December 23, 2012

essay "Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art--A Youthful Reflection"

A few days after writing about my Sun & Moon magazine and press in relationship to the death of Sun Myong Moon, I discovered among my files an essay I had written in 1976, the very year in which I published our first issue. I don’t even recall penning this piece for the Maryland Arts Council, and I am quite startled by both its youthful enthusiasm and, at times, its insights (“A lifetime of frustration may result.”) The concepts of “hot and cold type,” “hot wax,” and large paper purchases now seem something out of an ancient text, but were crucial issues at the day. And if my easy metaphorical relationship of publishing with a Broadway show production is glib and today seems somewhat embarrassing, it is appropriate for a young man who so loved theater throughout his youth. If my younger comments seem, at times, blissfully absurd, I am, nonetheless, in admiration of that lost self for some of my insights and disparaging comments about my own impossible undertaking. Alas, most of my disparagement was merely bluff; I was already hooked and was ardently committed to literary publishing as I remain so today. If I had enough money (the problem with both the endeavors) I’d probably still attempt to produce a play!

sun & moon: a journal of literature & art--a youthful reflection
by Douglas Messerli

If we were to believe the motion picture industry, the national fantasy of the thirties and forties was to produce and star in a Broadway show. Once Hollywood got hold of the idea, of course, it didn’t matter whether such a fantasy had previously existed or not. It soon did. It was myth, and therefore it was truth. The ritual lines are still in our blood (at least in my blood): “Hey kids! I’ve got an idea! Let’s get together and make a musical!”

I remember, as a child growing up in the fifties, living with that fantasy and acting it out in the form of “plays” in our basement, sometimes with others—a cousin or a shanghai’d brother or sister—more often alone. But by the 1960s, we had grown up, both as individuals, and, one hoped, as a nation, and we were interested in more“serious” things. And one of the most serious of all things was to begin a newspaper or a little magazine. I won’t call it a national fantasy, but from the evidence of those working around me, and from the statistical facts, there were certainly great numbers of individuals who actually said, “Let’s start a journal.” Of course, these were all sorts of little magazines, dealing with everything from politics to health food. The kind of journal that I was interested in, a literary magazine, may never have such an impetus as in the middle and late sixties, but it had a long tradition, especially in this (20th) century. And I suspect that those of us with a “literary bent” dreamt of being editors simultaneously with producing Broadway shows.

The dangers of such manufactured fantasies are obvious. As we all know, most of these fantasies are unrealizable, and a lifetime of frustration may result, and, thus, I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually stop dreaming and act. My “fantasy” was finally realized a few months ago, at a time in my life when I have long since perceived the absurdity of such fantasies, and at a time when I have no more illusions about the simplicity of beginning a journal than I have about the possibility of a few friends getting together and opening a Broadway show. Working on the Index to Periodical Fiction,* both my co-editor, Howard Fox, and I had studied the hundreds of small journal which yearly replaced hundreds of others that couldn’t survive. So we had no excuses. We knew the odds against the project on which we were about to embark. Moreover, neither of us had had any editorial experience, so we were in the strange position of not being blind, and yet being in the dark. I thought it might be interesting, therefore, to share some of what I learned from this unusual vantage point, so that others who can’t shake their fantasies can bring their fantasies, when and if they must, a little more easily to life.

It was late in May 1975 when Howard and I decided to pool our interests and begin a magazine of literature and art. We had thought out loud of the idea previously, but this was the first time that we took ourselves seriously. We had just been indexing the small journal, The Floating Bear, and we had seen in it an exciting magazine that had not been printed, but mimeographed. It was not that mimeographing appealed to us, but that it was affordable. By beginning with a mimeographed journal, we could publish immediately, and as we caught on—so our reasoning went—we could improve our format.

I suggested the title Sun and Moon, a title of a novel by the Austrian, Albert-Paris Gütersloh. I’d never read Sonne und Mond (it has never been translated), but the title had appealed to me, and now it seemed to apply nicely to a quarterly that would try to embrace two different and yet related disciplines.

Later, we were to reconsider. We were afraid that it might sound too dated, as if it were something from the sixties like The New Moon Trading Post. For a while, we considered calling the journal The Literature and Art Quarterly, but that was too academic. Eclipse had too many negative connotations, although we felt it signified a dramatic event. Other titles were too provincial, too clever, too cute. When our friend Marjorie Perloff suggested we change the “and” to an ampersand, we found the journal’s name stuck.

Now that we had a title, we immediately sent out letters to several of favorite authors and artists who had previously contributed to small magazines. Our letters were honest and personal; we made no large claims, pretended no exceptional experience. By late June and early July we received some responses. Far sooner than we had expected, manuscripts were arriving. Actually having the stories, poems, and artwork in our hands, we suddenly realized that we couldn’t mimeograph. We both felt we owed it to our contributors (some of them noted figures) as well as to our egos to somehow afford a better format. Our first step, understandably, was to find out what else was available to us.

In the heat of late July and early August, I made the rounds of a few local printing centers, where I quickly learned a little about terms that had been previously vague, such as “letterpress,” “cold type,” “offset,” and “type composers.**” At least I now knew that I was looking for a composer on which I could rent time, and I was seeking an offset printer whom we could afford. That summer it seemed that no one except IBM had a composer we could use, and it was beginning to look like we were doomed to the typewriter’s unjustified margins, instead of set type.

Late in August, Merrill Leffler, of Dryad Press, mentioned the Print Center, Inc. in New York. However, to use the Print Center was impractical, especially since I hoped to be able to do our own typesetting (I am still a speed typist, and had worked as a typist in the year I lived in New York). To stay in New York for that length of time was not only unaffordable, it was impossible, since the classes I taught began in a week or so. Merrill also suggested we contact a place in Baltimore that we heard might be getting a composing machine. It was called The Maryland Writers Council.

