Wednesday, October 9, 2019

"Out from Under and into the Fray" (on Niall Ferguson's The Square and the Tower)

out from under and into the fray

Niall Ferguson The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (New York: Penguin Press, 2018)

In a year devoted to “Towers, Circles, and Squares,” how could I not read Niall Ferguson’s 2018 volume The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook? This, I told Howard, was definitely a necessary book, despite the fact that it too me many weeks to read.

     And I have to say that, at first, I was quite fascinated by Ferguson’s history of networks, from the earliest days of history to the present, as well as his charts and grafts of the interrelationships of leaders and others, and how, within different systems presented within Ferguson’s metaphors, functioned for their societies and times.
      The hierarchies which, from ancient times on, worked from top down, with the social order controlled from the top, with various structures each a lower levels that made supported and reified the “tower.” Although Ferguson questions the verticality of the structure:

              This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically
              structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down
              command, control and communication. Historically, they begin with
              family-based clans and tribes, out of which (or against which) more
              complicated and stratified institutions evolved, with formalized division
              and ranking of labour. Amongst the varieties of hierarchy that pro-
              lifererated in the pre-modern period were tight regulated urban polities
              reliant on commerce and bigger, mostly monarchical, states based on
              agriculture; the centrally run cults known as churches; the armies
              and bureaucracies within states; the guilds that operated to control
              access to skilled occupations; the autonomous corporations that, from
              the early-modern period, sought to exploit economies of scope and
              scale by internalizing certain market transactions; academic cor-
              poration like universities; and the supersized transnational states known
              as empires.

       A network, on the other hand, as Ferguson argues:

               connects two nodes via five intermediaries has six edges. The phrase
               “six degrees of separation” was not coined until John Guare’s 1990
               play of that title, but it therefore had a long pre-history. Like the concept
               (made famous Disneyland ride devised in 1964), or the more technical
               concept of closeness, it neatly summed up the mid-twentieth century’s
               growing sense of interconnectedness. There have since been numerous
               variations on the theme: six degrees of Marlon Brando, six degrees of
               Monica Lewinsky, six degrees of Kevin Bacon (which became a board-
               game)…. Recent research suggests the number is now closer to five
               than six…. [see my own essay about this phenomena in my
               essay “Criss-Cross” in My Year 2011.]

     For many pages of this large format nearly 600-page book, accordingly, you might imagine that the author is arguing for networks over the hierarchical structures, almost suggesting a solution for the Trumps and other dictatorial figures in our current political crises. After all, our cultures, from the Renaissance on developed from the world of towers into network or “square” like cultures. The networks of enlightenment, from Gutenberg on, changed the entire world, with a great deal of shifts back and forth from the highly structured societies to the more loosely complex ones, including, as his title suggests the enormous influences of tightly structured network societies such the Free Masons, whose power was based primarily on a tightly-knit network-like community.
     From in the Cambridge, homosexually-related, “Apostles,” we see a growing relationship between great intellectuals from Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, and eventually the Bloomsbury group.

    Yet as his book goes foreword we perceive a darkening vision of the “square” or network communities. By the time Ferguson reaches the network-figure Henry Kissinger (to whom he has previously devoted an entire book), we begin to see the equal problems that result from the intense networking involved with one of the most heinous figures of Nixon’s administration, completely involved with the Viet Nam war.
     By the time he begins his discussion of Facebook, we already know that the square is not necessarily so preferable from the tower.
     Ferguson’s writing has been described by critics as being too simplistic, and I recognize those perceptions in my own responses to his conclusions. But, if nothing else, he forces us to question our own ready-made conclusions. Squares and towers, given their geometries, are not so very different when it comes down to the common man.
     He never talks about circles, with the exception of the inbred Bloomsbury group, but we might explore that avenue more fully as opposed to the closed-off societies of the tower and the dangerous internecine abuses of power, a product often of networks or public squares.
     And one might certainly question Ferguson’s simple binary of “networks” and “squares.” More often, these might be represented as circles within squares, as simple interrelationships that do not necessarily encourage a larger network of political power not even a blind hierarchical devotion. Yet, we all recognize the simple dangers of meeting on a square which can lead to a larger political event that swallows us all up into its vortex, or, even worse, being punished for not obeying the tower-like requirements of behavior.

Los Angeles, October 9, 2019
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (October 2019).

