection Encounter, in which guests can look at specially selected items from Carcanet’s archive, which is held in the library. The readers will offer creative writing workshops earlier in the day.
During the afternoon of Saturday 23rd November there will be further Collection Encounters from the press' archive available to members of the public at the Rylands Library, including items surviving the 1996 Manchester bomb, which destroyed Carcanet’s offices. At the Whitworth Gallery there will be a special edition of Poets & Players, Manchester’s long-running poetry & music performance series.
The weekend’s celebrations will close with a special Sunday afternoon event at Chetham’s Library, in collaboration with Manchester Literature Festival, with special guests including Carol Rumens, Simon Armitage, Helen Mort, Zaffar Kunial and more. Full details and tickets will be available from early August.
Carcanet at 50: National Centre for Writing
In January Carcanet's second symposium will take place at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. The day will be comprised of two afternoon sessions, the first: Carcanet's core poets with Laura Scott, Mimi Khlavati, Caroline Bird, Alison Brackenbury, Philip Terry, Rory Waterman and Peter Scupham; the second: indie poetry publishing today with Carcanet’s Michael Schmidt, Nine Arches’ Jane Commane, Nathan Hamilton of Boiler House Press, Anthony Anaxagorou of Out-Spoken and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books. The second session will be chaired by Arts Council England’s Director of Literature, Sarah Crown, and will be followed by a celebratory reading later in the evening.
Later in 2020 the press will be holding symposiums in Cardiff, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh and in Newcastle. Further celebratory reading events will be held in Amsterdam, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and London. In March an exhibition will open at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, showing Carcanet’s rich history through archival materials. The show will run for six months.