Carcanet, now in its fifth decade, was named Sunday Times Small Publisher of the Year in 2000. Our authors have scored five Nobel Prizes, nine Queen's Gold Medals for Poetry, eight Pulitzer Prizes... If there are divisions in poetry publishing, then we are, as Lord (Matthew) Evans said when he was MD of Faber, Manchester's third most famous team.
We publish a varied list of modern and classic poetry in English and in translation. FyfieldBooks - popularly-priced selections from European and American classics of ancient to modern times - are at the core of our activities. We also publish some fiction, Lives & Letters and literary criticism. Our e-book list is just getting off the ground. And PN Review, with more than two hundred issues in its four controversial and lively decades, also emanates from Carcanet. Its online archive is now complete, one of the major resources of modern poetry.
The web is crucial to Carcanet. Our website is conceived as a marketplace, but also as a major source of information on our authors, with interviews, reviews and features on their work.
It all began by accident. A Mexican undergraduate at Oxford who imagined he was a poet and had an editorial vocation took over a struggling little magazine called Carcanet. The struggle has not ceased though the magazine died, the undergraduate graduated, became British, and to support his meagre enterprise turned into a teacher.
Certain books have shaped our development. Edwin Morgan's Scots translations of Mayakovsky, for instance, and C H Sisson's for Collected Poems; Donald Davie's In the Stopping Train and John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Elizabeth Jennings's Growing Points and Christopher Middleton's The Lonely Suppers of W V Balloon. In more recent years the books of Eavan Boland, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and others have directed and re-directed our sense of what poetry can do and be.
Just now my colleagues and I (eight of us now, full and part time) are sending to press New Poetries V. This anthology introduces work by twenty-two poets, varying in age from their early twenties to their late sixties, from around the Anglophone world. Several of these writers will have first collections with Carcanet. In our long life we have published early (and often later) work of - among many others - John Ash, Sujata Bhatt, Caroline Bird, John Burnside, Sophie Hannah, Mimi Khalvati, Kate Kilalea, Roger Langley, Kei Miller, Sinead Morrissey, Andrew Motion, Vikram Seth and Matthew Welton.
It's clear from this list, which could be extended, that we like a confusing range of work. There is no Carcanet type, but we are convinced that poetry is an intelligent art, that thought and feeling are not at loggerheads. We are excited by formal innovation and the surprise which comes from brilliant form or brilliant transgression. We are not looking for particular subjects or themes, we resist the kinds of poetry that aspire to be instrumental. We find what we are looking for even despite the plausible submissions which, many of them, are polished and perfected in workshops, the poets graded like schoolchildren, eggs or apples.
Publishing the new has always for Carcanet entailed doing what justice a small press can do to the substantial and often neglected writers in mid-career and those older writers who are central to our poetry. We believe in a dialogue between poets and poems. The best writing is often the best-read writing.
Shakespeare calls holidays 'captain jewels in a carcanet'. A carcanet (pronounced KAR-ka-nett) is a 'jewelled necklace' with an etymological skeleton in its cupboard. Its ancestor is the Old French carcan, 'a slave's halter', which might seem more appropriate than a gorget as an emblem for a publishing house.
Carcanet the literary magazine was founded in 1962. It had fallen on hard times by October 1967 when I took it over. Times got harder still. In 1969 as a swansong the magazine produced a few pamphlets: poetry by new writers from Britain, India and the United States, and a book of translations. The reviews were encouraging. In 1970-1971 Carcanet Press became Ltd. The swansong continues, the bird having upped sticks and left Matthew Arnold's (and Robert Graves's) South Hinksey, Oxford, for its long home in Mrs Gaskell's and Thomas de Quincey's Manchester.
The Present Tense
'Continue to build' is what independent presses do. They build readership, backlist, and some kind of legitimacy. Carcanet makes books available and, in an age of disposables, keeps them in print. Our e-book list is on the runway and most of our new titles will appear simultaneously in paper and electronic form.
Carcanet enjoys Arts Council support and is free to range more widely than commercial publishers dare to do. Its list includes, alongside new writers, major authors from the earlier centuries, figures readers and writers need to know if they are to get a hold on the Modern and its aftermaths. Our commitments involve the mammoth Ford Madox Ford, Robert Graves and Hugh MacDiarmid projects.
Our focal interest is literature in the many Englishes now spoken and written. Since the age of the venerable Bede, translation has been crucial to the growth of English literatures. Carcanet is active there, producing translations of the classics and of new work from around the world. Editorial continuity has generated a list of deep coherence and of innovation.
In an age teased by post-Modern relativism and post-millennial uncertainty, literary value can play second fiddle to the demon profit and those other demons of political and cultural fashion. Carcanet plays a long game in this context. We base our activities on the best practice of last century. Great lists were forged there - some of which did not survive independently into the twenty-first century.
The future will belong to the e-book and iPod. Nothing wrong with that: the Poetry Book Society will survive and thrive, forests will be saved, and poetry will not change, it will simply be read in a different format and distributed in a different way. The transition will take less time than the move from the manuscript book produced in the scriptorium to the products of printing presses. You, dear reader, are scanning this on a screen. And I - I am composing it on one. Let me e-mail it as an attachment now to Chris Holifield at the PBS. It is an institution without which Carcanet and other independent presses might not have become visible and flourished. It is one of those institutions which grow with the times but whose values are stable and resolute.
Michael Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University. He is founder and Editorial-Managing director of Carcanet and General Editor of PN Review. He has written and translated novels, poetry and criticism, and is a literary historian of poetry (Lives of the Poets) and fiction.