The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine
The Dark Horse:
The Making of a Little Magazine
- Gerry Cambridge founded the Scottish-American (now transatlantic) poetry magazine The Dark Horse in 1995 and celebrated its twentieth anniversary issue in 2015. This excerpt is from The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine (HappenStance Press, 2016)—a lively “anecdotal account” of the magazine’s history that comes with color illustrations of covers, photographs of contributors and various correspondence.
In the summer of 1994 I was awarded a Scottish Arts Council writing bursary. With some of the money I decided to set up my own magazine. I had caught the little magazine publishing virus. I enjoyed the buzz. I enjoyed receiving mail in my relatively isolated caravan. I enjoyed the idea that I, a self-taught Irish peasant one step removed, could take part in that bigger conversation as well as writing my own poetry. My own, doubtless romantic, view is that if one engages in it truly, the world of poetry is like a marvelous island where people of all backgrounds and economic levels and skill sets meet. Or, at least, this is so for those with a broadly shared aesthetic. All that matters on that island is the quality of the work. It is analogous to a quote I have been unable to corroborate but fondly think attributable to Robert Frost (riffing off Tennyson) in response to a lady attending one of his readings: “I may look like a pauper, madam, but my poems occupy the palace of art.” In those days I looked like a pauper, but I had pride where my own poetry was concerned.
I wrote to Dana Gioia, the American poet-critic, already widely noted on the US literary scene for his 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly “Can Poetry Matter?”—an indictment, among other things, of the creative writing industry in the United States. I’d become aware of Dana through a special issue about the American New Formalism movement in the poetry magazine Verse. My letter mentioned in passing that I was starting up a new magazine of my own. Around ten days later, which was more or less “by return” in those transatlantic pre-email days, his reply said he’d be willing to be a “conduit” for work from America provided I made the new magazine “of more than local interest.” It was a characteristically astute proposition on Dana’s part. It provided this US poetry movement with a potential outlet in the United Kingdom, however small, both in terms of critical prose and poetry. But it also worked to the—still unnamed—new magazine’s advantage. For one, it helped lift the magazine clear of what is often a problem in any small country’s literature—parochialism of the worst kind (there is a best kind), nepotism, lack of self-criticism and self-evaluation. And, in its early loose alliance with New Formalism, it helped give the magazine an identity.
New Formalism these days has largely disappeared from view. As I wrote for the Oxford Encyclopaedia of American Literature, it
- began in the late seventies and early eighties as an informal grouping of younger writers dissatisfied with the prevailing poetry orthodoxy in the [American] Academy. No doubt they felt limited and constrained by an aesthetic there which focused on a subjective, confessional “I,” usually in free verse, and, as young poets of any curiosity at all are likely to, began looking for other models. They found them particularly in the work of poets such as Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and X.J. Kennedy, writers of wide import who had either kept faith with meter and rhyme or, in Jeffers’s case, told stories. These young poets, who included Frederick Turner, Frederick Feirstein, Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, also grew increasingly aware that poetry had lost its common audience . . . and had become a subculture, cut off from the life of the mainstream culture and increasingly enervated. They saw the use of meter, rhyme, and narrative as perhaps a way of attempting to address this situation—to escape the ghetto-ization of contemporary free verse.
This alliance with New Formalism created a slightly odd disjunction in the magazine in the early days. I have never been a great joiner of “movements.” I am more likely to attempt to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Nonetheless, I found New Formalism engaging because of its focus on form and accessibility as a means of reaching a “common reader” who had long given up an intelligent interest in poetry and its criticism due to the obscurities of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and other elements of the avant-garde. In Scotland, though, and for that matter in Britain, one still to some degree took a common reader for granted. Nor was form politicized as it had been in the United States, where its critics allied it, interestingly, with political conservatism. In Britain you wrote in formal or free verse as the fancy took you. The notion of form being politically conservative seemed strange—major contemporary poets such as Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn, politically left wing, gave the lie to that. (Now, though, their use of the tradition’s great forms, given their subject matter, can seem deeply ironic.) The Horse’s association with New Formalism, while it worked well mostly, created a dichotomy for the magazine in how it was perceived by the poetry “community” in Scotland, of which more later. But at that point there were more pressing issues. Such as, for instance, the new journal’s name.
