1. Mark Fisher (ed.), Letters to an editor (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1989), p. 3.
2. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 6.
3. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 4.
4. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 168.
5. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 169.
6. Fisher, Letters to an editor, pp. 4-5.
7. Michael Schmidt, Introduction to PN Review tenth year index (Manchester: Poetry Nation Review, 1982), p. 4.
8. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 54.
9. Fisher, Letters to an editor, p. 54.
Carcanet Press was founded at Pin Farm, South Hinksey, Oxford, by Michael Schmidt and Peter Jones, supported in their enterprise by Grevel Lindop and Gareth Reeves. The Press had its origins in the undergraduate poetry magazine Carcanet, which was edited by Schmidt when he was a student at Wadham College, and was designed to establish literary links between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (a 'carcanet' being a linked, jewelled necklace). In Schmidt's view, 'the original motive behind the press was a sense of grievance - that good new poetry was being wilfully ignored by the major publishers'.1 In the autumn issue of 1969, Carcanet announced a new series of seven poetry booklets, costing 4s. 6 d. each. Among the earliest of these pamphlet publications were collections by Peter Jones, Grevel Lindop, Gareth Reeves and Indian poet Ishan Kapur. The first series saw subscribers and patrons exceeding 300, and proved successful enough both for further series to be issued and for a subsequent expansion into book format.
By 1972, however, the Press was suffering severe financial difficulties. Assistance came from Professor C.B. Cox of Manchester University, who persuaded the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to award the University of Manchester a grant to bring Michael Schmidt to Manchester as Special Lecturer in Poetry in the English Department. Schmidt brought Carcanet Press with him, and for the first fifteen years of its life, the Press essentially remained a joint venture between Schmidt and Jones; for three years following its move north it operated from the spare bedroom of a semi-detached house in Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire. During this time the Carcanet list expanded, already demonstrating some of the hallmarks which came to characterize the Press: a commitment to publishing work by new authors; the publication of poetry in translation (Daniel Weissbort became instrumental in establishing the editorial direction of Carcanet's translated poetry list, the earliest publications including work by Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Nazim Hikmet and Fernando Pessoa); and the publication of work by twentieth-century writers who Schmidt felt had been unjustly neglected or excluded from the mainstream (Elizabeth Daryush, for example, had a pamphlet published by Carcanet in 1971, leading to a revival of interest in her work). In 1972 the Fyfield Books series was also established; this aimed to provide readers with affordable editions of work by previously undervalued poets of the past, from the medieval period onwards; it was inaugurated with selections of Thomas Chatterton, Richard Crashaw, George Peele and Christopher Smart.
In 1975 the Press moved to Manchester's Corn Exchange; an IBM 'electronic composer' was purchased and Schmidt and Jones were responsible for setting many Carcanet books during the period 1975-1982. The Press continued to grow through the 1970s, publishing work by a number of well-known and established poets, many of whom became mainstays of the Carcanet list, including Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Davie, Christopher Middleton, Michael Hamburger and Edwin Morgan. When C.H. Sisson initially submitted a new collection to the Press, Schmidt almost rejected it; on reconsideration, he found that Sisson's work acted on him as 'a slow imaginative earthquake'; it led to an adjustment in his poetic taste and 'an increased openness to varieties of modernism',2 which prompted him to take on work by writers such as John Ashbery and John Ash. Schmidt came to have a huge admiration for Sisson's work, and the two writers corresponded on an almost daily basis; Carcanet also became Sisson's principal publisher. As well as collections and selections of work by individual poets, the Press also issued themed anthologies of poetry and literary criticism, as well as collections of essays.
