Seren at 40 – In the beginning

This year we’re celebrating 40 years since Seren was established as Poetry Wales Press. In the first of a series of posts looking back at our history, founder Cary Archard shares an archive article written shortly after the press was first set up.

The following piece of optimism was written exactly forty years ago, at Seren’s birth. In it I gave a brief account of what led to the setting up of the press. Its name at the start was Poetry Wales Press and it wasn’t until 1989 that it became Seren. Two of the first three books were first collections of poetry by two young writers called Mike Jenkins and Nigel Jenkins (and encouraging new, young writers is still central to the press), the third was a miscellany of writing by the older, more established Dannie Abse. All three were close collaborations between publisher and authors. All three were produced without any public subsidy or support, though it’s fair to say quite soon such support was offered to enable the infant to grow. At the time, there were people who thought I was crazy, but the risk seems to have paid off.” – Cary Archard

Poetry Wales Press

Photo of Cary Archard by Martin W. Roberts

Sometimes I pretend to myself that my present position as small press publisher came about fortuitously. Circumstances were to blame, not I. After all, would anyone in his right mind enter such a risky business, even in a small way, at such an especially risky time? There may have been times in the past when a fairly bookish person might have longed to start his own press for all sorts of vaguely literary and romantic reasons, but is 1981 the time to emulate Keidrych Rhys or the Woolfs? Surely these hard-headed days are too uncomfortable for such dreamers?

On the surface (pretending circumstances were in control), things were like this. In the summer of 1979, Christopher Davies, the publishers of Poetry Wales, asked J. P. Ward and myself whether we would be willing to take over the publication of the magazine which they had produced and distributed for eleven years. There were probably many reasons for the publisher’s decision, but with the experience of hindsight, I have no doubt that a major consideration was the enormous degree of time and effort that is involved in the production of the magazine. John Ward and I welcomed the opportunity to be both editors and publishers and an agreement was reached which was satisfactory to the outgoing publishers and ourselves. We felt that the magazine couldn’t but benefit by being completely in the hands of its editors. Then, about the same time as our first number appeared in the summer of 1980, J. P. Ward discovered that the pressure of his other work was too great and he decided, reluctantly, to end his active involvement with the magazine. And so, Poetry Wales was left in the relatively inexperienced hands of the present editor who was forced by the exigencies of the situation to learn as much as he could about the business of publishing and distribution.

So, you see, it was, on the surface, circumstances that brought Poetry Wales into my hands. Yet that is too simple an explanation. I had already worked on the magazine for seven years and when you work on a small magazine you get to love it. You care about it and fuss over it as you would a child. (If you were to ask an editor’s family, they might say it assumes more importance than a child.) It’s very difficult to remain unmoved when you hear hard things said about it. Then, besides all this accumulated natural feeling, there was my desire that the magazine should not change its character, something which could happen should it fall into other hands. I saw (and see) its character as broad based, attempting to cover a variety of styles, presenting the best of what is being written in Wales­­–– primarily in English but most certainly in both languages. The magazine should avoid the coterie: no one should be able to talk about the typical Poetry Wales poem. The magazine’s tone, I believe, should be unpretentious and, as far as possible, non-political. (This does not mean, of course, that individual poems or articles might not be ‘political’. Neither am I so naïve as to imagine that political attitudes do not influence my judgements about poetry. An editor, I think, should be aware of this problem and try to compensate for his tendencies.) I am pleased when readers write in, as they have done, to tell me that the magazine is too left-wing, too respectable, too loose, too Welsh, not Welsh enough: all these conflicting views suggest the balance is about right.

The question remains: how did the magazine become the Press? Part of the answer is that from publishing the magazine I became interested in publishing books. After all, producing Poetry Wales is a bit like producing a quarterly paperback. Then there was my position as editor of the last six booklets in the Triskel poetry series which has been started by Meic Stephens in 1966 and which the publishers, Christopher Davies, has decided to discontinue. I knew from that editorial experience that there were good collections of poetry by young writers waiting to be published. (Indeed I am proud to have published among my first books the first book-length collections of two such fine poets as Mike and Nigel Jenkins.) Again, then, it could be said that circumstances spurred me on: some substitute was needed to replace the Triskel series. It was at this time that I began talking about my publishing ideas to Dannie Abse on our walks, near our homes, along the cliffs between Ogmore-by-Sea and Southerndown. I ought to mention here a particular feature that marks all small press publishing, namely, the close relationship that exists between writer and publisher. This active collaboration has been the most rewarding feature of all the books I have worked on so far. It may have been Dannie who had the original idea from which the Press Miscellany series has grown. Certainly, I doubt whether without his encouragement I would have started the press at all. The idea behind the Miscellany series was that I should publish a selection of a Welsh writer’s work to demonstrate his range and versatility, to get away from the idea that a writer was only a poet or novelist and that anything else he wrote could be safely disregarded. At the same time, some very interesting stories, articles and poems could be rescued from magazines. The first volume has already been published and those who had forgotten what an extraordinarily fine prose writer Dannie Abse is have been delighted by Miscellany One. Miscellany Two by Emyr Humphreys and Miscellany Three, a collection of unpublished writing by Alun Lewis, will be published later in the year.