Naming a new poetry magazine is a significant matter. What will the journal stand for? What, as Ian Hamilton, that doyen of poet-editors, once put it, is its “project”? Its identity? Its intention? Its aesthetic? People have often asked me where The Dark Horse’s name came from. Sometimes I say it was the name of a pub in Kilmarnock (now called The Hunting Lodge). Back in Spectrum days, Mick Higgins, the resource center worker who gave us access to computers, perhaps sensed the slight abrasion between Stuart Paterson and me. One afternoon, prompted by the former’s enthusiasm and understandable nerviness about access to the equipment, he tried to wind him up by saying, suddenly, “What was the name of that magazine you were talking about starting, Gerry?” I had been talking about no such thing.
“The Dark Horse,” I said, without thinking. Somehow this name remained in the offing when the magazine was being born. Briefly, The Corncrake was also a possibility; I liked it, as a lifelong bird person, for its unfashionable unexpectedness and its pastoral note. Then I began thinking that calling a poetry journal after a rapidly declining and reclusive land rail likely to become extinct in Britain might not be the most auspicious idea. The Dark Horse—the outsider, the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner—gradually asserted itself in my mind.
I certainly liked the outsiderness. I was thirty-five. I lived in a caravan. I had never been to university. Owing to my own psychological peculiarities, I was an autodidact in an old Scottish tradition. My attitude was: if you could read, you could educate yourself. (So much for the English departments of the world’s universities.) I’d been attempting this in poetry for, oh, the previous dozen years or so. In a sense, I was The Dark Horse’s projected ideal reader. I would make, I must have thought, the magazine I wanted to read. In my shambolic and bumbling fashion, I conceived of the Horse in those days as a larger external simulacrum of my own poetic “project”—assuming I knew what that was. So, poetry with a “taste for the genuine,” but lit with anarchic energy and humor too. Poetry written out of the full humanity of its speaker. Poetry, as I once wrote hyperbolically in a magazine editorial, aware of the impossibly high standard I was setting, with
- the metrical virtuosity of a Milton, the rhythmical energy of a Jeffers, the radioactive despair of a Larkin, the cranky perfected individuality of a Crowe Ransom or Mackay Brown or Dickinson, the sheer accuracy of an Elizabeth Bishop, the unpredictable idiosyncrasy of a Norman MacCaig, the mysterious playfulness of a Frost, the grievous witnessing of a Zbigniew Herbert, the passion of a Sorley MacLean, or the exuberance and difficult optimism of an Edwin Morgan—ideally, of course. Yet not quite in the manner of these writers. One looks to be surprised by something beyond all of them, something as fresh and wholly itself as a particular light-struck tree, an arrangement of clouds, or a skanky old dog in a city backstreet. One looks for, as Marianne Moore pointed out, and insofar as one can recognize it, what is “genuine.” But not just that.
I also wanted the magazine to run prose written with some of the virtues of higher journalism as to fact and interest, avoiding the whiff of the academic. My early freelancing for the British Reader’s Digest magazine between 1983 and 1988, when I was in my twenties, helped. Though it then sold 1.5 million copies a month, I mocked it snootily. (I always chuckled over Stephen King’s set pieces sniping at this mass-market magazine in his novels.) But such journalism’s requirement for the readable exposition of even quite complex material had made me impatient of what I call the “polystyrene chip” school of writing too divorced from any root in the actual.
My model back then for superb critical writing, which doesn’t seem so far off the mark even thirty years later, would have been the Randall Jarrell of Poetry and the Age. More up to date exemplars, in a different style, might have been the essays and reviews of Ian Hamilton, Dana Gioia, or perhaps Michael Schmidt’s An Introduction to 50 Modern British Poets—its potted summaries still seem a model of engagement and concision and readability. We weren’t talking theory, for God’s sake. It wasn’t about writing essays to pass exams and achieve high marks in a university context. Not that the writing I envisaged precluded high intelligence, to the extent I could discern it. But I wanted the force of a whole sensibility, with nothing time-serving about it. I wanted it to matter. And what was behind this? That you should stand for what you wrote. That the words you used were significant. I came out of a subservient tradition of respect for authority in which utterance itself was not only unexpected but an achievement. I had always thought my own poetry aimed at reaching a point where I could speak without embarrassment in the poem: a space in which the poem’s speaker (whether my autobiographical self or a narrator) fully occupied their own words.