By the end of the decade, Carcanet had established itself as one of the major poetry publishing houses outside London. Its provincial location was always an essential part of its character: '[i]t could be characterized as provincial without being parochial, cosmopolitan but not metropolitan'.3 Despite its non-metropolitan location, it had by this time developed an international reputation. The Press was, however, chronically underfunded; while he wished to continue its expansion, Schmidt anticipated problems from the poetry publishing boom of the early 1980s, fearing that Carcanet would be unable to maintain is role as a leading publisher of new poets. In 1982 Matthew Evans, Chairman of Faber, suggested that Schmidt contact Robert Gavron. Gavron admired the Press's list and decided to buy it, a change which inaugurated a new more businesslike approach to the Press's operation. More editorial staff were taken on, and in 1984 an office was opened in New York. Although this American branch was forced to close in 1988, it played a significant role in giving Carcanet authors exposure in the American media. There was also a shift in policy in the 1980s: the focus of the list turned back to primary literature and moved away from literary criticism; there was also a new focus on fiction as well as poetry. German and Italian fiction in translation initiated this trend, but with the appointment of Mike Freeman as fiction editor in 1983 the Press began to publish books by writers working in the experimental tradition of the English novel, like Christine Brooke-Rose. This diversification and development characterizes the history of Carcanet; other series established by the Press during the 1980s and 1990s included lives and letters, aspects of Portugal and film books. Its core poetry list also remained 'catholic, not only in its response to experimental writing...but also in political terms';4 the press retained its commitment to publishing work by new and contemporary poets, and 'the neglected poets of this and earlier centuries'.5
Carcanet Press was forced to move from the Corn Exchange in June 1996, when the building was severely damaged by a terrorist bomb. It found a new home in Blackfriars Street, Salford, before moving back to Manchester and taking up residence in Cross Street in 2002. Now in its fourth decade, the Press is one of the UK's leading literary publishers and has consolidated its international reputation. It continues to maintain a comprehensive and diverse list of modern and classic poetry in English and in translation; it also took over the poetry list of Oxford University Press in 1998. Fiction, lives and letters, and literary criticism also still play an important part in the Press's publishing schedule. Carcanet maintains its commitment to publishing and promoting the entire oeuvre of particular writers considered significant by Michael Schmidt (notable examples being the extensive publishing programmes of work by Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Graves and Ford Madox Ford). The Fyfield series also flourishes, bringing the work of earlier poets to a new generation. In addition, the Press continues to publish work by Carcanet stalwarts, like Edwin Morgan, who have maintained their loyalty to the Press over considerable periods of time. Its poetry list encompasses both a range of traditions and a range of countries throughout the English-speaking world. Particular strengths include poetry from the whole of the UK, Ireland and the United States, but poets writing in English from every continent - including the Caribbean, Africa and Asia - are represented. Poetry and fiction in translation also retains an important presence, with Portuguese, Italian and Russian literature being a particular strength.
Closely related to, but independent from, Carcanet Press is its sister magazine PN Review, which was founded in 1973 as a hardback biannual journal called Poetry Nation. Initially edited by Schmidt and C.B. Cox, it aimed to provide a space for the work of new poets to be seen and subjected to criticism and assessment; Schmidt saw it as 'a provincial podium for non-provincial poets'.6 In 1976 it was replaced by a new magazine, PN Review, which was wider in scope than its predecessor, focusing not just on contemporary literature but also taking in history, religion and politics, in an attempt to reflect the wider society in which literature is created. It contained a mixture of new poetry in English and translation, essays, review articles, interviews and book reviews. Schmidt has cited the examples set by Edgell Rickword's Calendar of Modern Letters, Octavio Paz's Plural and later Vuelta, and David Wright's X as important influences in shaping the magazine in its new form.7 C.B. Cox left the magazine after the second issue, and for the rest of the decade the editorial board comprised Schmidt (as General Editor), Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson. The nature of the magazine was oppositional, 'standing against what the editors perceived as the left's hegemony of intellectual ideas',8 and it also set itself up as an alternative to the London literary establishment, as embodied in Ian Hamilton's The New Review; however, it also allowed voice to figures from the English left 'whose absence from the consciousness of the soi-disant radicals impoverished their grasp.'9 Schmidt subsequently aimed to lighten the magazine with the introduction of News and Notes and Reports sections. While the politics of the magazine were much discussed and debated, poetry always remained central; Schmidt used the magazine as a testing ground for new talent, and many writers who first had their work published in PN Review went on to publish collections with Carcanet Press. The magazine, however, always remained independent of the Press, and Carcanet books did not necessarily receive good reviews in its pages. In addition to new writing, there was a continued commitment to publishing literature in translation, re-assessments of various important but neglected writers, and work by well-established poets.
PN Review continued as a quarterly until 1979, when publication became bi-monthly. Davie and Sisson remained on the board until 1984, and since then various co-ordinating and contributing editors have worked on the magazine, although Michael Schmidt retains his role as General Editor. The magazine continues to appear six times a year, and includes an editorial, letters, news, articles, interviews, features, poems, translations, and a substantial book review section. It is now regarded as one of the leading contemporary literary journals, following in the tradition of the Calendar of Modern Letters, Criterion, and Scrutiny. Some special numbers devoted to specific issues have appeared, inaugurated by the highly successful Crisis for Cranmer and King James issue of 1979, which voiced concern over the sidelining of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The magazine also has a tradition of publishing special supplements devoted to specific writers; figures honoured in this way over the years have been as diverse as I.A. Richards, Thom Gunn, Edgell Rickword and John Ashbery.