I like little literary magazines - see my article on England's literary magazines, 1985-2012 - and The Dark Horse is the magazine I'm currently most impressed by, so I looked forward to reading this book by that magazine's editor. The magazine began small (of Spectrum, a magazine he'd previously been involved with, he wrote "the magazine later progressed to staples", p.13), so he knew what he was letting himself in for - "Even today, an air of romance, faintly comic buffoonery and Dionysiac energy may still cling to a little magazine of any note" (p.11). It was in the early days of quality DTP, and e-mail wasn't used, which made transatlantic communications tedious.
He had early support from Dana Gioia - "I found New Formalism engaging because of its 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" (p.17). Later, "what I had, some time before, begun to consider the tedium of much New Formalist writing was quietly phased out" (p.101). The US connection has continued though, bypassing London.
The magazine hasn't always appeared on time, but he's never compromised on quality. He writes excellent articles, reviews and poems, so he knows what to look for from contributors
- Articles and interviews are carefully commissioned. He publishes pieces he might not entirely agree with - "I thought Brooks-Motl most interesting in her forbearance in attempting to comprehend particular poems and poetries I would have peremptorily dismissed, life being short enough" (p.137)
- Reviews can be as long as articles. He emerged into a world where "[Ian] Hamilton had reviewed Philip [Hobsbaum]'s first book, The Place's Fault (1964) three times: 'once under his own name, once under a pseudonym, and once anonymously - and each time negatively.' Despite that, Philip '[bore] him no ill will'" (p.99). But the environment's changed since then - he points out that "The community expectation in contemporary poetry is that almost everything is good. Therefore, relatively small cavils can be taken as large criticisms" (p.154). Objective reviewing isn't easy, especially for insiders, so in The Dark Horse the same book has sometimes received 2 reviews. It does no harm to have US people reviewing UK books and v.v.
- He points out various factors that enter into deciding which poems to print. "In an attempt not to be fooled, to have the highest standards, I brought to submissions a rather severe, truculent, almost begrudging sensibility ... It was: You say you're writing poetry? Okay. Convince me." (p.20). "At a certain point in a poet's reputation or fame, a poetry magazine needs the poet more than the poet needs the magazine" (p.57). He was on the look-out for neglected poets. Young Scottish poets get more of a look-in than they used to.
When editors meet, they often end up talking about money. Donations may need to be rejected, and even grants come with strings attached. It took a while for him to phone his grant-giving body's Literature Director to say 'I've decided my attitude towards applying for funding for the magazine has been holding it back. I'm going to apply for more money.' The reply was 'At last' (p.117).
Some editors also discuss typesetting. This book's illustrated, which adds much interest - all the covers are shown, the design for many of them discussed. The book's set primarily in Miller, a 'Scotch Roman' category of type. He admits that for the cover of issue 26 he replaced the 'RR' of Grafika by Rs from Hypatia Sans, stretched and thinned. And was the leading in issue 15 too generous? Decide for yourself. The index is over 8 pages long, so it's easy to find items of interest.
And editors chat about submitters (especially the excessive ones), subscribers and supporters. Many remain anonymous in this book, but you'll find Hecht, Heaney et al amongst the pages.
As well as learning about the magazine's growth we discover about the author. From decades as an auto-didact living in a caravan he's become a judge of the 2016 National Poetry Competition. His integrity and independence seem to have remained intact, but what about his poetry? "As I have got older, my taste both in reading poems and in what I aspire to write myself has tended away from the ludic towards a poetry stripped bare, even when written in persona, of affectation: a simplified writing of plain statement, but a simplicity achieved having passed through complexity, not halting before it" (p.131).
There's a typo on p.70 - "Hewas"