Editorial: Sulfur R.I.P. by Robert Archambeau
If you watch enough cable television late at night, you probably have at least some notion of the life cycle of the Green Sea Turtle: thousands of eggs hatching simultaneously on a beach somewhere in the south seas; a mad scramble to the ocean, with all but a very few of the newly-hatched turtles stranded, lost, or eaten alive before making it to the water; then decades, sometimes even a century or more, of far wanderings in the oceans of the world.
The only creature I know of with a similar pattern of life is the American literary magazine. A multitude are hatched each year, but few ever survive beyond the first three issues (“the third issue,” a prominent Chicago poet once said, “is the one naïve editors suppose will be supported by sales, but it is a rule of literary publishing that there are no sales”). Of the survivors, though, a few go on swimming decade after decade. Think of Poetry (Chicago), which began with Harriet Monroe’s mad dash to the sea and now, almost ninety years later, sits in a half-slumber, sunning itself on a forgotten atoll.
Members of the species Iurnalus Literus Americanus only make it into their twentieth year if they are exceptionally strong or exceptionally lucky, and Clayton Eshleman’s Sulfur, which was born in California in 1981 and published its final issue in Michigan last month, was a strong swimmer. If you were to pick up the first issue of the new magazine, you knew as soon as you saw the table of contents that you had something special in your hands. A previously unpublished draft of one of the Pisan Cantos told you that Sulfur’s editors knew how important it was for poets to be aware of the past. A solid reviews section made it clear that Sulfur was going to do its part to dispel the odd silence that surrounds American poetry. Translations of Aimé Césaire and Jacinto Cua Pospoy told you that the editors were no friends of American provincialism, and when you saw the poems by maverick innovators like Robert Kelly, Gustaf Sobin, and Paul Blackburn you knew the editors weren’t mere followers of fashion. Lyn Hejinian was there in Sulfur #1, and Ashbery, and the Dahlberg-Olson correspondence. And the wonder of it was that Sulfur kept up the pace for twenty years, principles intact to the end.
Sulfur’s final issue, #45/46, included an essay articulating those principles. The inclusion of work in translation ranked high among them: translations of contemporary poetry as well as translations of neglected or poorly translated older work. The publication of archival materials, like the Pound draft from the first issue, was of equal importance, as was the publication of archeological, artistic, and anthropological materials that cast light on poetry: Sulfur was always aware of the intimate connection between poetry and knowledge. Sulfur also upheld a two-decade commitment to the inclusion of young and unknown poets; always a business risk but vital to the future of the art. Finally, the river of commentary that flowed from Sulfur’s pages — scholarly commentary, polemics, and reviews unafraid to point out the emperor’s occasional lack of clothes — was also the product of conscious editorial policy. Good magazines don’t happen by accident, and we have Clayton Eshleman to thank for thousands of pages of well-chosen material.
This issue of Samizdat leads off with “Sulfur and After,” a long interview with Eshleman in honor of his good work with Sulfur. The interview with Eshleman, fittingly enough for a man so concerned with international poetry, was conducted by mail with the editors of the Brazilian literary journal Medusa, in which a modified version will appear.
One of the impulses behind the founding of Sulfur was to promote what Eshleman has called “multiple aspects of innovative international poetry in the context of international modernism.” In this issue of Samizdat, we include John Latta’s Ashberian transformations; Susan Sink’s reworking of the religious calendar; D.C. Berry’s offstage, Berrymanesque theater of the mind; Michael Anania’s austerities; C.S. Giscombe’s erotics of place; and Geraldine McKenzie’s series (an Australian’s reworkings of one of Greece’s greatest poets) all of which, I think, are in the best spirit of Eshleman’s Sulfur.