Interview: Gerry Cambridge

Andrew F Giles

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The Dark Horse magazine has become widely respected within the poetry community. What were your aims for The Dark Horse when you founded it in 1995, and how has the magazine evolved?
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I don’t think I had anything as ambitious as ‘aims’ in 1995. I had no idea the magazine would run—to date at least—for seventeen years. Insofar as I had aims it was to publish the best poetry and poetry criticism and reviewing I could get hold of, in tandem with writing  my own poetry. Setting up and editing a magazine is far from selfless, of course. Its self-assertive aspect is often overlooked. You want to be part of a cultural scene, however marginally. I was living in a caravan in the Ayrshire countryside. I had almost no money. I had been co-editing Spectrum, a little magazine founded by Stuart A. Paterson. After a difference of opinion, I found myself still with the impetus to publish. The American poet-critic Dana Gioia, with whom I’d been in correspondence, offered to be a ‘conduit’ for work from America, provided I make the Horse of more than local interest. In those pre-internet days, this was a more significant offer than it sounds. I accepted it. In connection with the American side, Dana was a significant part of the journal as a source for possible material and a general US advisor till, oh, about ten years ago when he took up a post as Head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
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For its first several years the Horse was loosely associated with New Formalism in the US, a movement which emphasised the use of traditional poetic techniques such as metre and rhyme in a bid to bring poetry to a larger public. This association was, mainly, pragmatic in that it helped give the magazine an early identity. Temperamentally, though, I’m not a joiner of movements and the journal began moving away even from that loose association around 2000. I don’t feel the magazine has ‘evolved’ (though my taste probably has), so much as consolidated what it was initially attempting. That is, as well as publishing the best poems I could find, I also wanted it to be an intelligent forum for debate via interviews, reviews, and essays. Further, I wanted it to be encouraging of polemic on occasion. I’ve always felt its prose was one of the most important aspects of the magazine. Interesting poems may turn up in many a poetry magazine. Top-notch critical prose is harder to source. In my view, the poetry scene needs that type of critical engagement. Writing well about poetry is an art in itself, one not taken very seriously these days.
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There are currently a number of magazines in Scotland producing new poetry – Gutter, Valve, Octavius, NLP etc alongside the ‘old guard’ of The Dark Horse, Northwords Now, Edinburgh Review etc. Is there enough room (and enough funding) for them all to prevent a devaluing of the scene’s quality?
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It takes quite a long time to establish a reputation for a journal. Ultimately, only quality, as one perceives it, matters. I enjoy the buzzy atmosphere of all this activity but I don’t regard the Horse as being in competition with any of the above magazines. For one thing, it’s the only journal among those you mention that focuses purely on poetry, has a transatlantic identity and has established a distinct presence in the US, with a US ‘office’ ably administered by our terrific US Assistant Editor, Jennifer Goodrich, helped by our US Contributing Editor, Marcia Menter. (When the New York-based publication Poets and Writers decided to run a feature on literary magazines of transatlantic interest, in their January/February 2012 issue, The Dark Horse was one of only four journals chosen.) And, as far as I’m aware, no other Scotland-based literary journal (with the possible exception of Edinburgh Review) would be likely to publish a 7,000 word essay-review on a remarkable poet such as Kay Ryan by a poet-critic such as Dennis O’Driscoll, as The Dark Horse has just done in our new issue, number 28. One reason is that it’s very difficult to get such pieces from major poet-critics. Any look through the Horse’s back issues will confirm that we’ve published some of the major names alongside complete unknowns. Not that it’s all about ‘major’ names. The Horse has frequently, I hope, had a healthy disregard of literary consensus. Bringing attention to unjustly neglected figures and printing good new work by relatively unpublished writers is also one of the fun things about editing the magazine.
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Geoffrey Hill recently suggested Carol Ann Duffy is over-democratising – even dumbing down – poetry.  NLP contributor Allan Massie replied by saying: “Duffy uses language confidently and straightforwardly to express meaning, Hill to puzzle out or extract meaning”. Should poetry be a demotic form? Or does poetry benefit ultimately from being “demanding… rarely yielding its meaning till it has been read several times”?
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I’m not sure about ‘should’, in this context. Let poetry be whatever it chooses to be, according to the lights of its writers. Let the readers read whatever they choose to read, according to their own lights. I can enjoy the Border Ballads as well as ‘Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’ or ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’. Such polarities as the ‘demotic’ or the ‘demanding’ in poetry immediately suggest or make appealing their opposite. From the poet’s point of view, sometimes you want to write plainly and straightforwardly—or, rather, that’s simply how the poem begins to present itself. The issue then becomes to make the finished piece sufficiently aurally memorable to be worth returning to. Do you read a poem such as Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’, say, and puzzle over it? No. It’s as clear as water. Its power resides in the sheer force and panache of its statement and the adroitness of its handling of the sonnet form. Some of the most memorable lines in a poem I’ve ever published in The Dark Horse were by a poet called Stephen Andrews. The poem’s called ‘Childhood Swan’: a memory of his father having to put an injured swan out of its misery. It finishes:
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That night the level of the loch rose
By however much one swan weighs.
