Founder and director of the publisher Peterloo Poets
Harry Chambers, who has died aged 75, was the founder and director of the publisher Peterloo Poets, and described by his friend Seamus Heaney as being one of the great "hearers and hearteners" of British and Irish poetry. In 1972, with the financial assistance of a bookseller, EJ Morten, he published four hardback volumes under the imprint of Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets. For a second series, Harry accepted a £2,000 Arts Council grant to publish further full-length collections that included the The Poor Man in the Flesh (1976) by Elma Mitchell, the first of many fine women poets who contributed to the growing reputation of Peterloo.
Notable among these was UA Fanthorpe, whose first collection, Side Effects, came out in 1978. Nine other Peterloo volumes followed, and her Collected Poems 1978-2003 were published in 2005.
When in 1976 Harry took early retirement from teaching, he moved to Cornwall with his second wife, Lynn, as full-time Peterloo administrator, and their daughter, Hannah. They were based first near Liskeard and then in Calstock. There eventually they were able to move the work of the press from their front dining-room and study to a magnificently converted chapel overlooking the Tamar, bought by the Peterloo trustees in 1996. With money from the Arts Council, lottery-funding charities and donations it was developed and opened three years later as the press's publishing premises and performance venue. Though often dangling on a shoestring, Peterloo was firmly established as an indispensable poetry imprint and, alongside the press, ran a modest international festival and a national competition that attracted many entries.
Harry was director of Peterloo Poets for the 37 years of its existence, during which time 240 volumes appeared, all handsomely designed in an instantly recognisable house style. He listened out for neglected voices, and, through canny negotiation, maintained the precarious independence of his press.
Born in Heanor, Derbyshire, Harry was the son of a schoolteacher mother and a colliery accountant father. He spent his early years in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where Jessie Chambers – the model for Miriam in DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers – was his father's second cousin. The family moved to Doncaster, where Harry attended the Percy Jackson grammar school. He did national service, took a degree at Liverpool University, and then after teacher training returned to his former school as an assistant teacher.
There he started a poetry society, inviting guest poets including George Barker and Peter Porter. His involvement with poetry intensified when he moved to Belfast to become a lecturer in English at Stranmillis College of Education, where for a while Philip Larkin – an abiding hero of his – had been librarian. There he met Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and James Simmons. Lifelong literary friendships were made, and Phoenix, a continuation of the magazine he had begun at Liverpool, became exclusively devoted to poetry.
In 1967, Harry moved to Didsbury College of Education, where he met Lynn, and in the following year he began to edit a series of Phoenix pamphlets which included, in addition to Heaney, Longley and Mahon, several other poets who went on to establish considerable reputations.
Lynn died in 2000, but Harry never let up. He was involved in every stage of publication, from selecting what was to be published from the 1,000-plus manuscripts he received each year, through to layout and jacket design. A favourite response of his if asked by poets when they might expect their book, once accepted, to appear was to mutter "the accident will happen". It invariably did until Peterloo closed for business and Harry retired to York in 2009. There he continued to search out restaurants, pursue his enthusiasms for jazz and crime fiction, and remained involved with many poetry activities until ill health made this impossible. In 2010 he was made an MBE for services to poetry.
Harry's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by Hannah, his sister, Elizabeth, and two grandsons, Adam and Joe.
• Harry Chambers, publisher, born 15 July 1937; died 14 September 2012