Annual Dinner

 Guest of Honour Dr Robyn Marsack


Leaving her native New Zealand at 20 to study at Oxford, Robyn found herself taking a sudden detour from the road to an academic life when she noticed that Michael Schmidt - founder of the Manchester-based Carcanet Press - was not publishing the works of her favourite war poet, Edmund Blunden. When she asked why not, he invited her to edit a selection of Blunden's poetry and thus she joined the firm, placing publishing and poetry at the core of her professional life, in which the greatest joys are to read and to have the sense of internationalism that is key to the institutions with which she is involved.

Edwin Morgan was included in Carcanet's strong Scottish portfolio, and as she was about to leave Oxford, Robyn met the Scot whom she would marry - and who was hugely impressed that she was joining Morgan's publisher! Life as a publisher's assistant, however, was not all glamour - she became Green before it was fashionable as she had to scour the streets for cardboard and string for parcelling up books. When her husband was appointed to the University of Glasgow she moved north, becoming a freelance editor for Carcanet, Polygon and other publishers. Yale University Press offered her the opportunity to copy-edit the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by the private scholar and collector Ernest Mehew. It was his life’s work and he was critical of her editing, until he realised on meeting her that she was the granddaughter of the author of a Samoan grammar he was using, and thus a bridge was built.

In 1999 the position of Director of the Scottish Poetry Library was advertised, shortly after the new building for the Library had been completed off the Canongate. Asked in interview what she knew about new buildings, Robyn claimed no knowledge but said that she could learn. The ensuing sixteen years were to be much taken up with snagging items and with other related issues - flooding, archive accommodation, an extension - which meant that she ended up learning rather a lot about buildings!

It was however a privilege to spend these years also revelling in poetry and meeting poets both national and international. She made good friends in that community, among them Diana Hendry, whose excellent poem 'The Real and The Unreal Scot' (about adjusting to moving north from England) she read. She maintained her interest in publishing, and during her time at the Library edited or commissioned 26 volumes of poetry, almost all anthologies, beginning with one to mark the Makar Edwin Morgan's 80th birthday. A particular favourite arose from a suggestion by a GP from the Borders: Tools of the Trade, which contains poems providing insight and comfort for junior doctors, and is distributed free to all graduating doctors in Scottish medical schools. She looked forward to similar volumes being addressed to other professions, such as teachers and social workers,  that might speak to the heart of their hopes and dilemmas. The last volume she saw to press was inspired by a line from Morgan, Whatever the Sea, andbrings together poets' reflections on the impact of ageing.

Taking poetry to people meets a deep human need to identify the phrases that capture the significance of their feelings. Since leaving the Scottish Poetry Library last year, Robyn has become a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Glasgow, advising postgraduate students on their writing across a wide range of disciplines. She also translates from French and has resumed her interest in Blunden’s work. She concluded by reading Kathleen Jamie's 'Here Lies Our Land', which she helped commission for the refurbished rotunda at Bannockburn. She will always be grateful to the Poetry Library and to Scotland for giving her the opportunity to sustain poetry at the heart of the nation’s cultural life.