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This article is taken from PN Review 271, Volume 49 Number 5, May - June 2023.

Pictures from a Library
Approaching Infinity: PN Review at Fifty
Stella Halkyard

Discounting encounters of student days, my first proper meeting with PN Review was as its archivist and that of the Carcanet Press. In those days my office at the Rylands was a neo-gothic cavern known as the Lower Manuscript Room. From floor to ceiling manuscripts from the round earth’s imagined corners lined the walls. Across a gloomy passageway the archive of Carcanet and PN Review was kept in a store known as the Dante Room, in honour of its previous occupant. The bravado of its nomenclature was apparent as I unlocked the door, for this was a space already too small for its current inhabitant, and one whose luxuriance had been increasing since Carcanet’s arrival in Manchester in the early 1970s. Squeezed into this lair, without a keeper to tame them, poems, proofs, letters, contracts, permissions, designs and publicity material filled every scrap of shelving and spilled out into towers of paper on the floor, tottering vertiginously, in defiance of gravity and good archival practice.

This enormous beast of an archive had been left to its own devices and was now in need of a thorough grooming to make it presentable to readers and to posterity. To bring it to heel would require inside knowledge of the operation and ethos of the press. Fortunately, as the vital remains of a living publishing house, help was on hand in the shape of Michael Schmidt, Rex Carcaneti, and the only snuff-taking-Mexican-in-Manchester at that time. So I barged my way into his office in Manchester’s Corn Exchange and learned at the knee of the master of PN Review’s importance as the press’s beating heart, the place where talent is tested, ‘discoveries are  made’ (Michael Schmidt). So straight from the horse’s mouth I was given the wherewithal to wrestle the material in the Rylands into submission.

As minion to the archive, I was ushered into the Carcanet fold and was soon spending time in the office with the team, coaxing the contents of filing cabinets through a system of records management. Tranches of material earmarked for preservation were regularly boxed up and shunted across Manchester to their new home in the Rylands. There they could easily be recalled should the press need to consult them. On one such visit in January 1992 I was whisked into Michael’s office where I found him unpacking some ‘very special papers’ from the inner sanctum of his desk. Kept close at hand for safekeeping, these files carried the early history of PN Review and its ‘distinguished circle of collaborators and associates’ (Declan Ryan). Knowing they would be secure and easily retrievable, Michael was ready to relinquish them to the archival record. There their survival may ‘for all we know, ultimately approach infinity’ (George Kubler) as they continue to tell the unfolding story of ‘a big, little magazine’ interwoven with that of the ‘charismatic lustre’ and ‘provocative intelligence’ (Ryan) of its editor-in-chief.

‘The Defence of Poetry by Michael Schmidt’, Rylands Latin Manuscript 38
(© University of Manchester 2023)

This article is taken from PN Review 271, Volume 49 Number 5, May - June 2023.

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