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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Friday Poem – ‘Even in dreamscapes‘ by Christopher Meredith

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Even in dreamscapes’ by Christopher Meredith from his most recent collection Still.

This cover shows a painting of a snowy scene with the dark branches of a tree in the foreground.

Christopher Meredith’s new poetry collection Still, uses the title word as a fulcrum to balance various paradoxical concerns: stillness and motion, memory and forgetting, sanity and madness, survival and extinction. Lively and thought-provoking, this is a beautifully crafted, humane and intelligent collection.

“Lyrical, always surprising, Meredith ‘fixes stillness’ in absences here. His perfect ear tunes in so precisely – especially to the natural world, it’s ‘edge of sense’ – we are left haunted á la Frost, by a deep lonliness in the human condition.” – Paul Henry

Even in dreamscapes

Even in dreamscapes Breughel understood
the movement of the real north

how the inimical gorgeous cold
is always coming or just gone or here.

Hunching figures lurch and pass
a gusting fire in the black-legged woods.

Barking and the stink of breath are coiled
in the polyphony of canine tails.

One magpie’s signing her brief shape
across the air of solstice grey.

And then that single upright crow
on the bough of a decorous framing tree

real as any you’ve ever seen
nails it, is both of this world and peeping in

as are we, but spells out how
we never can escape the frame

and is still, and stiller than
we’ll ever be.

Still is available on the Seren website: £9.99

“By any yardstick, Still is a major achievement.” – The Yorkshire Times. Read the full review on The Yorkshire Times website.

Two book deal – purchase Still and Christopher’s newest novel Please together for the discounted price of £15.00.

Friday Poem – ‘On Allt yr Esgair’ by Christopher Meredith

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘On Allt yr Esgair’ by Christopher Meredith from his newly published poetry collection Still. In a unique publishing event, Still is published simultaneously with Christopher’s tragicomic short novel Please. Both are available on our website now.

Christopher Meredith’s new poetry collection Still, uses the title word as a fulcrum to balance various paradoxical concerns: stillness and motion, memory and forgetting, sanity and madness, survival and extinction. Lively and thought-provoking, this is a beautifully crafted, humane and intelligent collection.

“Lyrical, always surprising, Meredith ‘fixes stillness’ in absences here. His perfect ear tunes in so precisely – especially to the natural world, it’s ‘edge of sense’ – we are left haunted á la Frost, by a deep lonliness in the human condition.” – Paul Henry

Two book deal – purchase both Still and Please for the discounted price of £15.00.

Don’t miss the launch of both books at the Seren Cardiff Poetry Festival from 12pm on Sunday 18 April. Register for free via the festival website here. You only need to register ONCE for access to the entire four-day weekend.

An interview with Christopher Meredith

Christopher Meredith interview

Brief Lives Christopher MeredithChristopher Meredith is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. He has published four novels, three full poetry collections, and several shorter works. He is also the subject of a new Writers of Wales critical study, written by Diana Wallace.
Meredith’s new book, Brief Lives, is his first venture into short story writing – and its release comes thirty years after his groundbreaking debut novel, Shifts.

In this interview, Rosie Johns asks Chris about creative inspiration, the impact of personal experience, and the challenge of playing with tone and style in the short story form.

In the acknowledgements, you mention that you felt Brief Lives is an unoriginal title; what about it was so important to the collection that you decided to keep it anyway?
It’s not that I feel the title’s unoriginal – it is. Apart from the famous John Aubrey book from the 17th century at least one novel, other story collections, various book series and radio series have used this title. It was simply my working title as the book evolved, and it grew to fit. Ultimately the publisher registered the ISBN under this title without checking with me and there we were. In some ways that was a relief as it was probably the right title all along, and the subtitle six fictions does a bit of extra work.
Calling this book Brief Lives was a bit like a composer calling a piece Nocturne or Study or Caprice. It draws on a myth kitty of shared knowledge and expectations and suggests both form and theme. But the two words are very charged. As used originally for Aubrey’s short biographical notes on real people, the word ‘brief’ implies that the writing is not the whole story. In its origins, ‘brief’ can mean a summary, or better a compression. In one story, ‘Progress’, the young man standing on a bridge actually uses the word ‘summaries’ to describe, euphemistically, a blaze of powerful memory that’s just run through his head. While a summary can sound like an arid thing, it can also suggest; its compression can expand in the mind after the reading. A few reviewers have commented on the intensity of this book which perhaps is an effect of those compressions opening in the mind.
So it’s the writing that’s ‘brief’, but of course there’s the thought that life itself is brief too, and the fact of mortality haunts this book. Every story touches on death in some way. The powerful conflation of art and reality in that double meaning partly explains why the title has such a draw.

