What is Sulfur?

Clayton Eshleman
Introduction to Sulfur 45/46: The Final Issue


I had been talking with Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Kelly, among others, about the need for another Caterpillar-like magazine that would engage multiple aspects of innovative contemporary poetry in the context of international modernism. Because the California Institute of Technology is primarily dedicated to, and known for, research in science and engineering. I proposed in 1981, while Dreyfuss Poet in Residence and Lecturer in Creative Writing, that a literary magazine, sponsored by the Humanities Division, would draw attention to the humanities at Cal Tech (I did so in somewhat the same spirit that Charles Olson, when rector, proposed to other faculty members at Black Mountain College in 1953 that a magazine might effectively advertise the nature of the college's program). Roger Noll, an economist who was then Director of the Humanities Division at Cal Tech, liked my idea and arranged with President Goldberger for Sulfur to be supported initially for five years.

The word "sulfur" evokes the sulphur, a butterfly with black-bordered orange and yellow wings. On one level, the magazine is an evolution of Caterpillar (a magazine I founded and edited 20 issues of from 1967 to 1973). On other levels, the word denotes alchemical initiational combustion, and excited or inflamed language. The word was also attractive to me because it had not been used before as a literary magazine title. There is an extended not on the word at the beginning of Sulfur #24.

The magazine originally appeared three times a year but became a biannual in 1988. Its more than 11,000 pages of material have included around 800 contributors, some 200 of which are foreign writers and artists. I began Sulfur with Robert Kelly as the sole contributing editor. Kelly disappeared due to a misunderstanding after the first issue appeared, and by the third issues, Michael Palmer, Rothenberg, and Eliot Weinberger had become the contributing editors. Throughout Sulfur's run, Caryl Eshleman has been the managing editor; she took over the magazine's design from Barbara Martin with #37. Over the years the masthead grew to its current sixteen members. Nearly all of this group have stayed on from the time they came aboard, and all, in one way or another, have contributed actively to what Sulfur has become (in contrast to the lists of well-known names that often decorate literary magazine mastheads). Sulfur is not, and has never been, a movement magazine. I invited people to join on the basis of believing that they were very good at their chosen focus,and took the chance that while there would be real disagreements among us (see #20 and #22 for the Language Poetry controversy), we had enough in common and were all sufficiently united against "official verse culture" (effectively examined by Charles Bernstein in #10) to be able to work together.

The magazine came close to being derailed on two occasions. In 1983, I was informed by President Goldberger that there was a crisis based on the following incident: he had been using discretionary funds from the Weingart Foundation in Pasadena to support Sulfur. At one point he proudly showed the Weingart Board of Trustees a copy of #4 which included 22 Paul Blackburn poems (which would later appear with many others, in The Parallel Voyages, Sun-gemini Press, 1987). One of these elderly trustees opened the magazine to Blackburn's "Birds chirp listlessly in the heat" and read it aloud to those assembled. They were outraged, and told Goldberger that Sulfur was pornographic. Not only did they not want their "discretionary" funds used to support the magazine, they wanted Cal Tech's name removed too. Goldberger told me that as much as disagreed with this reaction, he had to honor it because of the Weingart Foundation's huge yearly donations to the Institute (mainly in the science area, I recall, but it should be mentioned that this foundation also funded a yearly "Humanities Conference" on campus). Goldberger, quite honorably I felt, offered to make good on his original five year funding commitment via other sources, so Sulfur could continue either on its own for a few years or until it attracted a new sponsor. While the Blackburn poem is genuinely shocking, it is hardly pornographic by current standards. That a single poem by this shy, unassertive poet was sufficient to nearly eliminate a literary magazine on grounds of censorship in 1983 should keep us all alert to the fact that while things seem to change, on another level, they remain stuck, and the same.

Sulfur #9, which appeared shortly after the Weingart incident, was one of the two issues without a sponsoring organization. #10 through #15 (1984-1986) were sponsored by The Writers Program in the UCLA Extension Program. In 1986, Karen Costello, who made the connection possible, left the Program and the new Director decided that Sulfur's "office benefits" imposed too much of a burden on the Program's budget. Thus #16 was published out of our home in West Los Angeles. In 1986, when I became a professor in the English Department at Eastern Michigan University, I brought Sulfur with me. From #17 on, EMU has provided me with release time (one course per semester), a part-time graduate assistant, and "office benefits." These "benefits" have not included money for production, promotion, nor payment to authors and contributing editors. While the magazine's subscribers (around 700 at this point) and bookstore sales have off-set some of these expenses, from the mid 1980s to 1996 most of the deficit was made up by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. When we failed to get a grant in the last round of literary magazine support, we seriously considered ending Sulfur, but we did not want to be put out of business by the NEA. We have done issues #37 through #45/46 on a reduced basis, cutting down the magazine's size and press run (which meant dropping distributors which were costing us money), and stopping contributor payments. We are ending Sulfur now because we feel that the magazine has expanded and realized its initial purposes as much as possible. I will turn 65 shortly after this issue is published and feel it is time to turn my focus solely on my own writing.

In regard to editing and content: associate editors have regularly sent me their own work, or the work of others. More often than not, I have published this work. When I was divided over such contributions (or material sent directly by would-be contributors), I sent it to three associate editors and abided by majority decision. This policy has enabled work to get into the magazine via other editor-in particular, Palmer and Weinberger—though "lateral entry." It has avoided many of the problems that occur with large editorial boards where a number of people vote on everything. Group editorial consensus tends to weed out the eccentric and the complex, filling issues with material that puzzles or offends no one.

While we occasionally published a piece of fiction when it seemed appropriate, for the most part we steered clear of fiction and drama, as it was not possible, given size restraints, to edit such material in a responsible way. The range of Sulfur's interests in poetry, poetics, and some tangential fields, made it difficult to keep issues under 200 pages. The amount of good material always determined size of an issue; very little was held over for future issues. Here were our main focuses:

1} Translations of contemporary foreign-language poets and new translations of untranslated (or poorly translated) older works. We always checked the accuracy of the work of unknown translators. Literacy magazines that restrict themselves to a national literature deprive themselves of the international network of information and cross-fertilization that is the heart of 20th century world poetry.

2} Archival materials-unpublished, significant writings-by earlier writers, in Sulfur's case including: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Mina Loy, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Charles Olson, Edward Dahlberg and Francis Boldereff. Writers sometimes mis-evaluate or abandon significant works that if not destroyed end up in archival collections at university libraries (a great service to the literary community would be to have a checklist of all American archival holdings; the range and depth would astonish everyone). In the same spirit that living poets share international affiliations, the living are also connected to, and continue to learn from, the "great dead." To include writers of the past as a dimension of the present openly affirms such affiliations.

3} The inclusion of several unknown and usually young poets in each issue. An effective literary magazine gives the impression that anyone, with the right goods, can be a part of it, and that when you turn a page you may find a poem by Karen Kelley or Dan Featherston facing one by Gary Snyder or Adrienne Rich. If the work of the "great dead" is to be included, then the work of the talented and untested should have a place too. A novice can learn something about his own efforts by scrutinizing them in contrast with mature writers.

4} Commentary, including poetics, notes, and book reviews (of a polemical as well as non-disputational nature). A crucial difference between a literary magazine and an anthology is that magazines comment on what is being published. Journals that do not publish reviews (or only publish pastel appreciations) evade revealing, and defending, a specific aesthetic viewpoint and become collection plates into which any contribution can be dropped. Certain aspects of poetry hone themselves on conflict and strife, and a literary magazine is an ideal site for the contestation of differing views.

5} Resource materials. Depending on the editor, and the availability, resource materials can vary widely. If poetry is the woof of a magazine, non-poetic source material might be the warp. The idea here is that the vital writing is always dependent upon materials outside of its own discipline for the renewal and deepening of content, of extending what might be called the cleared ground of the art. Originality depends not only on voicing and technique, but on making writing responsible for previously excluded (and repressed) materials and experience. In Sulfur's case, such materials included art, art criticism, archetypal psychology, anthropology, archeology, and political commentary.

These five areas of attention (along with poetry and prose by well-known American poets) made up what could be thought of as Sulfur's personality. In a typical 225 page issue, there might be 40 to 60 pages of commentary, several translation and art sections, and one or two archival or resource sections. Weinberger edited a special issue (#33), "Into the Past." Marjorie Perloff and Jenny Penberthy did a special issue on Anglophone Poetry and Poetics Outside the US and UK (#44). James Clifford edited and translated much of a large section on Michel Leiris (#15). Rachel Blau DuPlessis edited three presentations of George Oppen's working papers (in #25, 26, and 27). Jerry Glenn edited a large section on Paul Celan (#11). Caryl and I put together a group of responses to the tragic death of Ana Mendieta (#22), and with Gyula Kodolanyi, I co-translated and edited a section on Hungarian poetry (#21). Smaller sections were done on Blackburn (#4), Antonin Artaud (#9), Porfirio diDonnaa (#19), East German poetry (#27), Peruvian photography (#34), and the Vancouver Robin Blaser conference (#37). Sulfur #32 (at 352 pages, the largest single issue) was filled with work and edited sections by the masthead. Caryl and I also worked with Sulfur's various art editors: John Yau, Pamela Wye, and Robert Tejada. Over 600 paintings, drawings and photographs, and sculptures were reproduced in the magazine (and on the covers), in most cases with essays or notes.

The background against which Sulfur proposed itself is anchored in the Dionysian 1960s. As crazy as the period was, with its blissful and horrendous wave-bands compounded of revolution, war, mindful and mindless introspection, it was the riches period for American poetry visionary and political internationalism as a multifoliate force spinning itself out into translations, alternative presses and magazines, enthusiastic college audiences, Vietnam War Protest, traditional magics and a heady confidence articulated by Norman O. Brown at the end of his brilliant 1966 Love's Body: "The antimony between mind and body, word and deed, speech and silence, overcome. Everything is only a metaphor; there is only one poetry." In fact, I'm sure that I am not alone in believing during the late 1960s that an American poetry based in international modernism, and signaled by Don Allen's "the new American poetry" but not restricted to his perimeters, might become the dominant poetry of the 1970s—in other words, that a world-aware, responsible of avant-garde might overcome and peripheralize decades of dominant official verse culture. After all, the impact of the work of Charles Olson was equal in its own way to that of Francis Bacon, so why shouldn't Olson occupy a place in poetry equal to that of Bacon in painting?

Dionysian excess has, built within its boundary explosions, formlessness, violence, and despair. Dionysus must, at some point in his turmoil, find the hand of brother Apollo and swing with him, or be churned to flotsam. For me, there has always been a loose, sinister (the Manson murders in Los Angeles, the debacle of The Rolling Stones' Altamont concert) and Olson's death in 1970, preceded by Robert Duncan's withdrawal and refusal to publish for the next fifteen years. The 70s flipped over, the energy dispersed.

Two obvious trends of the 1970's and 1980s were the ubiquitous spread of the creative writing degree programs and Language Poetry. Of equal magnitude, but less discussed, was the development of a number of poets in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Women poets re/visioned not only the American canon but the heretofore unacknowledged patriarchal government of the history of poetry. There appeared a host of minority-oriented poetries: African-American, Indian, Chicano, gay, lesbian, and soundtexts. What was once upon a time a Right and a Left Bank (the cooked vs. raw distinction, suspect even in the 60s) became an archipelago of sites.

One reason that Olson has not become a Bacon-like presence is that American (and English) poetry has depended upon academic sanction and support. What was true for Whitman, shunned by most of the "men of letters" of his time, is still true for almost all poets today. Students buy text anthologies and read poetry because it is part of the curriculum. Doctors and lawyers do not, in any noticeable sense, but many, in very noticeable way, collected paintings-and not merely because wealth is involved, but because paintings (and most novels, plays, and films) offer more surface than poetry. They demand a less active response. One has to work hard to get anything out of The Cantos, The Wasteland, or The Maximus Poems. In such works, there is no plot, or color field to provide an entrance level that can be bypassed by the ideal observer or just relaxed into.

By creating a "poet-professor" middle class, the writing programs have played into the hands of poetry's traditional enemies: education and entertainment. The slams and open-mike readings are offsprings of, or reactions to, the creative writing classes and courses based on Norton anthologies. It is wonderful for students to have contact with writers but I continue to believe that such contact should not take place in workshops dominated by student work and response. All of a student's time in literature should be involved with getting a small percentage of it under his belt, and coming to terms with what, in my view, poetry is really about: the extending of human consciousness, making conscious the unconscious, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its fines moments overcomes the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed.

While Sulfur has attempted to not support work that smacks of the creative writing workshops, we have published many Language Poets. An interesting anthology of Language Poetry, in fact, could be assembled from what has appeared in Sulfur's pages. Charles Bernstein is one of our correspondents, and other Sulfur editors are associated to varying degrees with the movement. I regard Language Poetry as a significant part of contemporary poetry but not as its primary force or focus (I don't think there is one; I think there are a couple dozen major figures today, and that they make up a crazy-quilt of emphases and directions).

Sulfur's primary ambition, as I see it, has been to keep the field open and complex, with archival and contemporary writing, along with commentary, generating a multi-generational interplay. Besides advancing the work of a number of poets in their 30s and 40s, the magazine has supported a range of those whose work has either held its significance or deepened over the 80s and 90s. Along with certain Sulfur editors, such range would include Robin Blaser, Adrienne Rich, Jackson Mac Low, Gary Snyder, Gerrit Lansing, Amiri Baraka, Philip Lamantia, Ron Padgett, Robert Duncan, Barbara Guest, and Gustaf Sobin.

For this last issue, I solicited work from 150 past contributors. In the case of artists, when it was possible, I simply asked for recent material. In the case of writers, I asked for unpublished things that they felt represented them well at the present time. No attempt was made to elicit testimonials. I asked everyone to try and hold their contribution to two Sulfur pages. I think it is a gala issue, and that in spite of some omissions (mainly due to death and disappearances), it projects a constellation that is true to Sulfur's over-all image. D.H. Lawrence once wrote: "Living, I want to depart to where I am." As it has been able to, Sulfur has carried forth the ore in such a thought.

--January 2000

Clayton Eshleman
Contributing Editors:
Rachael Blau Duplessis
Michael Palmer
Eliot Weinberger
Charles Bernstein James Clifford
Clark Coolidge
Jayne Cortez
Marjorie Perloff
Jed Rasula
Jerome Rothenberg
Roberto Tejada
Keith Tuma
Allen S. Weiss
Marjorie Welish
Managing Editor:
Caryl Eshleman