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Linguistically, that’s not extraordinary, and it’s absolutely plain in expression. But the poet’s perception, put into plain words, is haunting and extraordinary—in my view. I’d say the current reading ‘ethos’ in the poetry world privileges poems that need to be read several times to make sense of them, but that’s not the only marker, if it is one at all, of poetic quality. And there are all sorts of gradations along a line from ‘clear as water’ to ‘difficult’. As a poet it can be fascinating trying to decide where on that line to ‘pitch’ your poem for an audience, insofar as you have control over such a thing. I’m not for a poetry of unnecessary obfuscation, but you also have to allow the reader to meet you at times, imaginatively, halfway. Someone like Robert Frost was a master at it. It’s in this sense that I’m not opposed to the ludic: ‘play for mortal stakes’, as that great poet wrote.
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Is there a tension between editing a poetry magazine and writing your own poetry? How does your editing of The Dark Horse affect your own written work?
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To your first question: apart from pressures of time, which can be considerable, for me there is no tension. (I should mention here that Tanya White, my editorial assistant, often provides a valuable sounding board for work being seriously considered.) To your second: I suppose endlessly assessing and making decisions on estimable submissions over the years for The Dark Horse, and editing prose, makes you more critical of your own writing and, therefore, arguably improves it. It can also have spin-offs in less expected ways. For instance, I so weary of the endless wordiness of blurbs for poetry books I’m sent for review that I was relieved when my own new volume’s publisher, Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press, suggested we do without when my book was printed. Far better to trust the reader’s intelligence and let the poems speak, or not, as the case may be.
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The reading of poetry in public can be a process fraught with difficulties of tone for new and old poets alike. Perhaps taking into account your skills as a musician, what qualities does a good performance need?
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Modulation between the serious and the humorous, a decent balance between introductions and the poems themselves, and a respect for your audience as listeners. And, as I think Ian Hamilton—or was it MacCaig?—once said, if you can’t make it good, make it brief. Another element I’ve recently become interested in is reciting at least partly from memory. This new interest was prompted by a remarkable voice workshop for poets I took part in, in April 2011 at Cove Park under the aegis of Polly Clark. It was tutored by Kristin Linklater who has developed a method of accessing one’s own physical voice as an embodiment of inner life. Performing a poem from memory changes your relationship with the piece and can lead to an evolution in reading it to audiences, much as the poem went through in successive written drafts to reach a final printed form.
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Does a poet need to perform their work, or can they be content to be fixed within the space of the page? Do some poems benefit from not being performed?
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A poet doesn’t need to do anything, apart from write his or her poems. There are many not very impressive poems that would benefit from not being performed. But I suspect what lies behind your question is the old dichotomy between poetry for performance and poetry for the page. At the two extremes as they’re commonly expressed, performance poetry is one-dimensionally unmemorable on the page and page poetry is impossibly obscure in performance. I like the idea of, and aspire to, a poetry of heft which is equally comfortable in the two modes. And yes, I think it’s good that poetry be performed—it adds a human element to what can otherwise seem an overly rarefied art.
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Who are your favourite people writing and performing poetry in Scotland, or further afield, at the moment?
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I don’t have contemporary favourites, and wouldn’t want to name them if I did, though it’s a fine thing to be part of such flourishing poetic enterprise. My impression is that there’s a lot of new activity among younger Scottish or Scotland-based poets after what seems a long hiatus. Examples, some of whom have appeared in The Dark Horse, include Richie McCaffery and Niall Campbell, just published in pamphlets by HappenStance Press, as well as Janette Ayachi, Claire Askew, Charlotte Hoare and Michael Pedersen. And not just the young writers: Andrew Sclater, who has just won a ‘New Writers Award’ from Scottish Book Trust, seems to me chockful of creative energy, enthusiasm, and invention. I’d also like to mention Will Harris and Richard Osmond, two young poets who have just set up 13 Pages, a poetry journal from St Andrews put together with some finesse. I encountered it recently at StAnza. I admire poets who set up such endeavours. I know what it involves.
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NLP’s theoretical stance can be basically summed up as a belief in the constant reimagining of works of art – what Walter Benjamin might call a ‘constellation’ of influences that shift ambiguously over time. Who are the poets, musicians and artists that make up your ‘constellation’?
