Seren at 40 – From strength to strength

Earlier this year, we shared an archive article written by our founder Cary Archard in 1981 shortly after Seren, then called Poetry Wales Press, branched out into traditional publishing. In a second post, Cary shared some of the long-lasting friendships which helped Seren grow into the press it is today. In this new post, he reflects on some of the great books and writers we have published over the years, many of which continue to resonate today.

From Poetry Wales Press to Seren

It may have all begun with the realisation that many poets in Wales were not being published but soon my ambition widened. Not just poets but writers were being neglected. So within Poetry Wales Press, the Seren imprint was set up for prose, and in 1989 the name Poetry Wales Press was quietly dropped and the briefer, friendlier, more aspirational SEREN became the masthead (much easier to fit on the spine too) in recognition that the intention now was to publish the full range of genres – from poetry, of course, to fiction, biography, essays, even art and photography books.

Seren logo

I must mention two early debates. At the start, publishers in Wales applied for grant support (from the Arts Council) on a book by book process. Seren initiated a fundamental change when it became the first publisher to receive a block grant which enabled us to plan an annual programme of publications. The result was startling: from half a dozen titles a year to a dozen and soon to twenty or more. The press’s performance was regularly assessed but the new approach was clearly ground-breaking and soon other publishers in Wales benefitted from the same practice. The second debate could be more heated. Should Seren confine itself to Welsh authors? There was certainly a need. The question was; was Seren a publishing house in Wales or a publishing house for Wales? If a good proposal came from outside Wales, should it be disregarded? What if it made sense commercially to publish? Finally it was decided the focus would always be on Wales and its writers but there should also be a recognition of the wider world, its influences and opportunities. (Even extended later to books in translation.)

The growth of the Series

One of the fruits of the block grant approach was our series of Series. One of the first was the comprehensive Border Lines Series edited by the remarkable poet and critic, John Powell Ward. With over twenty titles it included introductory biographies of writers, composers and artists of the Welsh Marches. A reader might have expected to see Elgar, Vaughan, Margiad Evans, Kilvert and Housman, but the Series also included Chatwin, Ellis Peters and Francis Brett Young. Its distinctive yellow and green jacketed volumes have now become collectors’ items. This was soon followed by the ‘REAL’ Series, edited by the wonderful Peter Finch who started with his own idiosyncratic ‘Real’ guides to Cardiff and then persuaded other writers to write their own very personal takes on their home towns. With more than two dozen titles, the Series seems to grow annually. If you want to find out about the real Port Talbot, Cambridge or Glasgow you know where to go.

Left to Right: Margiad Evans Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (Border Lines), Real Cardiff The Flourishing City Peter Finch (Real Series) white Ravens Owen Sheers (New Stories from the Mabinogion)

A very different sort of series ran from 2009 to 2013. In New Stories from the Mabinogion, edited by Penny Thomas, ten contemporary Welsh authors chose one of the medieval tales to reinvent and retell in their own ways. The result: ‘Seren’s series….may be the greatest service to the Welsh national epic since Lady Charlotte Guest (The Guardian)’. A mention should also be made of the look of these books and of Matthew Bevan’s beautiful designs.

Three first novels

From all the wonderful books published in the last forty years, I’d like to draw attention to three first novels. In 1988 Seren published Christopher Meredith’s Shifts, a novel that has become a classic of post-industrial Welsh life. It’s that rare thing, a fiction of real working lives. ‘A beautiful, under-stated first novel. More than a bitter, angry novel, Shifts is a sad and loving one. The prose is spare and poetic, at once plain and rich, musical in its rhythms of speech and clear descriptions’, sang the New York Times. It was followed by many more books of poetry and prose by Meredith, most recently Please and Still, that Seren has been privileged to publish.

Left to right: Shifts Christopher Meredith (Seren Classics), Mr Vogel Lloyd Jones, The Last Hundred Days Patrick McGuinness

A 2004 debut novel began with ‘Many years ago a strange incident took place in this town. The event, which went unobserved by the rest of the world, would have sunk into obscurity here also, but for the scribblings of an old bar tender and dogsbody at the Blue Angel’. This was Mr Vogel by Lloyd Jones a man who had walking, crisscrossed the whole of Wales absorbing its stories and characters out of which he fashioned a book which stretched the conventions of novel writing to breaking point. Jan Morris, no less, called it, ‘One of the most remarkable books ever written on the subject of Wales’. It went on to win the McKitterick Award and be shortlisted for the Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Lloyd’s second novel, Mr Cassini, won the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2007. His novels remain two of the most exciting and original books which Seren has published.

And the third of these first novels: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, who was better known at the time as a poet, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011. Set in a paranoid Bucharest in 1989, it vividly captures the tensions of Ceausescu’s last days. This thrilling story was probably the most commercially successful of all Seren’s novels. ‘A wonderfully good read, giving one a convincing taste of how it might be to live under the most surreal kind of communist rule…’ was typical of the reviews it garnered. It won the Wales Book of the Year Award for 2012 and the Writer’s Guild Award for Fiction. Patrick’s exciting ‘detective’ novel, Throw Me to the Wolves (Jonathan Cape) won the Encore Award. Seren has recently published Patrick’s encyclopaedic, Real Oxford in our Real Series.

