Collections Long read Research

Poetry Survival and the Carcanet Press Archive

Victoria Stobo writes:

Since January 2019, I’ve been working as a Project Archivist in Special Collections, exploring the Carcanet Press Archive. Carcanet is a renowned poetry publisher, celebrating its 50th anniversary in late 2019, and the archive is one of the John Ryland Library’s most important literary collections. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Dr Lise Jaillant, the PI for the project, is exploring how small poetry publishers survive in the global marketplace.

As part of the project, we’re:

  • Making a selection of 100 emails available online, from the born-digital material which forms part of the Carcanet Press Email Archive;
  • Creating new finding aids for records associated with key writers, including Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elizabeth Jennings and Ted Hughes;
  • Exhibiting a selection of Carcanet Press Archive materials relating to Elizabeth Jennings, Sujata Bhatt, the Arts Council and the wider poetry landscape in the UK; and
  • Organising a conference exploring access to born-digital archives, and the use of computational methods (e.g. machine learning), to facilitate this.

This isn’t the first time the John Rylands Library has explored the email archive – Fran Baker and Dr Phil Butler, Caroline Martin, Ben Green and Sandra Bracegirdle did award-winning work building the infrastructure, processes and skills necessary to start capturing and preserving born-digital records back in 2014, and produced some stunning visualisations from the corpus of email (including an illustration of what Elizabeth Gaskell’s inbox might look like).

In this new project we’re taking a broad look at the issues surrounding user access to email archives. Different legal regimes in the EU and the US governing the use of personal data mean that different approaches to access can be confusing and frustrating for researchers. Institutions in the EU generally close access to email archives on data protection and privacy grounds, or only permit access to smaller, pre-approved and appraised collections of email in person, on site at the institution (for example, see Wendy Cope’s email archive at the British Library). In contrast, some US institutions may grant access to email archives if users agree to a variety of access and publication terms and conditions. For example, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas permits access to some electronic files onsite, but does not allow users to download or copy the files (users are allowed to take photographs of the files on the computer screen, but these images are strictly for personal use only). If users want to publish any of the materials, they must seek permission from the copyright holder, and agree to indemnify the University of Austin through a Notice of Intent to Publish. Indemnification essentially transfers any legal liability associated with publication from the institution to the user.

One of the objectives of our project is to make a selection of emails (approx. 100) available online, subject to sensitivity review and permission from the authors. Process-tracing the decisions, activities and transactions which lead to making this small selection of emails available will illustrate many of the challenges and opportunities associated with enabling access to email archives. This scoping work can then contribute to future research in this area. As part of this process, we’re working with our existing digital preservation repository, Preservica, but also exploring new open source tools that have been developed for managing email archives at a more granular level, specifically ePADD.

In addition to the email archive, I have been working with paper correspondence too: so far, I have catalogued material relating to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Sally Purcell and Laura (Riding) Jackson. The material relating to Townsend-Warner and Purcell is slight, but speaks to the breadth of the Carcanet list; the social and political spheres in which Townsend Warner and Purcell moved; and Michael Schmidt’s abilities as an editor and confidant, to build and maintain good relationships with Carcanet’s writers.

In contrast, there is a significant amount of correspondence with Riding Jackson. Schmidt was determined to get Riding’s work back into print on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1980s, and their correspondence covers the publication process for A Trojan Ending, Progress of Stories, and her Selected Poems, including correspondence with North American publishers. They also discuss Riding’s treatment in the literary press, and her ongoing disputes with various biographies of Robert Graves, which tended to sensationalise her relationship with Graves during the 1920s and 30s. Riding is simultaneously imperious and vulnerable in the letters: always ready to debate the use of language and its relation to truth-telling in the strongest terms, while acknowledging her physical limitations and her reliance on her assistant, Elizabeth Friedmann. More archival material relating to Laura Riding Jackson can be consulted at Nottingham Trent University.

And finally: Dr Lise Jaillant and I have been also been conducting an oral history of the Carcanet Press. In addition to interviewing Michael Schmidt, we have also spoken to poets and editors associated with the Press, including Grevel Lindop, Anthony Rudolf, Roger Garfitt, Peter Jay, Gareth Reeves, Alison Brackenbury, Mike Freeman, Robyn Marsack, Judith Willson and Helen Tookey. Selected recordings and transcripts will be made available on the project web resource, alongside the emails and the new finding aids.

For more information about the project, including research outputs, see the project website at

1 comment on “Poetry Survival and the Carcanet Press Archive

  1. Reblogged this on Lives of Letters and commented:
    Victoria Stobo, Project Archivist on the Poetry Survival project, discusses her work on Carcanet emails and letters

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: