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This item is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

THE ECOLOGY OF poetry publishing is fragile. At the moment, to those of us active in the field, it seems alarmingly so. Among the large players Fulcrum and Menard, and among the smaller Peterloo, Mandeville, Sycamore and many others have come and gone in living memory. Almost twenty years ago Oxford University Press closed its poetry list. Other commercially-based lists diminished, vanished; a few have reappeared: for how long? Publishing poetry by living writers and trying to keep faith with them devolves upon shoestring independents – Arc, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Eyewear, Shearsman, to name few – and a brave band of very little presses. Large and small, built by individuals with editorial flair, they come, make a difference, and – inexorably – go.

In this issue of PN Review (News & Notes) we bid adieu to CB Editions, which has achieved great things in its decade. Last year Anvil, a major player in British poetry publishing for half a century, with important discoveries to its credit and a mighty translation list, merged its activities with those of Carcanet, and Peter Jay, poet and translator as well as a notable editor and book designer, retired. Like CB Editions and most poetry publishing houses, his was a one-person band. Fifty years is a long busk.

Apart from Anvil, the two imprints I most value (beyond Carcanet) are the Welsh publishing house Seren, with its inspiring record of discovery and service, and Enitharmon, which I have followed since it was set up by Alan Clodd in 1967, and more attentively since, in 1987, it was taken over by Stephen Stuart-Smith.

Stephen wrote Clodd’s obituary in the Independent in 2002. ‘Alan Clodd was perhaps the last surviving example of a bookman in the nineteenth-century mould whose abilities and accomplishments extended into every area of the literary world – collecting, dealing, publishing and bibliographical research. He was no dilettante, however. His professionalism was absolute and was evinced when in 1967 he founded the Enitharmon Press, one of the most distinctive of English private presses, which he was to run single-handedly until his retirement from publishing in 1987. In an age of conglomerates he represented a vanishing breed of publishers whose care with the text and dedication to their authors was more important than the balance sheet. His insistence on quality in every area of book production was central to his operation, and in his dealings with authors he was gentlemanly, discreet and encouraging.’

Now, thirty years after Clodd’s retirement, Stephen writes to me (29 January) that Enitharmon will continue in a different form, the change compelled by factors that anyone in the independent press sector knows all too well. ‘This year, 2017, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Enitharmon Press. Although there is much to celebrate in the achievements of the past and the present, we are now entering a new phase in our history.’ His ‘our history’ includes Peter Jay, Charles Boyle and all of us in the business. His no-nonsense analysis is bleak.

‘Last weekend I was in touch with all my writers to explain the changes that are to take place in the next few months, and I wanted to let you know too, as I imagine some of them might come knocking on your door. The past six years have been more than usually challenging. In 2011, Enitharmon Press and 200 other Arts Council England clients lost their regular funding status, and since then we have been obliged to put in annual applications for funding from Grants for the Arts (GftA) to keep the show on the road. We’ve had an excellent run of success in each of the subsequent years, receiving more than we would have done if we’d remained a regularly funded organisation, but each year the process has become more competitive and time-consuming. GftA funding is now so oversubscribed that they are able to make awards to only 34% of applicants. Although ACE have been encouraging and rate Enitharmon as an organisation of outstanding artistic excellence, neither of our latest applications, in June and November 2016, was successful.’

No blame, Stephen insists, attaches to Arts Council England (ACE): it has a Solomonic task. Applicants to ace know the challenges – some of them clarifying and constructive – that go to making a bid; they know the labour that application entails, and the spurns that patient merit takes.

‘A more significant factor,’ Stephen continues, ‘is the dramatic downturn in trading conditions – the most difficult I have experienced in my thirty years as Director. Independent bookshops have all but disappeared, and with them the collegiate relationship between publishers and booksellers. Library suppliers, who in my first years at Enitharmon were a crucial sales outlet, have also dwindled in number and influence, as have the libraries themselves, bludgeoned by government cuts. But the most significant change has been the rise of the gargantuan bookshop chains and the likes of Amazon, whose highly selective choice of titles and bullying demands for higher and higher discounts have made our type of books (small print-runs of quality literature with high production standards) commercially unviable.’

There are too rising costs of materials and services, rents and rates, with Brexit knocking sterling for six. He does not mention the decline in poetry book-buying and collecting, or the ways in which the web quietly side-steps copyright and gives readers much of what they want gratis. But the ‘conjunction of circumstances has reluctantly brought us to the point
where we can no longer publish new titles. We have a further four titles to produce between now and June, and Lawrence Sail’s monumental and magnificent anthology, The Heart’s Granary, celebrating fifty years of Enitharmon Press (1967­–2017), will be the final hurrah.’

Enitharmon is not walking away from its authors. It will keep faith with them, distributing and promoting their backlist and paying royalties. It makes these changes at the time of its choosing, at the peak of its reputation, ‘with all our flags flying’. The gallery and the art books will continue to make their unique contribution. But its list of beautiful, editorially surprising and rewarding new poetry books will not grow. Another long-lived, irreplaceable organism turns into a gorgeous fossil before our eyes. Poetry readers owe Stephen a debt that, because editors are generally invisible, they are unlikely ever to pay.

Carcanet and PN Review have applied to the Arts Council for renewed funding for 2018–2022. ‘We work on the principle that the reader completes the poet’s work,’ we declare, ‘and that the growth of an informed, responsive readership is as crucial to poetry as the health of the critical culture surrounding us.’ Those readers need to be active subscribers and book-buyers who know the importance of a strong independent sector in which market forces are not the sine qua non. In another country a market ideology leads towards the destruction of the National Endowment for the Arts, struck down by a tweet and a presidential decree. Here, it is still possible to hear Pound’s injunction, ‘Only what’s been written against the market!’

This item is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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