Oxford's poets fall foul of the bottom line

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The Independent Online
IT STARTED with a letter and became a fusillade of newspaper articles and donnish abuse. It started as a publishing-house memo and ended up rocking the most elderly and distinguished university in Europe. A tense 10-day war of nerves has ended with the decision by delegates of the 500- year-old Oxford University Press publishing house to ratify the cancellation of its poetry list - and with the revelation that the university was to blame all along.

It began on Tuesday 17 November, when Jacqueline Simms, the poetry editor at OUP, was handed a letter at the publisher's grand, neoclassical Oxford headquarters. "Your worst fears are confirmed", it said. "We are selling off the poetry list by the end of March". This was a bombshell, for both Ms Simms and the poets whose work she has published over the past 20 years. In the past three years, three publishers (Secker, Sinclair-Stevenson and Chatto) have cancelled their poetry lists or scaled them down to two or three books a year. If this went on, newly-fledged poets would find it impossible to get their stuff published - unless they were accepted by one of the Big Two players, Faber & Faber, and Oxford University Press ...

By 20 November, 26 poets had received their marching orders from Andrew Potter, the Mikado-esquely titled director of music, trade paperbacks and bibles publishing at OUP. He cited "very difficult market conditions" and said "We need to give priority to our core scholarly and educational publishing". Poetry, it seemed, didn't make enough money to justify the attention it needed.

The 26 suddenly-homeless writers include some of the finest talents at work today: Fleur Adcock, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Donaghy, DJ Enright, Alice Oswald, Jo Shapcott, Jamie McKendrick ... But was this the right moment for OUP to ditch Adcock, Enright and Shapcott, all of whom had recently been nominated for the British poet laureateship? And what would become of Peter Porter, who has two volumes of Collected Works out in February to celebrate his 70th birthday?

"It's a bad day for serious literature when the most distinguished academic publishing house in Britain chooses to neglect contemporary literature," Porter told The Times. "It is an indication that something in Britain is getting more and more frivolous. The only thing that matters is the bottom line."

"There were a lot of painful conversations about it, but in the end I know it was the right decision," said OUP's Andrew Potter. "The poetry list was making the marketing people face in a different direction from the way they face when promoting the World's Classics series or the Oxford History of Nursing". But didn't the Oxford poets make a profit? "The list was barely covering its costs. And there's no point in doing it unless it's going to allow a reasonable dividend to go back to the original owners, who are the university."

But the Press makes a fortune out of selling classic poetry texts. Shouldn't it publish modern poetry as well? Mr Potter is sympathetic. "I feel a natural affinity with anything creative," he says. "But if it's preventing the trade books department from doing its job, disseminating scholarly texts, then I have to take account of that. Of course culture comes into it - but it's not a central part of it".

Jacqueline Simms, small, birdlike and harassed, has overseen the poetry list since taking it over from John Stallworthy in 1976. She is the Press's solo poetry editor and talent scout and has seen the cream of the modern poetry world pass through her hands. She does not, however, represent a wastrel element in the balance sheet. She is paid a pounds 9,000 salary by the Press to oversee the publication of eight poetry books a year. She has a quarter-share in a secretary, and no other staff. For this tiny outlay, her labours produce a turnover of about pounds 50,000 a year, a drop in the Press's pounds 300m ocean. And Ms Simms is spitting fury about the death of her 20-year project. "I feel disgusted with the Press," she says. "It's an act of vandalism. They did it without consulting me, without telling me, without saying `We have to do something - what do you recommend?'. It's outrageous. They talk about finding a new home for the 26 poets. I told them, it's a complete dream. You can't sell off the whole list like a sack of potatoes. Writers need nurturing. It just shows how shambolic the Press is". As it turned out, the poets were doing all right. By Monday afternoon, a dozen other publishers had extended Olympian hands into the churning flotsam of sacked versifiers and selected their favourites. At Random House, which owns 20 publishers, Cape and Chatto bid against each other for Jo Shapcott. Approaches were made from other houses to 15 of the homeless 26. But more important was the fallout across the university, as the dons gradually realised what had been done in their name.

For it seems that the real villains of the piece - the people responsible for the cancelling of the poetry list - are not the bean-counters of OUP, but the university itself. The Press is owned by Oxford University. It makes money - about pounds 6m - for the university every year. The board of directors is composed of delegates from different faculties: literature, classics, history, chemistry, modern languages. The vice-chancellor of the university, John Lucas is chairman of the delegates. At the Press, the chief executive Henry Reece goes by the title of secretary to the delegates. Despite being dons rather than businessmen, the delegates have to ratify every decision agreed by the Press - including the disbanding of the poetry list. The next meeting, at which this historic decision would be taken, was on Tuesday, 24 November.

The stage was set for a showdown, a classic tussle between art and mammon, between literature and Philistine commercialism. Jackie Simms's former charges had rushed to her aid. Heavy friends had been enlisted: John Carey, the Merton professor of English, had pledged his support, as did Craig Raine at New College, and Elaine Feinstein and Richard Hoggart and David Constantine the Oxford historian. Michael Holroyd and the inner luminaries of the Royal Society of Literature fired off a letter to The Times. Hermione Lee wrote to the Times Literary Supplement. John Stallworthy, who founded the original Oxford Poets list in the Sixties, wrote to Oxford Today in spittle-flecked fury.

People muttered about the finance committee, which had approved Andrew Potter's plan to kill the poetry list. The committee's chairman is Sir Keith Thomas, the eminent historian, author of Man and the Natural World, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Did the decline of poetry mean nothing to him? Stallworthy wrote to Thomas, calling the decision "scandalous" and demanding to know what other parts of the Press were due to be axed. The OUP delegate from the English faculty, Christopher Butler, wrote to the finance committee to protest. And soon he would persuade the other delegates to see the error of their ways...

It didn't happen. At the crucial Tuesday meeting, arguments flew for an hour. How, the delegates demanded, could it have happened? The OUP, which once published Gerald Manley Hopkins, was being seen as anti-poetry. "The meagre sums of money you will save by cutting the poetry list," said one, "will hardly compensate for the flood of opprobrium that will ensue". Voices were raised. The businessmen from the academic division stood their ground. Then the delegates voted to ratify the finance committee's decision and the 30-year-old Oxford Poets imprint was a dead duck.

Why did it happen? It's because the university got too greedy. The administrators were worried about losing their special funding from the Government next year. For each student it takes on, the university administration gets a per capita grant that is pounds 2,000 more than any other university gets, except for Cambridge.

The Oxford dons are afraid of losing it when New Labour reviews its grant arrangements in 1999. So, fearful for its beleaguered exchequer, the administration has encouraged the Press to maximise its profits. The vice-chancellor, so the story goes, told the secretary to the delegates to make the Press more commercial. The secretary told his management experts to rationalise the publishing schedule. Operating by business logic, they offered a plan which included the End of Poetry. Startled, but with the vice-chancellorial directives ringing in their ears, the finance committee approved it. So, eventually, did the dons on the board of delegates.

"Word came down from on high, telling Mr Reece and Co that they'd better generate more funds," one English don told me, "and it all got out of control. The dons found themselves trapped in a corner, being told what to do by ignorant accountants, and losing huge amounts of face by having to go along with it".

And thus Oxford University votes against the future of poetry. It is the damnedest spectacle.