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50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

A History of Arc Publications

by David Morley

The story is this: I have two roles as an editor, both of which I regard as seamless with writing poetry. The first as an editor of anthologies; the second as an editor for Arc Publications where I look after the British and Irish poetry lists. I am very conscious that my role at Arc over the past seven year is an inheritance. It was Tony Ward's pioneering work from the seventies onwards that created the frame and the ethos of the company. Although I am at times tempted to set up my own publishing house, I still find myself completely in sympathy with Ward's vision, so this is his story too.

Conscious also that Arc Publications is above all a team, and that the manuscripts we publish pass through a number of hands before they settle within our list, the story needs telling of how this engaging company came about and why. The fact that our editorial decisions are now made collectively contrasts with the editorial process at presses such as Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Anvil and Enitharmon. It was not always so.

Tony Ward, now Arc's General Editor, took over the precursor of this firm in 1969 from a writers' collective based in the Medway Towns “because they edited by committee and so nothing was produced”. Six pamphlets later, Tony was running the press solo. His catholic editing picked up Bob Cobbing, Thomas A. Clark and Ken Smith's collection of prose poems Frontwards in a Backwards Movie.

He then entered into a publishing and funding partnership with the Arvon Foundation, acquired his own printing equipment, and moved the outfit into a mill near Hebden Bridge: “The important thing is that Arc printed its own books; I had total control over production, and this continues to be the deciding factor for writers who want to be published by us”. His editorial percipience included works by Benjamin Peret, Jeff Nuttall and Jeremy Hilton. The authors enjoyed high production values; Arc's role as a printer in the 1970s recalls the time of the fine and adventurous editions of the Woolfs' Hogarth Press in the 1920s.

Ward's remit specifically embraced printing for small presses. That role broadened after he parted company with Arvon and entered a funding relationship with the then Yorkshire Arts, printing the output from Anvil, Galloping Dog Press, Ferry Press, Spectacular Diseases and Trigram. “It introduced me to poets I wouldn't have otherwise read such as the poets of The English Intelligencer like Denise Riley, Jeremy Prynne and Douglas Oliver.” Ward went on to publish new books from the Intelligencer pantheon, including collections by Michael Grant, Peter Riley and David Challoner: “It was whether I believed it was important poetry or not. For example, I didn't really respond to Peret's poetry but I knew it was important to publish it. Unfortunately for all concerned with new writing, Charles Osborne, the self-styled scourge of literature and the small press world, was then appointed Director of Literature at The Arts Council”. Osborne's anti-artistic bent is documented in his insolent and badly-written autobiography. His negative impact still affects the Literature Department's funding to this day.

Despite these cuts, one of the hallmarks of Arc books is that they continued to be superbly printed. Collectors' items included D.M. Thomas's News from the Front and the Ivor Cutler series of books which are the size of a cream-cracker and which sell like hot cakes (“He came to us because nobody else would produce his books the way he wanted them”). But business was still a struggle despite helpful associations with Graham Mort's Giant Steps Press and John Killick's Littlewood. Building a new editorial board in 1993 revived the press: “I found it hugely advantageous. It gave a better qualified judgement overall, and access to a bigger spread of poets”.

Which is where I re-enter this story. Ward's co-editors were now Michael Hulse and myself. We re-launched the press with both an International and UK Series. With solid new collections from Jackie Wills, W.N. Herbert, John Hartley Williams and Donald Atkinson, our intention was to choose the best of what came in through the post, while actively commissioning poets whose work we admired from their appearances in magazines. Hulse pushed us striking collections from Robert Gray and John Kinsella (Australia), Rose Ausländer (Germany), C.K. Stead and Dinah Hawken (New Zealand), Tomaz Salumun (Slovenia) and Don Coles (Canada). What we didn't make in sales we made up in goodwill: suddenly good poets started sending in work.

Michael moved on to start his own publishing house, Leviathan, and to take up the editorial reins of Stand with John Kinsella. We expanded the board to include Kinsella and Robert Gray, and appointed Jean Boase-Beier to head up a new translation series. This makes for a vigorous, collegial editorial that (unlike the earlier Medway adventure) makes bold decisions with shared responsibility. Our funding is woefully paltry — none of us receives a sou for what we do — but none of us is in this to make a living.

For myself, I can review my progress as a writer by what I choose to publish by other people. The micro-editing of an author's book feeds back on my own work; it makes me intensely self-critical and is one of the reasons I haven't published many poems in Britain since 1997. The downside of my job is the slush-pile. We may well receive fine collections out of the blue but, as with other presses, the majority of what arrives unsolicited is poorly-written and sometimes freakishly presented: “It is as if writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with ‘This is a poem’ scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and find it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write...” (Randall Jarrell, Poetry and The Age, Faber, 1995).