The Dark Horse: Cantering into the Literary Limelight

After being edited for a period from Hugh MacDiarmid's cottage, boasting Seamus Heaney as a lifetime subscriber, and publishing high calibre contributors including George Mackay Brown, The Dark Horse is a thoroughbred. It's now 20, and its time to party.

Feature by Michael Pedersen | 02 Jun 2015
  • The Dark Horse

The Dark Horse magazine is 20 years old. Hurrah. Two decades it’s been spearing out unwaveringly high-brow, hard-edged, top quality work into them international literary circuits and it’s time to throw a party. I mean, of course, a carefully curated series of events of superlative cultural merit, featuring readers of an appropriate tonal timbre and temperament; but yeah, fuck it, let’s just call it a splash of parties throughout June. One in Edinburgh, one in London, one in New York.

Started in “a moment of madness” by editor Gerry Cambridge and named (coincidentally, Gerry claims) after a former pub in Kilmarnock, The Dark Horse holds its own with any of the UK’s long lasting top-tier literary slabs – having published works by the likes of Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan, Edwin Morgan, Wendy Cope, Alasdair Gray and Richard Wilbur. Other tomes that’d likely fall into that category would be PN Review, Times Literary Supplement, The Poetry Review, The Rialto, London Review of Books, Edinburgh Review and a few others.

It’s safe to say that to many writers of a younger ilk, most of them there magazines feel impenetrable and, dare I say it, out of grasp to all but the poetry elite. Whether that’s heresy/poppycock is not for us (rather me) to decide right now; what I would mutter is that The Dark Horse, whilst retaining the faith and fortunes of the upper echelons, also draws on a noteworthy pool of fresh-faced talent over the past few issues: Richie McCaffery, Niall Campbell, Claire Askew and Helen Mort to name but a few. "We believe in poetry as possibly the highest literary art," Cambridge comments, "and take it with all the seriousness, if not solemnity, that such an idea merits."

The Anniversary Issue is a prime example of the rich and varied buffet of treats these pages proffer; it includes a hilarious work by Jim Carruth (Glasgow’s newly appointed Poet Laureate) focusing on a farmer caught in bed with a young pig/sow (post-coitus). Pages away from this is Anne Stevenson’s piece on the Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy, hacked to death by Islamist fanatics. I will admit that I also have a piece in the magazine, but testament to this fact, the main protagonist is a Durham student prone to masturbating in public, in the bushes outside the nearby all girls college. On the flipside is a 7,000 word groundbreaking essay by Dr Miriam Gamble (Oxbridge graduate/currently one of the Deputy Directors of Edinburgh University’s Creative Writing Course) on the New Zealand poet and novelist Janet Frame.

"We believe in poetry as possibly the highest literary art and take it with all the seriousness that such an idea merits." - Gerry Cambridge

The Dark Horse has laid its head down in a curious spread of stables; most beasts of its calibre are commonly hosted from shopfronts in Bloomsbury Square or studios within riverside arts centres. Gerry comments that: “The magazine was founded on the kitchen table-top of a 28 foot long caravan in Ayrshire, where I lived for 20 years, out in the Ayrshire countryside: the lowest temperature I recorded was minus 19.8°C (which I wrote about in a poem of mine, 'Frost', in Madame Fi Fi's Farewell). For ten of those years I had no running water. I also edited The Horse out of Hugh MacDiarmid's cottage for two years when I was Poet-in-Residence there from 1997 to 1999; it's a registered museum. So I guess a caravan and a museum class as a bit unusual. I was a 'lonely literary amateur' in Dana Gioia’s memorable phrase."

Now located in the depths of Lanarkshire, the magazine’s subscriptions are going “up and up, and have been, actually, since the recession – and since Facebook, which has made a big difference.” This in a time when many other paragon publications are shifting to online only. The Dark Horse too has a transatlantic output – with a US Editor and stateside office. Cambridge notes this came as a result of the “American contacts which I established when I worked with another little magazine, Spectrum. But I've always been interested in American poetry. The American poet-critic, Dana Gioia, was a major supporter of the journal in its early days.” 

There’s been plenty of gems landed into the submission pile of The Dark Horse, examples of which are an unsolicited prose piece from Heaney on MacDiarmid; also “New poems by the likes of Kay Ryan, Eddie Morgan, George Mackay Brown. An especial pleasure was getting Philip Hobsbaum (who had known everyone, including Hughes & Plath at Cambridge) to write little memoir type pieces about those early encounters: Ted Hughes at Cambridge; Patrick Kavanagh in Dublin; Peter Redgrove, etc. He was also a dear and much lamented personal friend.” (He died in 2005).

Not all interactions with the literary community have been so friendly or fruitful. “Of course, literary magazines always annoy people, especially folk who believe they should be published in them. There was the case of a New York professor who returned a defaced copy of an issue to me, all the way from New York, after I rejected his work and was silly enough to give reasons  silence is always better  with all the poems in the issue that showed, he thought, the faults I'd pointed out in his rejected submission marked up. And another submitter who sent a single blank page after a rejection with the statement, unsigned, on it as follows: 'YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING, DON'T YOU.' This seemed potentially quite disturbing. However, I often keep cover letters from submitting poets, and was able to match the handwriting on the envelope to a cover letter. So I knew who had sent it. Knowledge is power!”

The Skinny: It's safe to say you're a bit of an aficionado when it comes to design and typography  how important is the aesthetic to you in publishing? There must be a few tricks of the trade you can share with us?

Gerry Cambridge: "I've learned 'on the hoof' about this aspect of publishing over the last twenty years. Good typography and design can help credibility, though I also quite like the thought of something quite scrappy and shabby which, quality-wise in terms of content, is superb! I'm a self-confessed type-nerd, yes, and I have a visual background from my late teens and early twenties as a natural history photographer, so I combine all that. I often try out new typefaces in an issue of the magazine, and I regard each cover now as, in a small way, a new creative project and try and make each issue look as different from each other as possible, with one point of constancy, which is the magazine's logo."

The Skinny: You've collected a flock of winning plaudits over your years in circulation, including letters and support from Seamus Heaney; can you tell us a bit more about that?

GC: "Seamus Heaney was an early supporter of The Horse, being born just a few miles up the road from my mother. Twice he donated to the magazine, so was a lifetime subscriber, the second time with a cheque for 500 euros — after the magazine had ran a feature which heavily criticized a version of a poem he’d translated of Sorley MacLean’s! He was a magnanimous and generous spirit."

The Skinny: Two decades on and not a single event to be seen nor heard of – why start now?

GC: "I guess because very few so-called ‘little’ magazines last longer than ten years. So I think that’s worth a bit of celebrating."

To the shows: They are simply riddled with literary top dogs and savants, the likes of (2014 Forward Prize Winner) Kei Miller, (one of the UK’s biggest selling contemporary poets) Wendy Cope, (OBE & Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry Winner) Douglas Dunn and a close cadre of revered others.

An impending performance worth highlighting is a poetry set from long-time Dark Horse supporter and author of seminal novel Lanark, Alasdair Gray. Something to behold, I’m sure you’ll agree. 

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Tickets are currently on sale for The Dark Horse birthday parties in Voodoo Rooms (Edinburgh, 4 Jun, featuring Alasdair Gray, Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver, Claire Askew, Findlay Napier); Vout-O-Reenee’s (London, 12 Jun, feat. Kei Miller, Wendy Cope, Clare Pollard, Niall Cambell); and Poets House (New York, 20 Jun, feat. John Foy, Daniel Brown, Marcia Menter, Ernest Hilbert)