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Out of the Past: Letters to My Grandfather--Circles of Love"

out of the past: letters to my grandfather—circles of love

In 2019 I decided, since I closed my Green Integer offices, and my assistant Pablo had brought be home several large boxes of photographs which I’d been saving, to post some of the thousands of author, family, and other photos I’d saved over the years. Almost to the bottom of one box I discovered a series of hand-written letters, sometimes in pencil and other times in ink, from my great aunts (all matriarchs) and my own mother to Tobe Caspers, my grandfather. These began in 1917, apparently when Tobe was serving in the military in World War I, and continued, in my mother’s commentaries into the 1940s.
       I was startled to hear the voices of my aunts Lena, Margaret, and Kathie, as well as my grandmother’s Anna Fahrni speaking from the grave in urgent farm-women voices, mixing the everyday activities of their lives with outpourings of love and worry. Some of these were perhaps quite ordinary, but at the very next moment were highly poetic and loving.
     My mother’s own letters to her father were filled with comments about me (my brother and sister had yet been born) revealing my deep love for my father and my amazing childhood exploits.
     Years later, my father and I had had a somewhat difficult, if still loving, relationship, and to hear my mother talk about my absolute adoration of my father, John, was important and curing.
      I think my sister sent some (perhaps all) of these very personal letters, which I now truly appreciate. Perhaps I had stolen others from mother’s drawers when she moved into an assisted living home.
     I’ll try not to sentimentalize these rough-hewn letters, but they did all make me cry, some of them dated from 1917, when these sisters of Tobe (Tobias Caspers, who spoke more German, I believe, than English) were probably still young girls, and my own mother’s slightly more well-wrought correspondences (she had been a school-teacher) but at other times just as mundane. These women, along with another sister Alice, all took over the farms from their husbands and made them important operations. Men died; women were the strong survivors.
     In all of these letters the everyday life of farm-living combines with their fears and longing. Questions about my grandfather’s life get mixed up with selling pigs: "How is the weather over there did it snow any these days? Mr. Garibat (?) sole [sold] some pigs to Mr. Brody for 17.30 cent lb. and the hogs are worth 15.50 lb, but Mr. Brody was drunk. This is all, From yoursister Maggie Casper.” A cake from Sunday is placed next to a worry about my grandfather’s arm. In one particularly operatic-like passage (reminding me of Samuel Barber’s aria “Must the winter come so soon”) from my grandmother who I never knew poignantly spoke of the relationship of desire and weather: “My the wind is blowing hard tonight and I wish it wouldn't rain.” My mother adored her mother Anna.
      I knew most of these great aunts well. They remained part of our life, and I dearly loved their strengths and courage as well as their deep loving. Katie, as I have written elsewhere—if you showed up to her house—would immediately offer you not only candy but a full meal.
     Shortly before she died, by great Aunt Margaret, at my father’s mother Ethel’s funeral approached me: as a child, I recalled, my family had explicably spent a night at her farm homestead. I can't explain why everyone who was visiting was now spending the night at her place. It must have been very bad weather. I remember sleeping with other cousins on the porch and didn't mind it at all (and have a strange recollection, maybe one of my young imagination, of someone being hurt by a knife in the kitchen). But for me it was just a childhood adventure. Margaret came forward to me, now as a full adult, apologizing for the fact that I had had to spend the night on the floor. She remembered after all those long years and felt regret for something she might never needed to have regret. “I’m sorry, she said. For you having to sleep on the floor, but we simply didn’t have enough beds.” How lovely she was.
      Tobe Caspers, my grandfather, whenever we arrived, would take almost everything out of the refrigerator, putting it on the kitchen table to show us that we welcome and could eat anything he had.

I have attempted to leave the original typographical form and misspellings when possible (but have corrected with brackets when I felt the readers might not comprehend their meanings). I like their down-home language and Iowa euphemisms. In a very few cases I have provided more regular punctuation just to make their sentences clearer. Much of the original was just a flow of emotion, which I also enjoyed, but might make it hard to comprehend what they were expressing. Whenever possible I sided with the original comments.

The first, dated October 10, 1917 was from my grandmother, Anna Fahrni, who had evidently borrowed a pencil from her friends in order to write.