These then were the circumstances that led to the first books, but I would be less than honest– less than human– were I to leave things at that. Actions are governed by beliefs as well as circumstances. One of my beliefs about the Welsh is that they lack confidence in their own achievements and especially in the achievements of their writers. (I’m talking here about the English speakers in particular.) This belief has been reinforced in different ways. To begin with, the story of a friend’s experience. Robert Watson was born in Newbridge and, until recently, taught in Gowerton. He writes articles and reviews and contributes to magazines like Tract, Use of English and Poetry Wales. He also writes novels, working long hours into the night often after a hard day’s teaching. The point of this story is that Robert hoped his novels would be published in Wales. However, Welsh publishers were not interested. Reluctantly, he left Wales to teach in England and soon after his first novel Events Beyond the Heartlands, set in Wales and a serious attempt to engage with contemporary issues, was published by Heinemann of London. It is ironic that Yr Academi Gymreig’s competition ‘A Novel for Wales’ should come too late for Robert Watson – and it says something about Welsh publishing that the publisher involved in the competition should be English. The competition might help a Welsh novelist to get his work published but it will do nothing to help restore the Welsh writer’s confidence in Welsh publishers.

Wherever I glance I seem to see this lack of confidence. When Book News produced a special issue last year for the Frankfurt Book Fair did it confidently support our contemporary English language writers? No. Instead we were given articles about writers such as David Jones and R. S. Thomas, safely established figures whose books are not published in Wales. When I turn to Professor Gwyn Jones’s anthology, The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English, I cannot help but notice how heavily he has lent on the part Welshness of established English poets like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas and on the translations from Welsh language writers, with the consequent neglect of many fine English language writers working in Wales today. Isn’t this another example of lack of confidence? Or look at the way the new magazine Arcade treats writers. Its series of profiles on writers is an excellent idea but what it has meant so far is that writers are treated as news personalities. Their writings have been largely neglected.

The problem, then, is a general lack of confidence in the achievements and potential of our writers, and at a time, too, when we have, I firmly believe, many good writers working in Wales. This is where I hope Poetry Wales Press can contribute something important. I want to publish new books of poetry regularly, and occasionally books of prose, of articles and criticism. The first three books were published without Welsh Arts Council grants but to continue without their support would mean publishing very infrequently. If the momentum is to be kept up, I shall need their financial help. And this is where I am not sure the present system of grant support is of the right kind. The present method of submitting each manuscript to the Literature Committee for separate consideration is too bureaucratic. If the ‘wrong’ reader is chosen by the Committee, your manuscript may not receive a grant. There are inevitable delays. Besides, no publisher worth his salt wants his judgements discussed and his plans altered by a committee. I think the Literature Committee ought to show more confidence in publishers and award block grants so that they can get on with their job. It seems to be inconsistent, for example, that a block grant can be awarded to a magazine like Poetry Wales which produces what are, in effect, four paperbacks a year but that a block grant cannot be made to a publisher to produce four unrelated books. I am confident that the Literature Committee which has made bold and imaginative decisions in the past (such as the creation of its own bookshop which has made an invaluable contribution to the literary life of Wales) will think constructively about this problem.

Robert Watson prefaced his first novel with a quotation of Nietszche which begins: ‘We no longer see anything these days that aspires to grow greater’. Placing the emphasis on ‘aspires’. I would like to think that Poetry Wales Press aspires to do something to improve the general state of publishing in Wales. Risking immodesty, I would like to think that its inception isn’t only related to personal circumstances but that it is also, in its own way, part of recent attempts (like Sally Jones’s Alun Books) to help Welsh writing ‘grow great’.

Celebrating 40 years of independent publishing in 2021

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