It’s needless to say what happened. Here I am writing for their newsletter, and anything I can say could only sound like an in-house testimonial. Let me just say that what the Council offers was perfect for a journal of our sort. But of course that hardly meant that every problem was solved, that now the issue could proceed without more ado. There was still type-size and style to choose, paper to select, and my own lay-out work to do.

The latter two problems were the difficult ones. The first was simply a matter of choice. The facts that we managed to add $50 to $100 to the cost of typesetting by doing revisions after some manuscripts had already been set, and that an issue which we planned to be eighty pages long suddenly turned out to be one hundred pages, I claim, are common-place mistakes beginning editors make. I suggest that future editors without experience should expect those kinds of problems; it is somehow inextricably linked up with an editor’s fate.

On paper, however, I can give advice. One should find a large paper company and helpful clerks and one should ask to see everything the company has. The more different types of paper one can see, the more ably one can choose exactly what one wants. We chose a laid stock because we had developed certain aesthetic associations with it. But even laid papers differ, sometimes quite radically, and it took several weeks to choose the paper we liked and could afford.***

Doing the lay-out on the journal, that actual pasting-up of the pages, is where I learned the most about what a little magazine is all about. Some important considerations had begun to arise already in proofreading, and as I waxed each page, carefully aligned it, measured each line for evenness and rolled the sheets into place, I reread it, wondering if, now that we had an issue, whether we truly had magazine. Did the works we had chosen come together to say anything as a group, as a voice? For many weeks after we had begun receiving manuscripts and had turned away from the mimeographed format, we had debated what we should be. We modeled ourselves, very vaguely, after magazines like John Ashbery’s Literature & Art, a journal we felt to be superior. But, of course we had neither yet developed the friendships or taste of Ashbery, and we hadn’t yet the attraction or the resources of his journal. Our contributors, for the most part, we felt were excellent, but were comparatively few. And, more importantly, we still hadn’t—perhaps we still haven’t—clearly established our own taste. Our solution has been eclecticism, but from those other journals with which we had worked we learned that eclecticism is not to be a hodge-podge of quality, styles, and tastes. Had Sun & Moon resolved those problems? I couldn’t answer that question. I knew I would have to wait. No editor can be without these fears, and at no time are these fears more prominent, it seems to me, than when he is literally putting the journal into shape.****

Meanwhile, I had numbered wrong for perfect binding, I was having troubles without inserts, and, without my new glasses, I wasn’t sure my lines were truly straight. But two weeks later I was finally finished. Once again, good fortune saved the day. Long-experienced editors Pam and Charley Plymell***** working on their own journal had been on hand to give their expert pointers and advice.

Now the flyers have been mailed, subscriptions are being taken, the issue is at the binders, and I wait impatiently******. I have lost all objectivity, and I can no longer tell whether Sun & Moon will be the journal that I had once dreamt about. It doesn’t really matter. For I have made something, and despite all the difficulties, I enjoyed doing it. Most importantly, I learned so much. Finally, I guess if I reconfirmed to myself that such fantasies are absurd, I also rediscovered the beauty and important of those fantasies, especially when there is that urge to bring them to life. But please, please somebody top me if I try to produce a Broadway show.

Reprinted from The Supplement to the Bulletin of the Maryland Writers Council (Special “Catch Up” issue, February-May 1976).

*In 1974 through 1976 Howard Fox and I edited a 764 page volume of bibliography listings of fiction published in hundreds of magazines and journals from 1965-1969. The book, published by Scarecrow Press in 1977, was meant to be a bibliographical annual, but the amount of work involved and the numerous hours we spent in the Library of Congress and elsewhere, compiling the information, discouraged us from continuing its publication.

**When we begin our publishing, hot type, that is molten lead cast into letters and lines, was just beginning to give way to “cold type,” type composed on computers. But the computers of the day, the one I worked on called a Compugraphic compositor, were huge machines that looked more like giant organs inside of sleek laptops. The typesetter “composed” almost blindly, line by line, transferred onto photographic paper, which then needed to be processed through a mix of deadly chemicals. The process was spotty at best; if, during the process the chemicals were not perfectly blended the work was destroyed. So too could the type be faded by simple day light. Hot “wax” was applied to the underside of the sheets to allow them to be positioned onto large cardboard quartos that were later photographed for printing.

***Today, fortunately, most printing houses, who do both the printing and binding, also provide a selection of papers to be chosen from. In the early days of typesetting, however, the processes were separate, requiring the editor to visit both a paper maker and a printing house.

****In fact, looking back at the contributors of that first issue, only one or two would later been seen to represent the values of what the magazine ultimately represented. I had not yet developed a literary taste not comprehended my later aesthetic values. Perhaps only by the third issue did those begin to come into play.

*****Pamela Beach Plymell is the daughter of the renowned artist Mary Beach, who working at City Lights publishing discovered the poet Bob Kaufman, and later, under her own imprint, Beach Books, published William Burroughs; she is a distant cousin of the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, Sylvia Beach; Charlie, involved early with the Beat Generation poets, lived for a while with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Above I have featured a picture of the couple today.

******We received the completed first issue on February 14, 1976, Valentine’s Day. Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, published 11 volumes from 1976-1981, at which time the magazine was abandoned in order to publish only books, which had already begin in 1979. The issue featured above is issue no. 8 (Fall 1979), featuring on its cover a piece by artist Robert Longo.

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