Little magazine. Big story.

I’ve always specially liked the term ‘little magazine’. It sounds so un-literary. But of course, it’s the reverse.  

This is how the British Library defines a ‘little magazine’:

‘a literary magazine, usually produced without concern for immediate commercial gain, and with a guiding enthusiasm for contemporary literature, especially poetry’.

Yes—that just about nails the sort of publication I have in mind. Something both bizarre and respected, in many ways a bit of a throwback, of both academic and amateur interest.

Wolfgang Görtschacher, editor of Poetry Salzburg, has published two whole tomes about ‘little magazines’. Richard Price, who at one time co-edited Gairfish, Verse and Southfields, and in his own right, Painted, Spoken, has (with David Miller) co-authored a detailed bibliography and history of the British breed, from 1914-2000.

So little magazines are started (and sustained) by people with a bit of an obsession, and then they’re written about by people who have a somewhat obsessive interest in them. And meanwhile, the rest of us (when they’re poetry magazines) read them, rage about rejections from them, celebrate them when they print our poems, and wonder how and why anybody does this thing, this magazine thing.

Little magazines start by being anti-establishment. They specialize in reacting against this or that. They don’t always end up that way. Malcolm Bradbury makes a distinction between the little magazine and ‘significant literary journals’ like The London Review of Books and the TLS. But the borderline between little magazine and significant literary journal is a sort of no man’s land. What is ‘significant’ anyway? What sort of person has the authority to express views on literature, on culture?

The truth is, as it ever was, that anybody can start a little magazine. Anybody can print and publish their say, and the say of others. Anybody at all can start it. Even if you have no money at all, there is always a way. But very few can keep it going over decades. The editors who do this are a species apart.

If the story of the long-running little magazine is told at all, it is usually in fragments by a researcher: a chapter in a book, a paragraph in an article. The editor is too busy to do it him- or herself.

And so when Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse, said he was thinking of writing the story himself, after two decades, I was encouraging.

I have a connection to disclose. Actually, several. Gerry was the first editor to publish any of my poems (though the first ones were in Spectrum, not The Dark Horse). When he started The Dark Horse, I subscribed and became a regular contributor of both poems and critical writing. I have read every single issue of the magazine from then (1994) to now. As HappenStance editor, I published a volume of his poetry, Notes for Lighting a Fire, as well as his essay about typesetting poetry, The Printed Snow. Somehow, I have now known Gerry for long enough for him to qualify as ‘an old friend’, a person I trust and respect as a poet, editor, type-setter, book-designer, fountain-pen collector and expert on birds and ink. 

So—he did it. He actually wrote the story of the Horse. It was neither simple, nor straight-forward. It nearly drove him daft in the middle—doing both this and all the other things that sustain life and the magazine itself. It look longer than either of us anticipated, but the tale has been told—and HappenStance has published it, an honour and the completion of a cycle.

Gerry’s book is called The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, and it has a mischievous title-extension too ‘& sundry divagations on poets, poetry, criticism and poetry culture’. It is a handsome volume—large and orange, with numerous colour plates showing the magazine’s design over the years. Among his other talents, Gerry is a first-class photographer, so there are fabulous monochrome pictures of writers too. And, of course, the story of the magazine, in three sections.

If you want to know what makes a person do this little-magazine thing, you may be able to work it out from this account, though I’m inclined to think it remains a mystery. Indexed by Margaret Christie (herself a HappenStance poet), and typeset and designed by Gerry, the book is an idiosyncratic and entertaining source of information about a little slice of literary experience and the associated personalities. You can dip in, or read from beginning to end. If you leave it lying about, someone else will pick it up, start to flick through (nodding and smiling), and may well slip it into their bag. It is that sort of book.