A Profile of Duncan Glen - Helena Nelson
(This article is available as a pdf file, for free download from the HappenStance shop and at the end of this article)
Note: Duncan Glen died in September 2008. The profile that follows appeared in the first issue of Sphinx. Glen was a warm supporter of the magazine, a helpmeet and adviser living not far away, invariably generous of his time, his good humour and his experience.
He was a champion of small press publishing.
~The Literary TASKS of DUNCAN GLEN, being an outline of his life as PUBLISHER, printer, GRAPHIC DESIGNER, essayist, local historian, photographer, biographer, editor and POET~
Born in Cambuslang in 1933, Glen served his time as a compositor, later attending Edinburgh College of Art. His academic career (ultimately Professor in Graphic Design) was combined with a lifetime’s work as an independent publisher. Akros is still publishing books, pamphlets and a magazine of character—ZED20. In 2000, Paisley University awarded Glen an honorary doctorate.
IN 1963 DUNCAN GLEN, AGED 31 and at that time working as an editor for Gibson’s in Glasgow, bought himself an ‘Adana’ platen and two cases of type. A trained compositor, he set to work on his own essay, The Literary Masks of Hugh MacDiarmid. He set the type on his lap, sitting in the living-room. He printed the copy on the dining-room floor, on his knees. The portrait illustrations of the great poet were hand-drawn onto the printed sheets. This was Glen’s ninth limited-edition publication and the first (but not the last) done entirely at home.
A labour of love, you might think—or madness—or obsessive determination. Whatever it was, something was driving the young Glen, and driving him hard. By 1965 (still working for Gibson’s) he started a new Scottish poetry magazine. It was called Akros. It was published three times a year for the next 18 years. “I was idealistic, innocent,” he says now. “I didn’t know about the competitive literary world.” Well, he would learn.
These days technology makes it possible for almost anyone to produce passable copy. It wasn’t always so. When Glen, his wife Margaret and their young son moved to Preston in Lancashire, the Adana went too. Once again, Glen was type-setting in the living-room. The print work was moved upstairs.
The reason for the move was Glen’s new job as college lecturer. From virtually nothing, he was helping to establish a BA course in graphic design, while running a not inconsiderable publishing enterprise from home. Not until 1967, did he allow any commercial printing of his publications. And even then, it wasn’t easy. Although the sheets of Akros now arrived fully printed, Glen and his wife had to “gather them”. Margaret then sewed them—by hand—into the covers. When their second baby arrived, her pram served the secondary purpose of transporting magazines for despatch to the Post Office.
Not until issue 18 of Akros was the whole process was given over to a commercial printer. By this time, Glen was printing not only lost or rare texts of Hugh MacDiarmid (which is where he started), his own poetry (pseudonymously) and the magazine, but also pamphlet first-collections of new Scottish poets. (Alastair Mackie and Giles Gordon were Akros poets Nos 1 & 2 in 1966.)
Over the next two decades, Glen published scores of books and pamphlets by Scottish poets and writers. At the same time, his personal output in both prose and verse was considerable, his academic job had led to promotion (with corresponding responsibility), and his list of correspondents was yards long.
At 53, he took early retirement from his professorial post at Nottingham-Trent University. And what did he do? Wrote an autobiography (in which the word ‘holiday’ never appears). Wrote poems. Published them. Published other people’s poems. Started another magazine. Published pamphlets and books about people, places, art, local history, writers’ references. His output, both as publisher and writer, has been consistently prodigious. What on earth makes him tick?
There is no doubt that Glen is a rare breed, a man who accommodates many opposites. He dislikes what he calls ‘belles lettres’ publications and identifies with the radical in publishing. At the same time, he is genial, charming, polite and courteous, both in person and on paper. He has stirred controversy in his time, yet he is a gentle man, with strong, close friends—and generous with his time and support.
As for influences, MacDiarmid’s poetry cast a powerful spell over him in his late teens (“Never had I thought that poetry like this existed; a poetry which spoke to me directly and yet was also beyond me in many places”) but at the same time, he was “absolutely bowled over” by Geoffrey Wagner’s checklist of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s works. This is a creative person who likes checklists. He likes facts and precision and names and dates—even in his own poems. At the same time, he is a true designer—he combines practical know-how with an artist’s eye and a mischievous imagination.
Glen’s restless activity is rooted in a marriage which has lasted nearly half a century: the ‘Celebrating 40 Years’ Akros checklist is dedicated to “Margaret Who Makes Akros Possible”. And indeed she is there at every turn, not only in photographic records, but sometimes as editor or co-editor, as typist, as supporter and as Muse—human love, with Margaret at its centre, is the wellspring of many of Glen’s best poems.
There is much talk these days of self-publishing, simply because modern technology makes this practicable. Glen self-published before anyone else knew how: his entire poetic oeuvre has been presented, designed and published by himself. No researcher will ever need to make checklists of his work: his own checklists include photographs, cover designs and, of course, accurate and well-organised facts.
There are downsides to this, however. Glen has been his own editor, his own marketer. As a poet, he has not had an enthusiastic publisher to sing his praises or even (dare I say it?) to suggest changes. He has been reviewed—of course—and often judiciously. However, it is different reviewing a respected publisher, someone who may himself choose to print (or not) the work of the reviewer. I am not suggesting that this has led to inflated praise but it may have created somewhat neutral comments, a certain tip-toeing around the text. He deserves better.
Because poetry matters to Glen: deeply and passionately. He does not write at whim. Poems, he asserts in his Autobiography, “come from areas of our psyche of which we have little or no direct knowledge or understanding” and he does not write without “the feeling they are there to be written”—“given” to the poet. Even articulating his own theories, this wryly thoughtful man combines confidence with diffidence: “Many poets of serious intention have built noble structures of theory but it may be that even when very influential, they are of greatest value to the poet who constructed them in giving him intellectual supports for his poetry.”
Though originally inspired by MacDiarmid, Duncan Glen is not like MacDiarmid. His strength is not in fiery conviction—it is in tireless and painstaking pursuit of something he is not quite sure about, a conclusion which never quite arrives, a mystery at the heart of things which no checklist can capture. But it is powerfully present in some of his poems. What better place for an end and a beginning?
There’s the mirk room I ken
Whaur she bides faceless, unkent;
A quate box-bed white wi her
I never kent but see again.
A shawl’d whiteness seen blin
Wi gruntin, soughin sounds
That turn me quick to that winnock
Daurk wi its hauf-drawn blin.
And on the waa the bress airm
O the licht is swung out
And mantles murmellin and lowin
Ahint globes I mind o as a bairn.
White waas that turn and rise to gie
A glisk o her I kent
Wha’s face I canna see, and ne’er will
Though she bides for aye in me.