In an attempt not to be fooled, to have the highest standards, I brought to submissions a rather severe, truculent, almost begrudging sensibility. I held up each submitted poem, metaphorically, by its corner between finger and thumb as if it were something slightly tainted. The approach then was not the openhearted generosity recommended in other contexts. It was: You say you’re writing poetry? Okay. Convince me. Similarly with the criticism. What I asked myself when reading it was: “Will readers (i.e., me) find this interesting? Or is it not fully engaged, merely an exercise?”
Allowances, I think, can be made. Starting a little magazine is a fool’s enterprise. So is keeping it going. Such a venture, as I would later write, is “begot by sheer daftness upon unreasoning optimism”; it “represents the temporary triumph of idealism over reality.” I had a telephone—it was, after all, 1994—in this caravan, and a radio, but no other technological accoutrements.
The arrival of the postman was a big event in the day. The red post-van passing my window without stopping would leave me quite crestfallen. I had partly begun the magazine to receive mail and thereby offset at least literary loneliness. My then partner, Aileen McIntyre, was opposed to me beginning it at first but once it was obvious that the great wave of impetus would have to be launched upon, and ridden, she warmed to the idea. A woman of formidable intelligence, she was a greatly valued sounding board and reader of potential contributions for the first ten issues of the journal. I was Scots by adoption but essentially an Irish Catholic by parentage, living in one of the most sectarian parts of Scotland and sharply aware of my outsiderness.
To some extent my retreat to the caravan had been a way of trying to “work myself out” in a simplified environment before reentering the world “to alter with age.” No wonder I was beguiled by episodes like Robert Frost’s years of complete obscurity, before his move to England and later acclaim. Emily Dickinson was also one of my guiding spirits. In my twenties I had read her entire corpus one winter and, ignorant of the massive complications of her own background, imagined myself (comically I think now) as a sort of male version of her. Except I could not manage the “I cannot live with You—it would be Life—” sensibility. I wasn’t sufficiently frightened of the sexton’s key. I had had my self-scrutinizing retreat by that point, and wanted no more of it. Work on Spectrum and then on The Dark Horse marked the beginning of my emergence from this long, self-imposed darkness.
Editors & their magazines
The relationship between a little magazine and its editor is intriguing. Some long-lived journals have an identity which is passed on and subtly or radically changed by subsequent editors. London’s Poetry Review, Chicago’s Poetry, or Scotland’s Edinburgh Review are of this type. The new editor takes over the journal but is not its founder.
In other cases, a magazine is inextricably linked with one editor, and is occasionally portrayed as a life’s work that saved him (it is usually, in this scenario, a “he”) from what Robert Frost called “the greater desolations.”
Aquarius, the journal founded, published irregularly, and run from London by Eddie Linden, is of this type. The magazine is positioned as the literary equivalent of a stray dog which the unwitting editor has to rescue and nurture, so saving himself from alcohol and meaningless destitution. It is a story full of charm and optimism, for running a poetry journal successfully has the heartwarming air of all hopeless enterprises undertaken against the odds.