                                                                                                              Thursday night

My true Sweetheart
     Am going to write you a few lines to let you know that I got your letter yesterday was so glad to get it, I suppose you thought my last letter was quite a crabbyone. But I just have to say something when I hadn't heard from you for over a week.
     I sure felt better after I got that nice long letter, I went to store yesterday and on the way I got your letter. Well did you guard today or was this your day off. I wish I could be there when you have two days off don't you dear, oh well someday we will be together for good many we will get tired of being together then, but I guess not their being pared is good for a person you find out how much you miss your dearest friend don't you think so dear? I'm sure just in a full day today around and chased up all the trash out of the garden and I don't know what all.
     Glenn and I are going to pick up corn all day—tomorrow then that will finish it then Monday we are going to start picking. I have to do the dentist again. Saturday Eloise and, a girl, to town—quite often she always makes a date for Wednesday and I for Saturday so we can get to go often.
     My the wind is blowing hard tonight and it looks like rain. I hope it doesn’t rain though. You said it had been pretty warm down there it has been warm here do we all sweat today but have had some pretty cold days.
      I talked to Grace today she said she was still waiting for a letter from you did you write to her yet or not!
     She said John got out of the hospital Monday and is getting along just fine. 
     Grace invited Anna H. and I up for dinner Sunday don't know if we will go yet or not or would like to go home some Sunday too but it seems now since I haven't got anyone to take me anymore I don't get anywhere. Well dear guess I will close now/write a fine lines to Johns I haven't written to him for quite a while.
                        A good night
                        with Love and Kisses
                        answer your wife or going to be someday.
P.S. Thank you for the stick of guam [gum] and please tell me that you
want for your birthday because I dont like to tell you what
to get me if you dont order something too will please you.

The second is dated from Monticello, Iowa. October 23, 1917

Dear Brother Tobe—
     Rec’d you letter yesterday. Was so glad to hear from you again.
     How are you any how I am fine. Hope you are the same by this time.
     Well it looks like winter out here. There was couples inchs [inches] of snow out here this morning quite a cold spell just now.
      Do you mine the cold? I think its rather early for the winter to start in. don’t you think so?
Well Tobe Mrs. Stuhler has your sweeter half ready and one gray one half ready for the red cross. She said if was in any hurry of wanting yours, she couldn’t seam them together so one side and gray on the other well suppose it be another two weeks before she has you’re [yours] ready.
       Well Tobe I suppose it seems too to give when you seems seeing Poppe out there. You know she hated to part from John. Isn’t Henry ok with you? I though he was all the time. I suppose you heard of Annie F. Aunt Lena being here on a visit. She has the small poks [smallpocks] now. I seen her in the office Sundae, she looked aghast and afflicted. The Dr. said Oshe had it for to weeks all ready. But don’t say any think to anyone F. about it if she don’t menschen it. I suppose they have all kinds of diseases out there.
       Well Tobe do you get plenty of good eats out there yet. I would like to sent you some-think. If I knew what you would want. If there is any think [thing] you would like, just say so. I sent it to guess.
       Well I was downtown Sat. night, I sens [saw] Henry in town and Lewis B. they were together. I suppose that will not be much longer.
        Well Tobe write when ever you can. It seems Lonesome with out hearing from you.
        Good Night. Ans. soon.
        Your Sister, Katie.       

The third letter dated from Monticello, Iowa, November 5, 1917 from my great aunt Lena.

     Dear Brother—

     How are you?
     I am fine hope you are the same. School is out and didn’t start yet. We was to Poppe Sunday. Peter father mother and Maggie and I. We had a good time over there. I write to Jennie Poppe yesterday. I wont to write to you before. But the others want to writes so I coulden what do thing alone 3 cents tamp on the letters. Annie is eating cake from Sunday. How is your arm?
     Out long cattle are in good shape. We bough one loan of corn from Mr. Brady it was old corn. Our o’clock is going good. Does Hedden writes to you. I guest you got a lote of letter. How is you squrril [squirrel] meat. How is your meal over there. John that went to New Mexico he said he diden get very much he got caned tomatoes and corn and dry bread. That what got when left on the train.

                                                            From you sister:—
                                                                        Lena Caspers.

                                                               x S. A. K. x

                                                               sent a kiss.

The fourth letter, dated November 5, 2019 was from my great aunt Margaret.

Dear Brother,
I received your card Saturday. I guess I am going to get a ten-cent bracelet tomorrow.
     We didn’t receive any candy the last day of school.
      Anna Fahrni and Ma and Peter C. were over to folskets [our folks?] today.
      Max & pa and Lena ‘n Peter and I were over to Poppe Sunday. We had a good time.
      Anna Fahrni is  just using my penicel [pencil] to write to you a letter.
      How is the weather over these, did it snow any there day? Mrs. Gruibat sole [sold] some pigs to Mr. Body for 17.30 cent lb. and the hogs are worth 15.50 lb but Mr. Brady was drank [drunk].

                                                          From yoursister
                                                                  Maggie Caspers
                                                                  xx S. W. A. K. x
                                                                  each one is a kiss

Perhaps SWAK means “sister with a kiss.”

In October 1949 my mother sent a letter to my grandfather and your youngest brother Duane (who also lived with us for a while before evidently moving in with my grandfather.  We were living in Ventura, Iowa at this time, and my father was apparently away that summer working on his Master’ degree in Iowa City.

Dear Dad & Duane,

     How are you two ole bachelors, I hope fine. By the way when are you going to drive up this way in that new Ford.
     I’m busy canning, I canned 7 pts. of carrots yesterday and today four of carrots, two of tomatoes & 1 of beets. I have 32 pts. of pickles canned. I’m going to give you some of those pickles and carrots if you come up sometime. I really have a grand garden this year. I have lots of everything.
     Doug sure keeps me running. Johnnie fixed a new combination on the gate, but Doug figured it out. This morning he was pulling carrots like a good one. Otherwise he’s always bringing in onions. He sure misses Johnnie, he almost goes wild when he sees him.
     Johnnie only has about five more days of school. I’m happy and I bet he’s glad to be through too.
     Say Duane when are you going to write us a letter. We’re still waiting. Won’t be long and school will start, are looking forward to it? Say, Duane aren’t you going to spend a few days here?
     Rev’s house is finished and boy is it ever a beautiful home. They have put the sidewalks in and terrace the yard.
     I took care of Ray for an hr. tonight: Barb brought me a whole carton of gum, I don’t know what I’ll do with it. You can have some Duane.
     Must get to bed, I just finished a letter to Johnnies folks. Will we be seeing you Aug. 14 at the reunion.

                                                                                        Johnnie, Lorna & Doug

In an envelope postmarked from 1950, mailed once more from Ventura, our home on Clear Lake, I found further letters from my mother to her father Tobe. My father was a coach at this time, I believe, at Ventura high school, but he must also have been driving the school bus.

                                                                                                          Sunday nite

Dear Dad,

     Johnnie and I are busy writing letters to our families. I just sent a birthday card and letter to Paul [presumably her eldest brother Paul, not to my father’s younger brother Paul].
     We have been busy the last couple of wks. Sr. class play, Jr-Sr banquet. Baccalaureate services tonite, commencement exercises tomorrow nite, and school picnic Fri., also last day of school. Johnnie has also been driving the school bus for the last three wks. of school. He has quite a hilly route, he got into a wash out the other morning, it took two tractors to pull him out.
     Did you read in the papers about the bond issue passed here at Ventura for a $98,000 addition to the school for more class rooms. Ag.[agriculture] room and music room. Johnnie was one of the judges at the election.
     Say, Dad when are you coming up with the new Lady friend [I presume my step-grandmother Emma]. Carol [my mother’s sister] said she was quite attractive and dressed so neat. Drive up sometime and try your luck at fishing too.
     We were sponsers for Deborah Dee Wolfgram, the new baby next door—by proxy. Then we had dinner over to Ted Wolfgram's, it really was nice.
     Our garden is coming up, should have fresh onions in a wk or so. We have it on shares with the old folks up here. We got a new lawn mower and Johnnie keeps himself busy on Saturdays. There always is something to be done. Johnnie will have a couple of weeks off to summers school in Iowa City. I sure hope Duane can spend his summer here or at least part of it here.
     Doug is really going to miss Johnnie, he wants him to stay home from school now and just play with him. There isn't a thing Doug doesn't say, lately saying far Goodness sakes. The other nite we took him to a show and when we were ready to leave he said, "that was a crummy show."
     Johnnie has some baseball officiating lines up for this summer in C. R. [Cedar Rapids] and this fall and winter he's going to officiate basketball and football games.
    Say, Dad how is Aunt Maggie [my grandfather’s sister mentioned above], I haven't heard how she's getting along. I suppose shes home already.
    Have you been busy painting lately? I hope you make out good at it.
    Guess I’ll close for now, I didn’t get this letter finished when I started it. Be seeing you sometime. I don’t think I’ll do anymore traveling this summer.

                                                                            Johnnie, Lorna & Doug

Dear Dad,

     It’s time I get another letter off to you. I guess I could write a letter everyday and I wouldn’t be caught up yet.
     Did you have a nice time at Don and Bev’s [her brother and his wife], by the way how are they coming along? Does Duane like it there [apparently my youngest uncle, still a child, also stayed with them]. We sure don’t hear from them, I’m going to send something at Halloween time.
     Did you see your new grandson yet, by golly it looks as if there aren’t going to be any girls. I haven’t sent them a gift yet but will as soon as I get to Clear Lake or Mason City.
     I suppose your still painting but not for very long because of the cold weather. You had better come up to see us before the roads get bad. How did you like that wind storm, I never saw anything like it. That picnic table out here was picked up by the wind and was thrown against a bank, it broke into so many pieces. There was quite a lot of other damage around here too, some windmills blown over, that drive in theater really was messed up, and of course everyone’s corn was blown down.
     I’m washing this morning, looks like the sun might even come out. Doug is busy with a cloth shining his windows. You should hear him talk, he can say anything and says sentences too. He’s been having a cold again these last few days.
     We drove down to Charles City Sun. around four to visit Dick and Verona Landis. We only stayed about two or three hrs. but we had a nice visit. Those twins sure are lively, they can climb more than Doug.
      Sure wish we could of seen you that wk.end we were down there. Johnnie sure got sick from that trip, we were sorry we made it. He had laryngitis all wk, he missed two days of teaching.
      The football team really has been doing well, they won the last three games. We played Clear Lake B team last nite and won 21-6. They’re going to start on the football field down below our place Mon. if weather is good. They moved there machinery in the other day.
      Boy this little burg is coming right along. That new house below Esbeck’s on the hill side is almost finished, and of course Rev’s are living in there new home, the community building is almost finished, a bowling alley is being built between the place where we used to live and the post office and the now the new football field. Then as soon as school is out there going to build here at the school.
      Guess I’d better close tell everyone hallo. Be seeing you sometime.

                                                                                         Johnnie, Lorna
                                                                                                & Doug

The final letter, written evidently in 1953, the year of my sister Pat’s birth, was from Newhall, a small town near Cedar Rapids where my father began as a coach, became school Principal, and finally the Superintendent of the school. This letter, from me at age 6, was directed to another kind of “grandfather,” the saint to all children, Santa Claus. As I’ve written elsewhere, only a few years later, perhaps even the very next year, I woke up one morning quite early and entered my parent’s bedroom. “What’s wrong?” my father called out. “Dad, mom, there isn’t really a Santa Claus is there?” My father, startled by my declaration, attempted to explain that he represented “the spirit of Christmas.” It didn’t bother me whatsoever; how nice that those gifts had really come from my loving parents. I turned to go but turned back quickly: “And there’s no tooth fairy either.”
     Of course, I immediately told one of my friends, Gretchen Grover, who, to my shock went home crying. Her parents called mine, explaining what I had just done. And my father had the difficult duty of the lecturing me about not sharing what I had just perceived, explaining that I had to keep it secret.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Publishers Weekly 4-26-1999

“Sun and Moon Celebrates 20th”

John High

SUNNY STAFF (counterclockwise from upper left):
Guy Bennett, Diana Daves, Thérèse Bachand, and founder Douglas Messerli

Having emerged as one of the finest small literary presses of its generation, Sun & Moon Press celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and finds itself one of Los Angeles’s largest publishers. Founded by Douglas Messerli and Howard Fox as a literary journal in Washington, D.C., the press now publishes 25-30 titles a year and has nearly 400 titles in print.

Cross-cultural and expansive in his literary tastes, editor Messerli’s backlist ranges from The Sun & Moon Guide to Eating Through Literature and Art to the avant-garde poetics of writers such as Lyn Hejinian and Fanny Howe. The press publishes poetry, innovative fiction, plays and criticism. Nearly half of its publications are translations.

Working on an annual budget of only $500,000, the nonprofit press has long relied on external funding. An advancement grant from the NEA brought the partners to a pivotal decision in 1982. Messerli took a semester off from his tenured teaching position at Temple University to locate matching funds for the grant, then he decided to resign altogether in order to fully commit to the press.

“I was then, and I still am, disturbed by how few of my colleagues actually teach contemporary writers,” Messerli told PW. “At Sun & Moon we believe in complex ideas and complex writings in today’s literature.” In 1985, the company moved to Los Angeles when Fox accepted a curator position at the L.A. County Museum of Art. In 1991, Consortium took over Sun & Moon’s distribution. The following year, the press received funding from the Mellon Foundation, which came at a critical time of cutbacks in the arts. With the eventual departure of Fox, Sun & Moon currently has a staff of four.

Messerli told PW he sees “a bleak future for serious literary publishing.” Classroom purchases are down, libraries are working with reduced budgets, corporate funding has dried up and so has public funding. “And there has been a radical change in reviewing practices,” he added. “Serious literature is looked down on.”

The press has put a freeze on manuscripts and presently is preparing a new three-year plan. It will have to curtail its extensive publications of poetry in the future and cut back in all of the genres. But Messerli is not giving up.

“Sun & Moon is about a literature that can make things complex again,” he said. “We’re an inheritor and guardian of the explorative writing of the 20th century. We believe in writing that can transform your life.”

Los Angeles Times 12-27-1998

“The Publishing Life”

by Thomas Curwen
Deputy Editor of Book Review
Illustration by Nancy Ohanian

Celebrating 20 Years of Sun & Moon Press

One of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles is Sun & Moon Press, a near institution as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, whose accomplishments happily prove that literary ambitions are not inimical to success. Today, with more than 350 titles in print, Sun & Moon is the largest publisher in Los Angeles—one of nearly 70 independent houses, none of which maintains as diverse and eclectic a list—and it is one of the few literary presses in America exercising the same fealty and daring commitment to poetry and fiction that characterized its debut. Messerli’s backlist is a rich chorus of classics and the avant-garde, including Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy, Knut Hamsun, Marinetti, Celine and Djuna Barnes, as well as local L.A. writers such as Martha Ronk, John Steppling and Fanny Howe.

Step into its offices on Wilshire Boulevard not far from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and you’ll encounter a vitality that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream trade book publishing, an industry numbed by mergers and consolidations that seem far removed from the more bookish passions once at the center of the trade. The vitality at Sun & Moon is generated almost single-handedly by Douglas Messerli, its smiling, bearded and bespectacled owner. Guiding you down the hallway to his office, past rooms filled with neat stacks of manuscripts and shelves of the hundreds of books he has published and kept in print for two decades, he speaks with the zeal of a man on a mission.
“I want people to grapple with different minds and different ideas and, most important, with the language itself. Language is the way we all have meaning. If our culture can’t keep language alive, the culture will become empty. We won’t think of new ideas, and the less adept we’ll be at dealing with the world and all its complications. Every book is transformative. They’re like human beings. Literature takes you into someone’s mind. When you enter their language, you rethink your values and ideas. Our relationship with them should be complex and difficult; they won’t always fit your notion of what life should be.”

Messerli’s enthusiasm and moral conviction have charged his work since 1978 when he was in his 20s, teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia and publishing a literary magazine in Washington, D.C. He and Howard Fox had started Sun & Moon as a literary journal. Eventually they began to print books as well—at first, mimeographed and side-stapled, then printed and perfect bound. Before long, they found themselves full-fledged publishers. Their first published book, Smoke by Djuna Barnes, was a compilation of stories Messerli found in various books and magazines housed in the Library of Congress. Barnes’ book is among the best-selling in the Sun & Moon catalogue.

Almost half of Sun & Moon’s titles are translations. Los Angeles, Messerli will tell you, is a city rich with excellent translators; his books reflect their extraordinary range. They also reflect his extraordinary mission: to explore possibilities of meaning and the concomitant eros of thought. “For good writing and publishing to occur,” Messerli said, “the doors must be open and the full context of human experience embraced. Only then can the miracle happen, can the poet and reader get carried away.” Generating this miracle is not easy, but Messerli’s ambition—in his own work as a poet (Dinner on the Lawn), novelist (The Structure of Destruction) and playwright (Past Present and Future) and as publisher at Sun & Moon—is to create a place where language leaps from the page, tackles the reader in a fit of anger or love and then departs, leaving the room forever changed.

Messerli plunged wholeheartedly into publishing and gave up teaching when he realized that his colleagues in the university had stopped reading contemporary writers and that, somewhere along the way, publishers had stopped accepting their work. For Messerli, such a state of affairs was tantamount to the loss of an entire generation of writers. “Publishers have abandoned all experimental American fiction writers,” he declared. “But, for me, that's where exciting writing comes from. There are hundreds of writers in this country who write to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. It’s a certain kind of fiction. But publishers have abandoned the environment that produced James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The houses that published Faulkner would be scandalized by publishing them today.”

He’s not entirely wrong. A cursory glance at some of the writers Messerli has published over the years shows the drift. There’s Clark Coolidge, originally published by Harper & Row. There’s Fanny Howe, once at Houghton Mifflin. There’s Harry Matthews, one-time Random House writer. (To be fair, there has been movement in the other direction: Russell Banks and Paul Auster began with Sun & Moon and are now with Harper- Collins and Henry Holt respectively.) Messerli’s point is clear: As commercial imperatives gain sway over the marketplace, mainstream publishers take fewer chances on the unknown, preferring to build up existing authors with brand-name recognition.

Messerli is also concerned about the future of literary presses in the age of conglomeration when distribution—the key to any publisher's livelihood—has become increasingly centralized. To be sure, publishing has become democratized by advances in technology. The Internet may level the playing field; Sun & Moon sells increasing numbers of its books through its Web site. Such innovation and adaptability have always driven the field. Small presses, working first with mimeograph machines and, later, with computers, proliferated during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, and many of them have found it possible, despite the obstacles, to compete successfully with the larger publishers by keeping their overheads low and making savvy publishing choices. For Sun & Moon, for instance, the success of Djuna Barnes’ Smoke permitted Messerli to find a distributor and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines.

In 1982, he applied for an NEA advancement grant and became a nonprofit company. Three years later, Howard Fox, his partner, who had been with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., was offered a position as curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the two of them moved to Los Angeles. “One of the interesting things in moving to Los Angeles was facing the myths of L.A.,” said Messerli. “In Washington, arts and culture are tangential to real life; here, they are one and the same. I was treated seriously here. It gave me a sense of liberation.”

Sun & Moon quickly established a presence in the city, taking on requests from writers and other presses to assist with the distribution of their books. It was a fast and relentless pace, as Messerli not only edited and published his own writers but also took on the tasks of book design and publicity, a practice he continues today, with the assistance of Diana Daves and Guy Bennett. Together, in 1995, the three of them worked at a furious pace, presiding over the production and publication of 79 titles; in a typical year they publish about 25 books.

In 1992, Sun & Moon and eight other independent presses received a major boost from the Mellon Foundation. The grant arrived at a time when Messerli had been increasingly frustrated by the state of arts funding in the country. Two years earlier, Sun & Moon protested the NEA’s anti-obscenity restrictions by deciding not to apply for a grant from the agency. As Messerli wrote to John E. Frohnmayer, its director, “If the NEA can support only ’safe’ art, then we can no longer support the NEA, for it then stands as an institution at direct odds to serious exploratory artmaking in this country.” It was a difficult decision: The NEA accounted for a major portion of the press’s budget. Nevertheless, Sun & Moon has continued to publish successfully, somehow straddling the divide between breaking even and moving ahead. Among his most successful titles: Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler and various collections by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes.

The enterprise may seem at times quixotic and perhaps even hard to believe, especially if you think Southern California is the domain of outdoor diversions, but in truth, it is heartening to find a local publisher whose devotion to the business is commensurate with the real demographics of the region as the largest book market in the country. Drop in on Sun & Moon on a Sunday afternoon when Messerli is holding one of his salons. Pick up his anthologies, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 or From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995. Or read his new journal of international poetry, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, and you will realize that under the Sun & Moon imprint, the ground where literature and life meet is broader and certainly more complicated than you might have imagined.

“I love anything that is literary,” said Messerli, “writers who challenge us with form and language and subject and themes, writers who make us question and rethink our preconceptions of the world. Literature isn’t just a received notion of what literature is but an original vision.”