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I believe in a poetry of consequence and emotional veracity—which need not necessarily be that of a lyric ‘I’ identified with the biographical self of the poet. This makes me a touch chary of, though by no means entirely opposed to, the ludic in some aspects. Certainly I can muster very little interest in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Lest this mark me down as one of the ‘steely trimmers’ Donald Davie once talked about in relation to critics, I should emphasise my fondness for gaiety, energy and humour in poetry. I also have a liking for a poetry direct from life, not from other literature. Yet I remain open to surprise and am happy when I find my supposed preferences trumped by living exceptions. The appreciation of poetry is a very personal thing: you can’t take someone else’s word for how good a particular poet or poem is. No amount of hype—which is why hype can safely be ignored—will convince you as a reader if you can’t appreciate a poet or poem for yourself.
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The question of a ‘constellation’ feels too complex to respond to without merely listing all the great figures of the Western tradition. Poetry and poets I’ve read with real enthusiasm, and sometimes with obsession, at various points include the Anglo-Saxon translations by Michael Alexander collected in Penguin’s The Earliest English Poems, Chaucer, the great Scots makars, the Gawain poet, the great Romantics, Emily Dickinson, Edward Thomas, John Crowe Ransom, Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Frost, R. S. Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Hecht, Jack Gilbert, Sylvia Plath, Phillip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig and Douglas Dunn. (Yet this hardly begins to cover the poets I’ve read with gratitude.) In art, Picasso, Eardley, Dufy, the Impressionists, among others. And too much music to talk about sensibly. But as a harmonica player, blues of course, and I love the wonderful, soulful renditions of Irish traditional tunes by the County Clare fiddler Martin Hayes and the guitarist Dennis Cahill.
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How would you describe the current heft and direction of your poetry – the “fire in the hearth to world’s edge fire” of your recent collection Notes for Lighting a Fire (HappenStance) — especially with reference to the aforementioned constellation?
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My new book is my first—if you discount the prose-poems about wild birds of Aves from 2007—since Madame Fi Fi’s Farewell in 2003. A lot has happened personally in those nine years, and I’m probably a more considered character as a result. A fair number of the poems in Fi Fi were written out of infatuation with one woman in different guises, and the note struck by the rest of the book has some of that state’s energy and gaiety. In ‘Notes for Lighting a Fire’ I feel as if a lot of my themes—fascination with light, male experience in regard to aligning itself to what is female, my sense of astonishment in the face of the physical reality of the universe we live in, and at the transformations which take place within it—have come together. A new thing, though, is the concern with family. A central poem in the book is ‘Light Up Lanarkshire’, which at one level is about coal-mining in south Lanarkshire refracted through family stories of my paternal grandfather. I only knew him a little in my childhood. Possibly as a consequence he has become a mysterious, in some ways talismanic, figure for me. The poem was prompted by the local council’s scheme in 2006 to light up at night various notable buildings in the county. One of them was the Miners’ Memorial at Cambuslang, a few miles from where my grandfather had worked for 40 years. The poem weaves together various elements: the physical amazement of coal as ancient ‘light made solid’, the social reality of mining as an activity which, for the ‘landed’, ‘permitted clear skin and flowers in vases’, and various stories about my grandfather handed down to me by my father. (At the time I wrote this poem my father had recently suffered a fall in his eighties which flipped him into vascular dementia, so thoughts of family were uppermost in my mind.) ‘Light Up Lanarkshire’ ends with an invocation to the whole idea of illuminating things. Many of its themes can be traced in other poems throughout the book. The title poem, for instance, links to it directly, though this link might not be immediately apparent.
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As a poet my ambitions have been relatively straightforward: to make authentic poems about things which matter to me with all the technical brio I can muster. And, because that sounds too documentary, for them to have in addition that indefinable quality my old friend George Mackay Brown would have called ‘a thread too bright for the eye’.
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Michael Donaghy said: “I’m in it for the discovery. If writing poetry were merely a matter of bulldozing ahead with what you’d already made your mind up to say I’d have long ago given it up for something more dignified”. How do you respond to this statement?
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Broadly, with agreement. That said, you can make the ‘discovery’ in your head before you write the poem and the art then consists in bringing that perception to some aurally memorable form on the page, which is a whole other thing and will change the so-called discovery unrecognisably. It’s akin to coaxing a recalcitrant cat to come to you. I cannot imagine what ‘bulldozing ahead’ would be like in the context of writing a poem. Poetry is fundamentally exploratory for the poet, even when it doesn’t appear to have been so from the finished poem. Sometimes I’ll show hesistant youngsters, in school poetry workshops, drafts out of my notebooks, shambolic near-illegible scrawls of crossings outs and reconsiderations, and say, ‘Don’t worry: making poems is a messy business.’ For me, writing a poem is always a negotiation between discipline and abandon, with happy chance as its animating principle.
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Gerry Cambridge has poetry in The Spectator; The Hudson Review; The Independent; Dream State: The New Scottish Poets (2nd edition), ed. by Donny O’Rourke; The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poems, ed. by Douglas Dunn; A Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Maurice Lindsay, etc. You can read Gerry’s own overview of his new collection, ‘Notes For Lighting a Fire’ (Happenstance) here, and it is available here.
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