On the back of a double Forward Prize win and the acquisition of Anvil Press, Carcanet founder Michael Schmidt reflects on an explosive legacy.
Can you tell me about Carcanet and your background?
I started Carcanet in 1969 as a university undergraduate with no publishing background. I was a Mexican citizen who had fallen in love with English poetry and decided to make a living from it. The press has been undergoing a quiet revolution ever since it started. Like the maxim says: “We must change to stay the same.”We are now pushing 50 years old and when you are so long in the tooth, the great challenge is to not get set in your ways.
Though I set up the press when I was an undergraduate, it has somehow stayed young, thanks in some cases to disasters, and in other [cases] to working with a changing team of young colleagues who, while respecting what the press has been, realise that the past is very much not the present, or the future. Our past is full of major exciting events: Nobel Prize-winners, loads of Pulitzers, several Queen’s Gold Medalists. The present is full of excitement, too. Earlier this year our poets received two Forward Prizes: Sasha Dugdale for a long poem published in our magazine PN Review, and Vahni Capildeo, the major prize for her large, experimental collection Measures of Expatriation.
Carcanet merged with Anvil Press last year. How did that come about, and do you have any plans to expand further?
Anvil Press was one of our oldest fellow publishers in the poetry field, with a superb list of contemporary and classic translation and some wonderful Anglophone poets. It was born at roughly the same time as Carcanet and we have run parallel courses. When its founder Peter Jay decided to retire last year, we decided to add the Anvil Press to our list. Carcanet now publishes work from 37 languages and perhaps as many as a third of the nations of the world. We have no plans for further expansion. When we absorbed the Oxford University Press poetry list [in 1999] we felt it was a good thing to do: it wasn’t something we were angling for. The thought that Anvil might disappear troubled me because it was such an important ingredient in our poetry diet, and it was natural that we should get together. So we are not in the market for acquiring anything else at the moment.
Can you tell me about how Carcanet’s list has evolved over the years?
Carcanet has always been at heart a poetry list. We did, in the 1980s, have a highly distinguished fiction list, publishing first novels by Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago and many others in translation.
The nature of our poetry list has changed. Some editors get more conservative as they grow older. I find I have moved in other directions, retaining a love of richly formal poetry but incorporating more experimental and radical writers, so that today we have one of the most diverse lists. I hesitate to call it eclectic because I don’t like what that word suggests, I would prefer to call it “catholic”, in the sense of universal, not with any religious aura.
In 1983 we were able to exercise considerably greater freedom—we lived in fear of bankruptcy for the first 14 years—because [Lord] Robert Gavron [owner of The Folio Society and Carcanet Press, before his death last year] acquired Carcanet and gave us the kind of financial underpinning we needed in order to continue. And my chairman for many years has been Kate Gavron [Lord Gavron’s wife], an experienced publisher and the press’ excellent mainstay.
Have there been any pivotal years or moments in your history?
It’s hard to single one out…except 1996, when we were blown out of our offices in the Corn Exchange, Manchester, by an IRA bomb. It came at a time when I was considering a change of career, [but the bomb] tied me into Carcanet as a life sentence.
It was very odd to go home on a Friday, leaving everything prepared for the next week, only to be forbidden to return to your office for several weeks, and to have to rebuild the business—by then it was almost 25 years old—at a distance: without records, without phone numbers. The press and the BBC were immediately interested; fellow publishers, authors and agents rallied round; and we re- established ourselves in exile, across the river in Salford for a few years. This was before the time of iPhones and e-mails, so reconstruction was a slow process.
Then, as now, we received hundreds of submissions. The submission pile was enormous, and rather overdue at the time of the bomb. I was saved a great deal of slush-pile reading, and when months later someone wrote demanding a decision on their work, I was able to adduce the bomb and elicit sympathy. Some even sent monetary contributions…along with their resubmitted manuscripts.
As Carcanet is based in Manchester, what are your thoughts on the north becoming a “publishing powerhouse”?
In terms of poetry, the north has long been a powerhouse. We have Bloodaxe, outside of Newcastle, which has had a far bigger impact than its commercial size would suggest. We have Arc, a leading publisher of contemporary poetry in translation. There are other independent poetry presses in the north without which the contemporary reader would be deprived of choice. Other areas of publishing seem to be growing up here also, but where poetry is concerned, the powerhouse has been powering for a good four decades up north.
It is probably important that we are in Manchester, and have been since 1972. It’s a congenial and rapidly changing city. It is not London, so we have been able to sidestep the emollient and, it sometimes seems, self- absorbed publishing culture of the capital, to follow our eccentric internationalism, and to belong closely to a lively literary and library community in this amazing city.
What are your thoughts on Brexit?
For a publisher with a substantial and distinguished European list, as well as a wider international list, Brexit was unexpected and traumatic. My main fear is that the British poetry reader, already reluctant to read poetry in translation, will become even more reluctant; and the contractual implications for future rights deals fill me with misgivings. The greatest sadness is that English was effectively the language of the EU, and it is hard to see how it can be in future. It’s as though a wall has been erected between us and our dear friends—I speak as a publisher, writer, and citizen. We will get over the wall, as we Mexicans would get over Mr Trump’s wall, were he to build it. But the decision on Brexit was a Trumpish decision, it seems to me, the consequences of which are still to register.
Picture: Ben Schmidt