I’ve been very much enjoying Gerry Cambridge’s account of the first twenty years of his journal ‘The Dark Horse’. Available from Happenstance Press, this is a beautifully produced book utilising elegant typefaces and layout. This is fitting since Cambridge is a specialist in print design and typography. Illustrations include front covers as well as correspondence from and portraits of, many of the characters involved in the magazine’s story. This book is a must read for anyone who is involved or thinking of becoming involved in poetry magazines, and it will also be of interest to anyone who has ever purchased or submitted to a ‘little magazine’ .
Cambridge is a fine prose writer and his light and witty style makes for a lively read. As well as details of the natty-gritty of obtaining finance and the physical aspects of printing and distributing a little magazine, there are sketches of the (mostly memorably idiosyncratic) poets and critics he has encountered along the way.
Other topics include poetry politics, cliques and prize-giving culture, the relationship between poetry and academia, and issues of editorial independence. If all this sounds a little too niche for the general reader, it isn’t. The book moves swiftly from one anecdote or topic to the next, and the writing is often elegant and never less than nimble.
As an occasional reviewer of poetry, I was particularly interested in the section that touched on that subject. When considering who to approach to write reviews, Cambridge states that he likes to ‘ assign books about which honest opinions may not be forthcoming to more senior, less easily impressed critics. They blow through the smothering hype around much current poetry, which is often mutually congratulatory, like a gust of January air through a mim-moue’d cocktail party. ‘ I must admit that I don’t know what ‘mim-moue’d’ means, but I get the gist. Cambridge continues
‘It is not that such critics are deliberately combative; they are merely unafraid. Fear of creating offence is a major issue in the contemporary poetry world, which is a relatively small boat; rock it, and you may be thrown overboard. And there is no large, popular readership to be validated by; there is only the sea.’
Cambridge implies that contributors (such as my own editor and publisher John Lucas, who has occasionally written for the ‘Horse’ over the years, ) had and have the integrity and independence to write candidly. These are reviewers who ‘enjoy, indeed, relish swimming’ in the aforementioned sea, and their lack of fear allows the sort of writing that might eloquently point out that an emperor of the poetry world is in ‘the altogether.’
Cambridge’s anecdotes of his encounters and exchanges of opinion with the great and good often have a sense of mischievous glee, as he depicts quirks of personality and points of contention over literary matters. He is also keen to point out his own moments of ignorance and naiveté as he navigated various poetry worlds equipped with nothing more than with what he subsequently came to see as misplaced confidence.
It is clear that Cambridge enjoys his status as a poetry outsider; as a non-academia (he is self-educated) who can hold his own in academic circles, as a Scot with Irish heritage, as a poet and publisher geographically removed from the London-centric poetry elites, and as someone who has created and sustained a well-regarded journal through nothing other than passion and perseverance. It is also clear that he has frequently re-evaluated the direction and values of the magazine in order that The Dark Horse evolves and reflects developments in the wide worlds of poetry.
‘Like poetry itself, at heart a poetry magazine is a celebration of the human spirit beyond awards, issues of reputation and all the attendant palaver. It is a free space of expression that transcends commercialism and other involved interests. It aims for the high ranges even as it scrabbles in the foothills.’
While reading this book I remembered that George Harrison named his record label ‘Dark Horse’. And later that morning I encountered another dark horse. Crossing a field, I came to a stile where this chap stood and refused to budge. I didn’t fancy trying to get past his head and navigate the space between his ample flank and the fence. I reasoned with him for a while before deciding on a three-field detour. I thought how Gerry Cambridge’s choice of name for his journal was not only apt for the reasons he gave – ‘the outsider , the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner’.Perhaps it also reflects a certain dogged determination to stand and remain exactly where one wishes, regardless of persuasion, expectation or unrecognised command.
A dark horse