A couple of weeks ago, Chris Holifield asked me to write a piece about the history of Anvil Press for the Poetry Book Society website. I began to imagine what I might say, to cast my mind back forty years to when the PBS was run from the Arts Council's literature department. Anvil's association with the PBS has always been friendly. Not a mutual admiration society by any means, but I've always thought of the PBS, along with the Poetry Society, as an essential component of the poetry world: an ally to poets and publishers in the business of trying to get poetry in book form to the people who need it, want it or are discovering it.
But when I came to write this, I could think of little but the events of 30 March. By now, you will know that the Arts Council has cut off the PBS's funding completely from April 2012. Of all the decisions made by that body over the years, this seems to me one of the most inexplicable and misguided. I very much hope that it will find a graceful way to change it over the coming months.
Anvil Press has its own corner to fight, though I would not for a moment suggest that our loss of 42% in funding for 2012-2015 is anything in comparison to the complete withdrawal of funds from the PBS - and from my fellow publishers Enitharmon, Arc and Flambard. But there is no corner to fight, no appeal against these decisions.
The priorities in public funding for literature seem to be a well-kept secret. True, the criteria were laid out in the ten-year plan "Achieving Great Art for Everyone" document; but these were vision-things, a mixture of PR and manifesto, not policies tailored to each of the art forms. They leave one none the wiser about specific literature priorities, the rationale for the balancing of what is now called the "portfolio", apart from wanting a balanced spread over the country.
This decision-making is far from being a transparent process. We aren't given clear reasons for losses or gains, presumably because these would involve comparative judgements about organizations. Maybe it will all change again in 2015. I thought at first that the PBS decision must be either an attempt either to force it into going for alternative regular funding by fund-raising - not an option likely to be practical or even successful, but I may be and hope I am wrong - or a signal that the PBS's activities might or even should be taken over by another organization. And for that there's only one candidate, as far as I can see: the Poetry Society.
Mergers between the two organizations have been mooted a few times, starting with when the PBS occupied premises in the basement of the old Poetry Society's Earls Court Square house, in the 80s. The idea has never taken root and neither body, as far as I know, has had much enthusiasm for it.
Then I thought, that leaves one other explanation: that the Arts Council thinks that the PBS is not needed at all. Can that be the case? I know people who are members who greatly value just the basic service of the Choices. As a publisher who has occasionally (though not as often as I've thought we should!) benefited from PBS Choices and Recommendations, I know how important these are not only because they sell extra books, but because they provide support, encouragement and publicity for poets and publishers, large and small, alike.
There are anomalies, like the surprising fact that none of Carol Ann Duffy's first four books which Anvil published between 1985 and 1993 obtained a PBS Choice. But the PBS has independent selectors choosing books; they are rotated regularly, so no charges of cosy poetry-mafia stitch-ups can be justified. With those books, we simply had honest personal judgements from the selectors: this book, in our opinion, is better than the others.
Thinking of the independence of the selectors puts me in mind of the days when the Arts Council's decision-making was done in an entirely different way. Each of the art-forms had an advisory panel - unpaid - which met periodically, and a chairperson who liaised more closely with the department's director. It's a long time since this system was abolished and I forget the reasons. But it seemed to me a good model. The literature panel included a mix of publishers, librarians, booksellers, book trade people and writers. Often its members would be asked to back provisional decisions proposed by the director in consultation with the chair. But they would not always kowtow and would often insist on inconveniently full discussion of subjects either tabled in the agenda or not. I remember this because in my youth I was a ‘junior member' of the panel for a couple of years. I'm quite certain that under such a regime there would have been no question of the PBS being cut off.
My speculations about the PBS decision were ended with a letter in the Times of 4 April 2011. Antonia Byatt, Director of Literature, defended the Arts Council's handling of its literature budget, commenting that "the Poetry Book Society's reach and distribution was not as wide or effective as other applicants, which also demonstrated high quality work." She also points out that £1m is being invested in "poetry for the Olympics, much of it engaging young people." So that is how it is.
As for Anvil, we have a lot of thinking to do about the future, some painful planning. We are trying to do it slowly and calmly.
Founded in 1968 by Peter Jay and now based in Greenwich, south-east London, Anvil Press is England's longest-standing independent poetry publisher. We specialise in contemporary English poets - with a leavening of Irish and American - and in a range of translated poetry, from ancient classics to modern and contemporary poets. www.anvilpresspoetry.com