Cary Archard

Read more:

Seren at 40: In the Beginning An archive article written by Cary Archard shortly after Seren’s inception in 1981.

Seren at 40: Looking back – Seren FriendshipsCary reflects on the long-lasting friendships that have helped Seren during the last 40 years.

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Seren at 40: Looking Back – Seren Friendships

As we continue to celebrate our 40th anniversary, our founder Cary Archard looks back at some of the long-lasting friendships which helped Seren grow into the press it is today.

Seren Friendships

Looking back, I’m struck by how important friendships have been to Seren’s progress the last forty years. ‘They came into our lives unasked for’ is the first line of ‘The Uninvited’, the first and earliest poem in Dannie Abse’s Collected Poems. I first met Dannie at a reading soon after he and his wife Joan bought Green Hollows, their home in Ogmore-by-Sea, in the early Seventies. It was the start of a forty year friendship. From the beginning of Seren, Dannie was an enthusiastic supporter, always particularly keen we should encourage and develop our poets. When within a year of start-up, running things from home became physically impossible, my living room already overflowing with parcels of books and a bigger space needed, Dannie offered the use of the annexe to his Ogmore house.

Black and white photo of poet Dannie Abse.
Dannie Abse

Ogmore-by-Sea was a wonderful place to be based. From the upstairs office window you could look across the grey sea to Devon or muse on the terrors of ‘the eternal, murderous fanged Tusker Rock’ (‘A letter from Ogmore-by-Sea’). Across the road was the Craig-yr-Eos Hotel (since turned into flats) where at lunchtimes you could discuss work over a pie and seek inspiration at the bar. Subsequent office locations have never been so romantic or so characterful. Seren’s super modern, hi-fied, all modcons, present office in the middle of Bridgend just doesn’t have the same charm. Looking back it’s tempting to think that life generally was better then, the pace slower, the publishing world kinder. A time when friendship influenced the decisions. Pressure now seems greater. Success however modest has its price perhaps. Dannie has been much missed since his death in 2014.

(A footnote: Dannie’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve set in Cardiff in the thirties and Forties, published in 1954, never appeared on my Cardiff grammar school syllabus; instead for O level we were offered Harrow and the British army in Churchill’s My Early Life.)

From one chance friendship to another. Also in the early Seventies, I found myself teaching English in the Cynon Valley where I had grown up. I’d applied for the post of a history teacher in Swansea but missed the deadline for applications. Some kind officer in the Glamorgan office had noticed I had appropriate qualifications and sent me the details of the English job. I was lucky. Fortunate also to have arrived there just before Mrs Lewis, highly respected and loved Senior Mistress and German teacher, retired. So it was, ‘totally unasked for’, that I became a colleague of Gweno, wife of Alun Lewis (1915-1944), one of Wales’s finest twentieth century writers. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Lewis’s poetry and stories, even though I had grown up in the same valley. And as far as I can remember, his name had never been mentioned in my grammar school education.

Covers of Morlais, Alun Lewis Collected Poems and Alun, Gweno and Fred (John Pikoulis)
Covers of Morlais, Alun Lewis Collected Poems and Alun, Gweno and Freda (John Pikoulis)

Gweno and I became friends. It was a friendship which led to Seren’s most important publishing achievement, namely the publication of Alun Lewis’s Collected Poems, Collected Stories, and his Letters to my Wife. (Lewis is a wonderful letter writer; comparing him to Keats no exaggeration.) When Gweno returned to her family home in Aberystwyth, I often made that steep climb to ‘The Chateau’, a striking red house, high on the hill overlooking the bay. We talked about Alun, the young Cynon Valley boy (he was under thirty when he died in Burma), his family (I got to know Mair his sister later on), her involvement in his second book of poetry, Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets, her guardianship of his reputation, and the progress of John Pikoulis’s biography. To be entrusted to publish the author’s work by his wife was a remarkable privilege. It was an unforgettable day when on one visit she brought me a packet inside which was a faded manuscript tied in a red ribbon. It was Alun’s copy of his unpublished early novel, Morlais, which Seren published in 2015, Lewis’s centenary. Just in time. Gweno sadly died the year after.

Cary Archard

Dannie Abse: A Source Book is available on the Seren website: £14.99

Morlais by Alun Lewis is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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To celebrate our anniversary we’re asking our readers to share their favourite Seren books from the last 40 years on social media. Tag us in your photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #Seren40.

Find out more about how Seren was founded in our previous Seren at 40 post: In the beginning

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

What’s your favourite Seren book from the last 40 years? We’d love to know! Tag us in your photos on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #Seren40.

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