Sam Adams has been a major figure in Welsh literature for nearly sixty years. Here he charts the work of poetry publishers Carcanet, who celebrate their 50th birthday this year, and looks at the work they have done in spotlighting contemporary Welsh poetry, starting with the anthology Adams himself edited in 1972.
I am not sure I had heard of Carcanet in 1972 or thereabouts, when I was asked to edit Ten Anglo-Welsh Poets. The Welsh publishers of that period I knew well enough, but this one was based in Manchester and had been founded only a couple of years before by Michael Schmidt, a recent graduate of Oxford University who, I subsequently discovered, carried a Mexican passport. He nursed me and my selection of poets and poems through the press to publication in 1974. It was a rare opportunity to bring English-language poets from Wales before a wider public and for that alone Carcanet’s 50th would deserve to be celebrated here. But over the years since then the connection has been strengthened by many individual ties.
The ‘Carcanet Authors’ listed on the back of the dust-jacket of Ten Anglo-Welsh Poets include Roger Garfitt, Michael Hamburger, Edwin Morgan, Delmore Schwarz, Jon Silkin, C H Sisson, alongside Vladimir Mayakovsky, Guillaume Apollinaire, Nazim Hikmet, Takagi Kyozo, Fernando Pessoa in translation, and reprinted classics: Barnes, Bridges, Chatterton, Sterne. These, remember, were the early days of the press, but the compass had already been set — new poetry from the wider English-speaking world, works in translation from a range of languages and cultures, and a selection of classics. The direction of travel has not deviated with the passage of time, while the array of literary riches gathered on the journey has widened and deepened.
The number of Carcanet writers from Wales has increased since that first anthology in 1974.
Among the translated works we find The Adulterer’s Tongue: Six Welsh Poets edited by Robert Minhinnick; among the classics Henry Vaughan’s Olor Iscanus (Swan of Usk). There are two invaluable sources for the poetry and life of Edward Thomas, a selection of the writings of W H Davies, wonderful reminders of the extraordinary poetic gifts of Lynette Roberts and Vernon Watkins and, bringing us bang up to date, collections of poems by Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Patrick McGuinness and Rowan Williams.
The archive of the bi-monthly magazine PN Review, a glowing ornament of the press, reveals a fine crop of Welsh or Wales-based writers in prose and verse including Jeremy Hooker, Jean Earle, Matthew Francis, Philip Gross, Gwyneth Lewis, Richard Poole, Anne Cluysenaar, M Wynn Thomas and Richard Gwyn, while I have been allowed to keep a regular Welsh presence in more than 130 issues of the magazine since 1982.
Carcanet is not a big publishing house, other than in terms of quality, ambition and sheer endeavour. About fifty new books are added each year to its in-print backlist of over 800 titles. Its reach is world-wide, and it has earned the endorsement of writers whose names resonate. Seamus Heaney praised its commitment to publishing work in translation and its ‘admirable concern to keep lines open to writing in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and America.’ To George Steiner, ‘In Britain, the most adventurous list in poetry and fiction is that being printed according to the ideals of a small press by Carcanet, away from London.’ In Frank Kermode’s view Carcanet is ‘beautifully independent, skilfully managed, and by people with such exceptional literary taste.’ Frederic Raphael wrote, ‘Its list relies on the vision and faith and the energy of people who care about books and values.’
If there is one whose vision, faith, energy and care about books and values readers everywhere should be grateful for, it is Michael Schmidt. How he has maintained a distinguished career as an academic at the universities of Manchester, Glasgow and Cambridge, while writing colossal and valuable critical surveys of the novel, of poets and poetry, as well as his own novels and poetry collections, and at the same time fulfilling the roles of Editorial and Managing Director of Carcanet Press and editor of PN Review — and a great deal more — is, frankly, beyond speculation. What’s left to say? Congratulations to Carcanet on its Fiftieth Birthday and warmest thanks to Michael Schmidt.