The story ‘Opening Time’ features in two very different books: Snaring Heaven and now Brief Lives. What drives your certainty that it belongs in both, despite their differences?
Snaring Heaven is a collection of poems. There are echoes and connections between that story at the end of the collection and other poems in that book and also its title; exactly the same thing happens in different terms in Brief Lives. There it gathers many of the elements and effects of the previous stories and goes beyond their various realisms. Readers can compare the two books and decide for themselves.

Does writing about Wales in English differ from writing about it in Welsh? And if so, how?
I’ve written little in Welsh and in all my writing I hardly ever write about Wales. It’s not a subject but often, perhaps always, part of the context. The one difference I can think of is that when writing in Welsh that context is manifest. Of Wales, not about.

How much of your own experience is reflected in the three stories that take place in Wales, and how is this influenced by the connection between place and memory, as demonstrated in ‘The Enthusiast’? And in stories with less explicit locations, how else do your experiences inform the narrative?Everything you write has to come from somewhere in your own experience, even if that experience is sometimes reading, research, dreams, stuff overheard, something glimpsed, stuff at second or third hand, etc., and all of that’s then transformed in the imagination and the process of writing. In that sense, everything in the book comes from that slippery thing ‘experience’, and I don’t see the value in looking for differences in how that plays in relation to ‘place’. The mediation of that stuff into the final story can be immensely complex and obscure. I’ve never waded into a cold river to rescue a child as happens in the supposedly realistic and located ‘The Enthusiast’, but it became useful for the story to imagine how that would feel. On the other hand, in ‘Haptivox’, one of the strangest and least ‘realistic’ stories, though I’ve never magically changed sex, as happens there, I have noticed a bird looking like a comma hanging on a sawn branch, and I’ve swum in ocean so clear that you can see the sea bed vividly even at quite great depths. Anyway, the story you write doesn’t care about you or your experience. It just has to work.

‘Haptivox’ certainly stands out with its more ambiguous sense of place, and the science fiction elements. How did this change of tone affect your portrayal of individuals and their internal lives?
I think there are shades of ambiguity in relation to both place and genre. Formally, ‘Haptivox’ is similar to the opening story ‘Averted Vision’ in that it’s broadly third person, inhabits two points of view, and is divided into short sections. The two stories, I hope, share an unreal and intense quality. The exact setting for ‘Averted Vision’ is never made completely explicit. I hope it’s more vivid for that; there are clues and it’s roughly guessable. A date and place are given away only in the cover blurb in fact, not in the story. For the characters, the nightmare time at sea feels dis-located in time and space, unreal, and the word ‘real’ plays a key and dark part in the story. Fewer suggestions for location are needed for ‘Haptivox’ to work. But the potential of short fiction to reach for the simultaneously emblematic and, I hope, psychologically rich and convincing is at work in both, perhaps all, the stories, but in nuanced ways. The two overwrought young soldiers in ‘Averted Vision’ are named because they’re both male and I need to distinguish between them. The man and woman in ‘Haptivox’ are unnamed because ‘he’ and ‘she’ can do all the work. But at the same time that works in an emblematic way with the fact that story is partly to do with maleness and femaleness. In that sense ‘Haptivox’ moves towards the more manifestly general. But in every story I think I found myself looking into brief, often small moments in lives and at the interplay between moment and memory in isolated people to gain vistas into vast and perhaps shared spaces.