Other poet-editors, however, exist in an ambivalent relationship to the journal they have set up. Even with a biannual magazine, the publication becomes a sort of monstrous, giant over-looming child—or in this case, Horse. It perpetually demands large amounts of food, i.e., content; it stretches the poet-editor’s multitasking abilities to their limit. No sooner has one issue gone to the printer and been sent out than another has to be planned; the submissions pile up in toppling towers and silently rebuke like a bad conscience, demanding to be read and given thought to; your own poetry, which was why you started the whole enterprise in the first place, is clamoring for attention. Small wonder that a decade is a long life for a little poetry journal. An eloquent précis is supplied by T.S. Eliot. He edited, in its various transmutations, the Criterion, later the New Criterion, and later still the Monthly Criterion (before its quick reversion to a quarterly) through most of the 1920s and 1930s. On March 12, 1923, a year after founding the Criterion, Eliot wrote to John Quinn:
- I am now in the midst of a terrific crisis. I wish to heaven I had never taken up the Criterion. . . . It has been an ever-growing responsibility . . . a great expense to me and I have not got a penny out of it: there is not enough money to run it and pay me too. . . . I think the work and worry have taken ten years off my life. I have sunk the whole of my strength for the past eighteen months into this confounded paper, when I ought to have been minding my own business and doing my own writing. The paper has therefore done me more harm than good. . . . In order to carry on the Criterion I have had to neglect not only the writing I ought to be doing but my private affairs of every description which for some time past I have not had a moment to deal with. I have not even time to go to a dentist or to have my hair cut, and at the same time I see the Criterion full of the most glaring defects which I could only avoid by having still more time for it to devour.
—from The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors by Ian Hamilton, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976, p. 70
Eliot goes on a bit, yet it is all there: the sense of having fathered this time-swallowing insatiable infant (and being fathered by it); the sheer anxiety; the hint of craziness about the enterprise; the ambiguity in regard to the journal. I think any poet-editor, in their darkest moments, would recognise this scenario. The self-portrait of a straggle-haired, tooth-achey, high-stressed Eliot over-loomed by his Criterion has often made me wish I had a caricaturist’s gifts.
Setting up the journal—Dana Gioia—the electronic ruralists
But this was the autumn of 1994. A new enterprise was being born. I had plans. Letters between Dana and me crossed the Atlantic with reassuring regularity. He had the gravitas and the American connections that I, the shaggy uncultured caravan dweller with a long-standing interest in American poetry, aspired to. I mean, I was in the sticks in Ayrshire. You fitted together what small pieces of literary life you could.
I was a romantic socialist by long exposure to Scottish culture, tempered by the subconscious hierarchies of my Catholic conditioning. Dana was, as far as I knew, politically conservative. Before his turning freelance as a poet-critic and general man of letters in 1992, he had been a vice-president of General Foods. He was frequently compared to Wallace Stevens as a “businessman-poet.” There was an air of no-nonsense professionalism about him. This was combined with erudition lightly worn, a refreshing lack of egomania, and a highly developed sense of the comic. He seemed, in every sense, an achieved spirit. He advised from his business background that I had to get a logo for the journal—something that would instantly identify the magazine and what it stood for. “Of course,” he said, “it’ll have to include a horse. A dark horse.”
This was a more complicated task than it seems now in our instant-access online world. In the hunt for an appropriate image I went so far as to commission, for a small sum—ten pounds or so—a graphic from a local artist. It was not a success. “Couldn’t he have given it longer eyelashes,” Aileen McIntyre said, “and had it wearing high heels?”
People have often asked me where the image of the horse for the magazine came from. I based it on a woodcut in an art book I possessed, reproduced in small format, which somehow I must have scanned or copied to access it electronically. The original was called (not without some irony, I think now) “The Bewitched Groom,” by the Dutch artist Hans Baldung Grün. An enigmatic image created around 1544 and featuring a recumbent groom and a horse, it has never been fully explained.
My equine was loosely based on a detail from the original. The electronic version was of such poor quality, with numerous broken lines, that I had to complete these manually on the computer, effectively making it a new image. What should have been a single graphic ended up having around thirty component parts. Since I lacked the technical skills to group them together as one, I had to move each part individually every time I changed the position of the horse. This, combined with the slowness of the early computers—the first of which had a forty-megabyte hard disk—made anything using our horse logo a slow affair. It was years before the indomitable Joe Murray, at that time the publisher/typesetter and editor of Glasgow’s West Coast Magazine and a very clever and good-spirited man, scanned all these for me as a composite.
Somehow, I had got hold of a computer. It was a secondhand Macintosh SE, one of those early Apple machines that looked like a small gray square television. It had a black-and-white screen the size of two postcards placed together one above the other. You squinted through this into the ideal world of the finished journal. The computer sat in pride of place on the tabletop in the tiny kitchen of my caravan. It behaved mercurially at first—sometimes the screen would crackle into broken lines and go blank without warning.
