One of the advantages of working in the Scottish Poetry Library is you get a first-look over the new titles sitting on the shelves. Last week I snapped up Ben Lerner’s provocative and self-explanatory The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo), and this week I snaffled The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine (HappenStance), Gerry Cambridge’s account of running his magazine, the aforementioned The Dark Horse.
Having once toiled for this august publication, I am fascinated by accounts of running magazines, whether they be somewhat modestly-sized such as Cambridge’s or the diaspora of memoirs that have over the years poured forth from New Yorker staffers. While it wouldn’t be true to describe The Dark Horse as a one-man band, it is a magazine that has broadly borne the stamp of its pugnacious editor since it began in April 1995, a period I must confess in which I was more interested in Britpop than Scotpoetry.
The Dark Horse’s USP was declared on its masthead, ‘The Scottish-American Poetry Magazine’, which for a time put off a number of potential American contributors who assumed it meant only those who could trace their ancestry back to Caledonia need apply. The hyphenated identity of the journal was only meant to indicate a then-almost unheard of deep enthusiasm for poetry originating on both sides of the Atlantic. Cambridge’s logo was his way of emphasising The Dark Horse’s determination to forge its own agenda without reference to whatever London’s literati had judged modish. It would be a mistake, however, to think that The Dark Horse was allergic to poetry from doon sooth, with Cambridge praising as a model of the poetry he was after Wendy Cope, as well as pursuing an interview with his hero, the take-no-prisoners editor Ian Hamilton (who he interviewed and ended up talking about Leeds United as much as he did verse).
Cambridge’s bullishness was evident from issue one with its fangs-bared editorial: ‘It is as well to begin by stating what The Dark Horse is not. It is not a magazine for partly-achieved work among which the occasional fine poem glints like a diamond; nor is it intended only to be interesting to those who appear in its pages; nor will it feature backslapping and only partially sincere reviews.’
It’s that spirit, no doubt, that has kept the magazine going over twenty years, from the humblest of origins. Cambridge started the magazine from a caravan ‘in the sticks of Ayrshire’, which appears partly to have been some sort of misguided tribute to Thoreau. His dedication cost him, or, as frenemy Philip Hobsbaum put it to him, ‘Gerry, how on earth do you expect to keep a woman? You have no property, you have no degree, you have no financial resources, you don’t even have a driving licence!’
I can personally testify to Cambridge’s high standards. Over four years of choosing a weekly poem for the Scotsman, he is the only poet to turn down the chance to appear in print, not because he has anything against the Scotsman or (I hope) me, but because he was concerned, no doubt correctly, about how the paper would lay out his poem.
His book has that rarest of qualities, that of consistent interest; I found it hard to put down, much more so than the rubbishy thrillers that often are described in such terms. I’m about to return it to the SPL, so if you see it on our shelves, do borrow it – or even, dare I say it, consider a purchase.
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You can browse the Scottish Poetry Library’s autumn events brochure here.
Upcoming events at the SPL include:
For National Poetry Day, the Eyewear Showcase – four poets published by Eyewear, including Scotland’s Marion McCready and Canada’s Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke. The event takes place on Thursday October 4 at 6pm.