• Collected
  • Article

Dark Horses

Editing a poetry magazine

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

It was October 1994. I lived in an Ayrshire caravan, my home since 1977. I was approaching thirty-six years of age. I had recently had a slight but significant change of fortune. After years of piecing together an existence from the ritual humiliations of life on the dole interspersed with piecemeal jobs and volunteering, I’d been awarded a modest writing bursary from the now-defunct Scottish Arts Council — the first material recognition of any talent I possessed as a poet. (I’d enjoyed, years before, early success as a journalist.) I was out of the Irish working class. I’d had no formal education beyond the age of eighteen. I did, though, possess an obsessive streak and a good memory: I could apply myself energetically to anything that I loved. I had worked through several of these obsessions — ornithology (from age thirteen to eighteen), natural history photography (from seventeen to twenty-three) and, since my mid-twenties, poetry: reading it, writing it, and the whole palaver and pizzazz around its publishing. I would have gone to the gutter in pursuit of this obsession. I almost did.

At the time, I’d also been helping out with a small, short-lived magazine that was part community enterprise, part aspiring to belong to the ‘real’ literary world. That involvement had recently ceased, for personal reasons. Writing just my own poetry – for I had hundreds of poems – had started to seem self-indulgent. (I once wrote forty sonnets in a week.) Some force in me – some rising tide of irresistible intention – inclined me, against advice, to start my own magazine. I had basic computer skills, learned by working on the previous publication. I’d bought secondhand an early Apple Mac SE, a small, grey box that sat like an altarpiece on my caravan’s kitchen table. I had a small Apple printer and a borrowed version of Pagemaker, the then-standard software for desktop publishing. It all seemed a large advance from the multiple midnight clackings of my Olympia ‘De Luxe Traveller’ manual typewriter. The Ayrshire gales and rain rattled and flexed the aluminium box of my hilltop caravan that winter; the frosts drew thick, lavish ferns on the inside panes; but its cramped space was a lit, lively centre of publishing potential.

I had help: a heartening transatlantic correspondence with the American poet-critic Dana Gioia. He offered me a lifeline out of a too-constricting involvement with the Scottish poetry scene. ‘Make the journal of more than local interest,’ he wrote, ‘and I’ll be a conduit for new work from the U.S.’. Consequently, the magazine had a strong American component. Dana was linked to the big professional world of poetry publishing in New York. He was extraordinarily, and not entirely selflessly, interested in this new venture. He sent ideas, suggestions, sourced strong American prose and poetry, and helped me take a professional approach. I learned what an em dash was. I was forced to consider matters of design. Dana also bought twenty-five gift subscriptions for his – mainly England-based – UK poetry contacts. He encouraged me to send out review and complimentary copies to have the magazine seen beyond Scotland. He took poetry, and its criticism, with a bracing seriousness.

And that was how, one half-remembered day in April, 1995, 500 copies of a new poetry magazine, with a plain buff-coloured card cover, stapled, fifty-six pages in extent, were delivered to my caravan. After a brief flirtation with the title The Corncrake, a nod to my rural, ornithological background, I had chosen the more enigmatic The Dark Horse. (The definite article was important: there are many Dark Horses in publishing, but only one is a poetry journal.) Our launch issue was a large-format, glorified pamphlet. Owing more to luck than skill, I’d decently typeset it in New Century Schoolbook. It printed a poem by the Pulitzer-prizewinner Richard Wilbur and an interview with the iconoclastic American poet X. J. Kennedy (the ‘X’ standing not for Xavier or Xerxes, but for nothing at all; its author’s real name, Joseph Kennedy, he thought too well known already). Also included was new work by Scottish and UK poets, among them the established Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson; one of my longest-standing friends in poetry, A. B. Jackson; and a special feature on a distinctive Dumfries poet, Kirkpatrick Dobie. (He had recently published his first commercial collection, a Selected poems, in his mid-eighties — thus giving, as some wag commented at the time, hope to all aspirant poets under the age of 83.) My first editorial possessed an ebullience I by no means felt, and which I now recognise as characteristic of launch editorials in little poetry magazines by ambitious young poets. (There is often a comic disparity between the zealotry of such pronouncements and their likely readership.)

