Michael Schmidt on the life of an editor

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Michael Schmidt OBE FRSL is, in his own words, “an anglophone Mexican publisher.” As the brains behind Carcanet Press and the PN Review, he is deeply entrenched in the literary history of Manchester. He has published five books of his own poetry, seven poetry anthologies, two novels, two works of translation and six works of literary history/criticism. I was fortunate enough to go and speak with him and his colleagues at the Carcanet Press offices on Cross Street.

Tell us a bit about what you do, and your association with Manchester.

I started Carcanet, the publishing house, when I was 19 or 20. I was an undergraduate at Oxford and ran a magazine which went belly-up, so I started a press out of it and we published little pamphlets. These were very successful and received good reviews in The Times Literary Supplement so we started books, and we went from debt to debt, from weakness to weakness, and now we publish 30 to 40 books a year.

I came and taught at The University of Manchester for about 23 years, and I set up the creative writing program with Richard Francis, first at undergraduate and then masters level. And when I came to Manchester I realised that I really wanted to have a magazine again. Magazines are to my mind the most wonderful thing you can have as an editor because you’re always discovering new writers and in touch with readers. If you get really enthusiastic, the next month you can publish the thing you’re really enthusiastic about, when of course if you’re doing books it takes a year before you can get it out.

So I set up Poetry Nation (now PN Review) with the then head of English, C.B.Cox, and the very first issue was published in 1972 from Manchester University Press. It’s gone from strength to strength, partly because of the association with C.B. Cox, he was well-known as the editor of the Critical Quarterly, and so he would say to Kingsley Amis ‘send us a poem’, and he would. It was one of the magazines that would help you make your reputation. Every issue has a poet whose never been published before. The last issue had two totally new poets. It would be boring just to edit according to familiar names.

In Lives of the Poets (1999), you said that you decided you wanted to publish poetry when you were 19. Why did you want to be an editor?

I love English, but I’m a foreigner. I’m not a native English speaker, but I’ve always loved English poetry from a very early age, and I guess it just seemed to be a way of engaging with contemporary work that was being produced. It’s very different working with a living poet and working with a poem in process, rather than reading a poem on the printed page.

And I think I very early on distrusted other editors, because I’d see that there were (and still are) effectively only two or three poets that appear in all the bookshops, people whose presence may be a media presence, but the  media presence then makes people want to read their poems. Whereas there are some very good poets who really ought to have been available at the time they started writing, but weren’t even being printed at that stage, because they hated the media, or they didn’t think media had much to do with the art.

I think the whole sort of approach of Carcanet, and PN review, has been that what you are sold as literature isn’t necessarily the best literature. Some of the people you’re sold are very good, and some of the people you’re sold are crap, and the development of an individual judgement is really quite important. I also have a really profound belief that English literature is literature in English not literature in England, or indeed in Britain, so there are some wonderful things happening in New Zealand, Australia and so on which really could inform and extend our pages, and just as we could inform and extend theirs.

I read that you were working on a follow-up to Lives of the Poets, called A Life of the Novel.

I’ve finished that now; I’m still doing the page-proofs. It’s awfully long! Much bigger than the poets. (I laugh because Lives of the Poets is of epic proportions.)

Is your next project going to be Lives of the Editors?

That would be really boring! (Laughs) Well, there was a project I had when I left Manchester University, which was based at the John Rylands Library in Deansgate. We have access to the copyright of a number of famous writers, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Graves, Edgell Rickword and so on. They were all major editors or had relations with major editors, and the idea was to publish online what we’d call the backshop, or the backmatter, of these figures. So you can see how the correspondence between Edgell Rickword and his friends informs his writing: sometimes they will write to criticize, sometimes write to comment…

There was a wonderful conversation I had many years ago with Robert Lowell, the American poet. He said the worst moment in his life was when he won the Putlitzer Prize at the age of thirty something, because all of his friends who had used to read and comment on his work stopped talking about his poetry, because they felt in a sense he’d gone beyond them, or  moved under another sphere. And so he felt completely unread.

Also, when I was doing my history of the American novel I found out that Tom Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel was completely re-written by his editor. Also Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber completely re-wrote, and reduced by two thirds, Golding’s Lord of The Flies. So editors are really important.

What does the Manchester Literature Festival mean to you?

I think it has become, now that it is a literary festival rather than just a poetry festival, one of the major literary festivals in the country. The directors always bring the people that everyone wants to hear but they also, almost always, bring unexpected people as well, so it both answers expectations and extends expectations, and every year there are new people there. I don’t attend as many events as I probably should though.

Are you going to any this year?

The ones I’m in! (Laughs) No, I’ll go to some of the readings too I hope.


Tags: C.B. Cox, Carcanet press, Critical Quarterly, FRSL, Lives of the Poets (1999), Manchester, Manchester Literature Festival, Michael Schmidt, OBE, PN Review

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