A New Modernist Journal

One of the characteristics of the small press literary journal is its short shelf life, if it makes it to a shelf at all. But its practitioners blast away nevertheless, their voices barely audible rising from the bottom rungs of the literary ladder. Another of its characteristics is the constancy of its myriad rebirths, even if in limited print runs, the first 30 signed and numbered by – someone. Another of its characteristics is its often assumed lack of what in academic argument is called ethos, by which is meant credentials, credibility, reliability, experience, imprimatur. A lack of ethos may fail to persuade even a cursory glance or worse garner a quick list of lit-snub snarks. The local librarian will probably file the journal with a few other self-published efforts on the free books and discards shelf. But the serious critic is always looking for the exception to assumptions and presuppositions, even if his leaning is hierarchical. Peter Molin’s blog, Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature, provides a recent example of the critic wrestling with the ladders and scaffolding: “Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?).” But Molin has already somewhat equitably posited, “The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.” More of course could be said about that divide, a literary no man’s land. The small press literary journal can only exist on one side of the divide. When it crosses over, it becomes something else; when it dies, it awaits discovery, or recovery, or rebirth.

Consider what is now called the Modernist Journal, indie starts from around 1890 through the first quarter of the 20th Century, most of which survived but briefly, but contained writing by contributors now considered influential if often still controversial, journals full of now canonical writers who at the time were experimenting with new ideas and forms, and many other writers who were mostly unknown and remain so. Readers can research, browse, discover these journals in the Modernist Journal Project, now housed at Brown and the University of Tulsa. Examples include Blast, Des Imagistes, The Egoist, The Little Review, The Masses.

All by way of introducing another new indie journal on the literary block, its first issue, Winter 2021, now in circulation – Firmament: A magazine of considered miscellany from Sublunary Editions. I received a print copy because last year I subscribed to the full suite of Sublunary publications via the annual subscription. Monthly and 6-month subscriptions are also available – all include the quarterly magazine, Firmament. The Sublunary productions, called “objects,” are thin (Firmament No. 1 is 63 pages), with extreme care taken with design – typeset, layout, arrangement, presentation. Monthly, I get something from Sublunary in the snail mail.

Firmament is edited by Jessica Sequeira, a translator of Spanish texts who has also written a few original books, one of which, “A Luminous History of the Palm,” was published in April, 2020 by Sublunary. I put up a short review of that book here at the Toads back in July. In her “Editor’s Note” to Firmament No. 1, Jessica mentions several journals as examples of like, and liked, precursors, including Sur, 291, Der Sturm, and Claridad. The first issue of Firmament contains poetry, short fiction and excerpts, interviews, and nonfiction and columns – from an international cast of writers and translators. I count 23 contributors, 14 sections, in the 63 pages. I find that remarkable (and so I remarked on it). There is also a page devoted to drawings of a cat creature (tyger?), but it’s uncredited (but it appears to be from the cover of the forthcoming Chevillard book). Another page is devoted to a preview of the upcoming April, Spring 2021 issue of Firmament, and another page listing more Sublunary objects forthcoming for 2021. And a page of “Endnotes.” The issue contains a striking color scheme of red, white, and black. Clearly the editors are serious and professional, busy, planning ahead, with dedicated resources and action plans.

Eric Chevillard, French experimental author, is featured in Firmament No. 1, translated by Chris Clarke – both come with awards and previous publishing successes. “Chronology” (pgs 4-10) is a biographical summary of the life of one Thomas Jean-Julien Pilaster, compiled by one Marc-Antoine Marson, both fictional characters created by Chevillard. All three are writers, real and imagined, at least they live the lives one imagines a writer might live, born, perhaps, to lose (that is to say, live on the wrong side of the divide), as they are artists by temperament.

A poem by J. A. Pak follows, “Love Tattoo,” and, yes, isn’t a tattoo often a poem, often one of love penned on skin, though love can be removed.

Tony Messenger’s “Fragments 1, 2 and 5,” reflections on the divisions language may create (there’s that theme of divide again), read like journal entries, notes, ponderings. I liked them enough to find Tony’s blog, Messenger’s Booker – the beauty of quick links. The name Tony Messenger was familiar, but the Firmament Tony Messenger is not the Tony Messenger who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not unless we’re back in Chevillard territory.

If Firmament No. 1 were a syllabus, it would have to be for a year long course. “Lamborghiniana,” an interview/conversation between Agustina Perez and Jessica Sequeira, about Osvaldo Lamborghini, makes this clear. But that is yet another characteristic of the small press literary journal – to suggest new directions of writing and reading, thought, expression, translation, literary virtual travel. Three Lamborghini poems are included, translated by Louis Chitarroni.

So, Firmament appears to be concerned with experimental and international writing. Yet, in Joshua Rothes’s (founder and publisher of Sublunary Editions) column, “Pith & Self-Defeating,” he says: “What I aim to propose in this inaugural column is that 1) most writing done with a specific set of aims is, after Parfit, ultimately self-defeating, 2) this process of undermining our stated aims is the most important part of the creative process” (38). Paradox, paradox, paradox, Thoreau might have epizeuxisly said. And Vic Shirley, another of the Sublunary editors, follows with this, in “Commitment to Chush”: “Chush is Russian for nonsense,” beginning a bit of a rant that seems both nonsensical and right on simultaneously (40).

I was glad to see comics represented, even if sans cartoons or drawings, with Maurizio Salabelle, translated by Jamie Richards, who has apparently translated some cartoonists. This I’ve yet to follow up on, but it’s on my list of things to do.

And more, including two poems by Rilke, translated by Kristofor Minta, and fiction by Anna de Nosailles, translated by Christina Tudor-Sideri, and Carol Rodrigues, translated by Adrian Minckley, and poetry by Tim MacGabhann.

On the back cover, we find this brief description: “Sublunary Editions is an independent press dedicated to publishing brief volumes of innovative texts from authors past and present.” True that, if Firmanent No. 1 is any example.