Dana Gioia had set us up with a US headquarters. After initial hiccoughs, from issue three we were joined by our US Assistant editor, Jennifer Goodrich, who maintains an office space and editorial address for the magazine in New York state to this day. The poet and former editor of mass-market women’s magazines, Marcia Menter, plays an advisory role.

I quickly learned that many a poet-editor has a troubled relationship with his or her publication. In its production you need to be also commissioner, marketer, form filler, dogsbody, adroit social psychologist, and if, like me, you’re a control freak, designer and typographer. The journal becomes a constant preoccupation. Poetry submissions arrive by the shedload. Certifiable rejectees send responses intimating violent retribution. In the popular literary imagination one view of a little magazine editor is of a shambolic, probably alcoholic, chancer, oleaginously searching for one millionaire patron; truculent, driven wholly by devotion to the shining values of art and truth: a flawed, sacrificial, almost saintly figure. This exaggerates the selflessness involved. I think of each issue of The Dark Horse as a long poem intimately connected with me creatively. Consequently, not only have my critical skills developed along with the journal, but I have discovered a substantial interest in print design and typography. I am now often asked to undertake such work for others. As The Dark Horse has evolved, it has evolved me.

Much has changed in contemporary poetry publishing since the magazine’s debut. Our early issues affected a bristly antagonism towards the established poetry scene. We retain a polemical streak, but comport ourselves now more dignifiedly. Representation, of gender and race, is now foregrounded. There is a far more developed poetry ‘community’, fostered by the creative writing faculties in universities, which may weaken robust criticism and reviewing, independent thought, and debate among colleagues. The uninvolved, ‘common reader’ of old seems a rarity: if it’s not careful, a magazine can seem to be speaking only to other writers. Such factors add to the complexities of publishing a journal. But there is also the sheer gaiety of the enterprise, the relishing recollections of encounters that would not have happened otherwise: the eminent poet-scientist G. F. Dutton, at a meal in his Perthshire hillside home after our interview in 2004: ‘More than one Nobel Prizewinner has broken bread at this table’; the gay Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan to a bunch of young men (including me) after I read with him in Ayrshire: ‘Did you ever see the film An American Werewolf in London?’ None of us had. Morgan: ‘My fangs are growing longer by the minute.’ Timothy Murphy, a gay, alcoholic, millionaire venture-capitalist and former altar-boy from Fargo, North Dakota, who sent me his whole first manuscript to choose poems from for the early issues of the magazine. Encountered again in 2014 after an interval of fifteen years, years in which I became increasingly follicly challenged, he drily appraised me with three words: ‘I expected hair.’ That critical Rottweiler, the galvanising Philip Hobsbaum, a contemporary of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at Cambridge, pouring near-half-pints of Macallan whisky in his Glasgow living room: ‘To be a critic, one must have read a very great deal.’

The twenty-first century is a cultural battleground, much of it exacerbated by social media. The magazine is twenty-five this year. Our most recent issues, taking a stand against shoddy, accusatory poetry criticism and ‘cancel culture’, have been among the most controversial in the magazine’s history. Now one of the leading poetry journals in Britain, the Horse is sustained, albeit uncertainly, by subscriptions and Creative Scotland patronage. If it all came crashing down, I think I would continue to publish the magazine, however austerely, perhaps stapled like the earliest issues, yet full of top-quality writing I could advocate for wholeheartedly. Making a memorable artefact is deeply satisfying, but so is being a participant – however modest – in the annals of the poetry publishing story. Little magazines can be advance scouts for extraordinary talent. The best provide an aesthetic example. They may form a valued early outlet, later remembered fondly, for superb writers. Recently, optimistically, I commissioned a new, magnificent Horse drawing by the Scottish artist and poet Gerald Mangan. Strikingly detailed in Indian ink, it conveys energy, precision, persistence, perhaps a tinge of melancholy, and something more mysterious and indefinable — beauty? Dignity? Qualities to espouse, I think, as the magazine prepares to step, if not quite canter, into its second quarter-century.

Gerry Cambridge’s sixth book of verse, published in December 2019, is The Light Acknowledgers & Other Poems (HappenStance Press). His anecdotal, book-length history of The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine and Sundry Divagations on Poets, Poetry and Poetry Culture, appeared from HappenStance Press in 2016.

You might also like:

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons
Collected Article

The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.…

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack