Why Arc is still way ahead of the curve

Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan tells the personal story of his relationship with one of the region’s many small – and well loved – publishers.

Picture this: a tiny tent in a thunderstorm in Edinburgh in the wet summer of 2008.

A group of Lithuanian poets are sitting on canvas chairs waiting to read their poems to a small damp audience. The rain is pounding so hard on the roof of the tent that nobody can hear what anybody is saying and the people who are speaking Lithuanian may as well be speaking broad Scots, and vice versa. A man stands up to introduce the reading and although we can’t hear what he’s saying, his electric enthusiasm transmits itself to the gathering: that man is Tony Ward, editorial director of the poetry publishers Arc Publications, one of the country’s most adventurous and dedicated publishing houses, based in Todmorden, which is either in Yorkshire or Lancashire, depending on which side of the street you walk down.

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As the indefatigable Tony speaks and gesticulates, the rain slows to a drizzle and a Lithuanian poet stands to read; after he reads, his words are spoken in translation and a warm glow fills the tent. It feels like worlds are meeting, literatures are learning from each other, and a kind of globalisation is happening. I buy a copy of Arc’s anthology of Six Lithuanian Poets and notice that Tony is wearing two pairs of glasses, one on top of the other. I guess one pair is for seeing the real world, and one pair is for the world according to Arc.

In the last round of Arts Council cuts Arc lost its grant, and lovers of new and translated writing all over the world held their breath hoping that the Arc wouldn’t, as it were, sink. For me, as a long-time fan of the press, it felt impossible to contemplate a world without Arc, without Tony encouraging you to read writers you’d never heard of, often from places you find on a map.

I first met Tony Ward when he was Publisher-In-Residence at the Arvon Foundation’s centre for writers at Lumb Bank in Heptonstall in the mid-1970s; he was printing books for the small poetry presses that were flourishing at the time, but I was impressed by the care and attention he took with the little anthology of writing he produced from me and my fellow novices on our course.

Here was a man who cared about how poetry looked, as well as how it sounded and how it settled in your brain. In the early days, Arc published work by poets like the late great Ken Smith, and the iconoclastic Jeff Nuttall, as well as curious but bestselling little books from the cult Scots poet Ivor Cutler.

Since then Arc has mutated and grown in all kinds of ways without losing its commitment to good writing; sometimes it appears to go a little quiet, and you think the supply has slowed to a trickle. Then a jiffy bag will land on your doormat and the great Arc reading adventure begins again.

Evidenced by that soggy tent full of doughty souls, Arc Publications never take the easy route. The press is committed to the dissemination of translated work from all over the world, particularly from what might be loosely termed The New Europe. They publish anthologies from Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland, Macedonia, Latvia and Slovenia. They also put out individual collections by important writers like the Russian poet Larissa Miller, whose poems of life under the Soviet system almost had me weeping when I interviewed her for the radio, the Cuban poet Victor Rodriguez Nunez who recently wowed a rapt audience in a pub in Hebden Bridge, and Salvatore Quasimodo the Sicilian writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1959. These books are presented in beautiful dual-language editions. I love to sit in my conservatory with a dual-language Arc book; as Larissa Miller writes, “a word is a fire that does not burn the paper…”

Arc isn’t just about translated work. They’ve published a number of notable Yorkshire poets, including the late Glyn Hughes whose last book A Year In the Bull Box came from Arc, and two more giants of Yorkshire verse-making who we’ve lost recently, Pete Morgan whose August Light, published in 2006, marked the end of a long period of silence, and Harold Massingham, whose 1992 Arc book Sonatas and Dreams broke another self-imposed silence.

It felt like all this might be coming to an end when the Arts Council funding was withdrawn but now the glorious news is that Arc has been awarded a substantial wedge from the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery fund to publish a number of bilingual anthologies over the next few years. And that’s good tidings for poetry: time for Tony Ward to put on two pairs of glasses again!