 

 

Brief Lives is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – Borderland

friday poem borderland christopher meredith

Yesterday marked the beginning of the week-long Hay Festival, where writers from around the world gather in the staggering beauty of the Welsh borders to debate, read, share stories and inspire – among them, Tom Bullough with his new novel, Addlands (Granta).

As a nod to Hay, our Friday poem is ‘Borderland’ from Air Histories by Christopher Meredith. ‘Borderland’ and Air Histories had a significant influence on Tom Bullough’s new Radnorshire-set novel, Addlands.

air_historiesChristopher Meredith’s Air Histories starts in the Stone Age and ends in the future. It’s marked by formal diversity and a wide range of subjects, with the personal alongside the impersonal and the experimental alongside well-known forms, as well as including some translations from the Welsh. Throughout it engages the rich meanings of its title, touching on the elemental and on historical time, as well as music and story, meditating on human creativity and its fallibilities from knapping an arrowhead to playing the fiddle or making a guitar. Nature is a touchstone, particularly the Black Mountains, near the author’s home, but also often seen ‘aslant’ as in ‘Seeing the Birds’ where sparrows seem suddenly fierce as eagles.

 

Borderland

Ffin is the Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad which means definition, and in Capel y Ffin, a place in the Black Mountains.

You’ll find a ffin inside each definition.
We see what is when we see what it’s not:
edges are where meanings happen.

On the black whaleback of this mountain
earth curves away so sky can start
to show a ffin’s a kind of definition

where skylarks climb across earth’s turn
to air and pulsing muscle turns to an art-
ful song the edge that lets a meaning happen.

Live rock can yield to mortared stone,
a city to a castle, then a shepherd’s hut,
where ffin’s contained inside a definition,

where the lithic turns into the human.
Here’s where things fall together, not apart
at edges that let meanings happen.

And self here blurs into annihilation.
Larkfall, earthfall, skyfall, manfall each create
the ffin that is the place of definition
the edges where we see our meanings happen.

 

Buy your copy of Air Histories now, 20% off for Book Club Members.

Seren at Crickhowell Literary Festival

Wales will see the return of the Crickhowell Literary Festival this month, and this year several of our authors are taking part!

Francesca Rhydderch, author of the 2014 Wales Book of the Year The Rice Paper Diaries and co-editor of New Welsh Short Stories, will be in conversation with Oliver Balch, reading from her work and answering any questions from the audience. She will also be leading a Fiction Writing Masterclass!

Poet and novelist Christopher Meredith will be at the festival for an evening of reading and discussion, and several of our other poets will also be reading from their work. Paul Henry and Philip Gross will be reading poems from Boy Running and A Fold in the River inspired by the rivers Usk and Taff, and Anne-Marie Fyfe will be reading from her latest collection, House of Small Absences, while Costa Award-winner Jonathan Edwards will be reading from his own work.

Whether it’s poetry or prose that mosts interests you, there’s something for everyone at Crickhowell this year. Find out more about all of our upcoming events on our website!

Dylan Moore on why Shifts is the Greatest Welsh Novel

Dylan Moor on why Shifts by Christopher Meredith deserves your vote to be crowned as the greatest Welsh novel of all time. Taken from Wales Arts Reviews original post.

The title of Christopher Meredith’s 1985 debut novel refers to both the monotonous patterns of working class life and the changes to such routines that remain forever beyond the control of the people whose lives come to be defined by them. In a country famous for coalmining, and a Heads of the Valleys region more famous in the literary world for the romances of Alexander Cordell, Shifts is the novel of the declining steel industry. Moreover, the year of its setting – 1977 –  confirms its ostensibly undramatic events as a kind of full stop, the last dregs of the industrial South Wales that had existed for at least a century and a half, about to turn into something else.