I recall a saga of stressful visits, with the man who sold it to me, to an Apple repair shop on a bleak industrial estate in Glasgow, where they eventually diagnosed the problem as a “cracked motherboard.” Once it was fixed it worked reliably and the first seven issues of The Dark Horse, as well as hundreds of my own poems, were typeset and typed on it using an early version of Aldus Pagemaker of dubious origin: the only way to get anything like that done when you had no money.
It was the early days of the desktop publishing revolution. Typesetting, if not quite publishing, from a caravan in the woods had become possible. The poet-critic James McGonigal had coined a phrase for this, and for the likes of me, in an essay: “the electronic ruralists.”
If I go into The Dark Horse’s beginnings in some detail, it is to show what was involved. Editors of little magazines are usually general dogsbodies. They don’t sit in their ivory towers above the crude or messily creative plains below. They have to develop a range of skills including accounting, typography, design, and editing; a certain amount of psychological acuteness helps too.
Word got around. Submissions began coming in. Dana suggested an American assistant editor, Thomas DePietro, to deal with the journal administratively in the United States, send out contributor and subscriber copies, and gather submissions and subscription checks. The latter would be grouped and sent to me as a single sum, thus avoiding considerable currency conversion charges on small individual transatlantic checks in dollars. Submissions began arriving, excitingly with American postmarks, and Dana’s substantial letters often included suggestions for poets to contact and essays he believed might be suitable for the journal. It is to his credit that these were seldom more than suggestions, though occasionally they would be strong recommendations. All final decisions on the magazine’s content were left to me.
Young poets or poet-editors often find or seek out the tutelary spirits they need. In Scotland for me these included the Orkney poet and short story writer George Mackay Brown. The Galloway poet William Neill was another exemplar—writer of some of the best contemporary Scots poetry in the language, and a man who still hasn’t been given his literary due.
Dana was hardly a poetic influence on me. He had been a precocious youngster brought up in urban Los Angeles. I had been a teenager with an obsession for wild birds and birdnesting used to stravaiging the fields and woods of Ayrshire. We had very different sensibilities, preoccupations and knowledge sets. As an indication of what a literary life or a life in poetry might be, though, Dana was exemplary. I took great pleasure in receiving his clear typed letters, invariably on white cotton paper folded into white or airmail envelopes with a range of exotic American stamps. Often they would contain clippings or other pieces he thought I would find amusing or interesting. A little poem I wrote at the time, inspired by one such clipping, gives some idea of the dynamic between us:
A Triolet Epistle/Squib
“Gioia Consults Muse for Poetic Inspiration”
Gioia Consults the Muse
For poetic inspiration
Too many of us could use.
Gioia Consults the Muse
(Though I must resort to booze
Here in the Scottish Nation).
Gioia Consults the Muse
For poetic inspiration!
So: what chance of her address?
(My liver would be grateful.)
I’d promise to consult her less.
What chance of her address?
Only she, alas, can bless;
The whisky option’s hateful.
What chance of her address?
My liver would be grateful!
Now I know that you’re well-starred:
The Muse finds you delightful.
Hungover and red-eyed, the truth is hard,
Now I know that you’re well-starred,
Her favorite consulting bard;
Me, she finds quite frightful.
Now I know that you’re well-starred:
The Muse finds you delightful!
I see you and Euterpe dancing
about the paradisal tree.
Ringed by gazelle and leopard prancing,
I see you and Euterpe dancing,
Consulting (and of course romancing)
With light’s perpetual gaiety.
I see you and Euterpe dancing
About the paradisal tree.
There was an element of New York pizzazz and stylishness in Dana’s letters that I found, in my relative Ayrshire penury, inspiring and invigorating. There may have been something, too, in his being an Italian-American and a devout Catholic who positioned himself as an outsider and gadfly of the contemporary poetry scene in the United States. His advice about, and interest in, the new enterprise was invaluable, even if it did open the magazine to paths it would not have followed had I been left to my own sensibility. Or perhaps, especially because it did.