Focusing on four characters bound together by the closure of the steel plant in the town – unnamed but quite possibly Meredith’s native Tredegar – Shifts is a study in how men and women are forced by circumstance to take control of their own destinies, even if sometimes it seems they are determined to let life pass them by. Jack Priday is the protagonist; recently returned to Wales after some years spent in Norfolk and Lancashire, he is attempting to rebuild his life a couple of valleys over from his original home, like a ‘salmon coming home to spawn.’ Jack lodges first with Connie, a middle-aged widow, but then settles with his workmate and former schoolfriend Keith, a local history enthusiast now married to Judith, herself seeking a new way forward when familiar routines are dislocated. And then there is Rob – known mysteriously as ‘O’ – bullied at work and seeming to symbolise the great emptiness in all of the characters’ lives; it is O who both opens and closes the novel, forcing us to consider issues of circularity and time, life and death, being and nothingness.

Meredith’s achievement is a significant one – easily ranking as a Great Welsh Novel – not only because of the skilful way that he combines these grand themes with humour and pathos. An unshowy understated quality marks the prose throughout and despite its depth and complexity, Shifts is a down-to-earth book in keeping with its humble environs, great also because of Meredith’s fine ear for dialect and the basic ingredients of character, setting and plot. Keith’s interest in local history is just one way in which the author subtly layers the humdrum events of the actual story with resonance and complexity; here too is Meredith’s chance to explore the shifts at the beginning of the industrial age and with a deftness of touch play the birth of the town out against what seem to be its death throes.

It is no wonder that the New York Times Book Review said of Shifts that ‘the prose is spare and poetic, at once plain and rich, musical in its rhythm of speech and clear description.’ It is a perfect critical encapsulation of Meredith’s style that also belies the essential Welshness at the book’s core. Like very great novels, the power of Shifts is to evoke universal themes in a believably rendered microcosmic reality. When Jack talks of his former life in Accrington, it seems to Keith like ‘the ends of the earth’. He and Judith cannot afford to heat the house; some of the central storyline’s persistent sexual tension arises from their getting changed in front of the two-bar electric heater in the living room. Meredith captures perfectly the reality of life in what many might be tempted to call late 1970s working class Britain. But his canvas is not nearly so wide. It stretches, geographically, from the steelworks to the unheated house, from the town’s pubs up onto ‘the tops’ where the long-dead victims of cholera and poverty lie undisturbed by time or memory; timewise, it lasts a single season: as the plant closes down, the winter thaws.

Shifts perfectly approximates the precise sub-dialect of Blaneau Gwent. It is all ‘en’ for ‘isn’t’, the redundant auxiliary ‘do’ and frequent use of ‘bastard’ as an adjective. In addition to accent, and the mercilessly cruel and foulmouthed banter of the workplace (‘bastard’, I can assure you, is mild), Meredith draws on his own experiences as a steelworker to deliver a strikingly realistic picture of a world we rarely see in fiction:

… the blast furnaces, the open hearth, the scrap bay, the coke ovens, all recently shut and decaying, and then the parts still working; the hot mill, slabyard, galv, pickler, cold mill, tinning lines, and all the other departments servicing these; boiler shop, sling shop, shoe shop, medical centre, garages, offices, railway lines, bridges…

But Shifts isn’t simply a work of gritty realism, nor is it a kitchen sink drama (although there is plenty of careful detail that paints a picture of the everyday); there is a thread of symbolism running through the novel that lifts it, wholesale, out of the read-once-and-always-remember category of classic to the lofty position I am claiming for it today. As Richard Poole points out in his ‘Afterword’ to the Seren Classics edition, beneath the text’s ‘seemingly plain skin beats an ambitious symbolist heart’; it is a novel ripe for academic interrogation not only because of its historical, cultural, psychological and linguistic specificities – its brilliantly evoked microcosm of time and place at a (dis)juncture in the region’s, and the nation’s history – but also because of its rich, highly patterned, subtext. Apart from all of that, it’s a great, engrossing, read.

So, if as a nation we seek to venerate a book that helps us understand ourselves and our circumstances, and that uses the novel’s power to investigate the psychological fallout of socio-historical trauma while at the same time being skip-along readable and viciously funny, let’s stop the search here. The book is Shifts.

If you agree with Dylan, ten you can vote for Shifts here.