Many of you may not know much about how THE SUN got started, and how it’s evolved. So I’m reprinting this interview, which appeared in last month’s issue of Joe’s Bozart, a new magazine which deserves local support ($2.75 a year, Joe’s Bozart, Box 15152, Durham, N.C.).
The interview took place at THE SUN office with Richard Gess of the Bozart staff and Alex Muro, the publisher. Betsy Campbell, THE SUN’s assistant editor, joined us after a while. Much had to be edited because of space limitations, including an acknowledgement of those who have worked with the magazine. Special credit goes to Priscilla Rich Safransky, who has played a major role in shaping its growth; and Alma Blount, Julia Hardy, and Betsy Martin, key helpers in the earlier years. More recently, Richard Joste, our art director, deserves praise for keeping these pages straight and singing.
Bozart: History questions. How did you get here, and how did THE SUN come to be?
Sy: I got here in ’72, THE SUN started in ’74. I came most directly from New York City, where I grew up. I was a newspaper reporter for The Long Island Press for three years. Then I traveled in Europe for two years and went back to the Press, worked as a copy editor, and came here, ostensibly to be part of an intentional community called New Eden, which was supposed to be 30 families in the country, more or less self-sufficient. A good idea with some good people that did not come to anything. But I stayed, anyway; did a succession of odd jobs — ran a juice bar, dug ditches, fitted pipes, then started a magazine.
Sy: It’s hard to focus on what my reasons were then because my reasons keep changing. I’d always been interested in journalism, in writing and in self-expression. The magazine actually grew out of a conversation with Mike Mathers, who then ran the Community Bookstore. That’s when I was running the juice bar and I used to bring him juice drinks for lunch every day. Then one day we got to talking about how it would be nice if Chapel Hill had a newsletter or a magazine. We were vague about what we wanted to do, or what would work. So we just put together an issue. A lot of my motivation then was for my own self-expression, and for giving other people a place to put their work. It was not very well defined.
Bozart: What do you feel you’ve mutated into?
Sy: Well, one mutation is that it has a whole lot less to do with my personal self-expression than it did at the very beginning, or even as recently as a year and a half ago. At first I needed to write a lot of the magazine because nobody else was submitting anything. That’s no longer necessary, and I’m happy to take a back seat. I’ve become more conscious of the need to do that. Believe it or not, I had a great deal of naivete about what I was doing in terms of how other people would relate to it. I see the magazine now as being an important open channel for other people communicating with one another — people who think of themselves as professional writers and people who are obviously amateurs. The amateur part of it is starting to get institutionalized in the section that’s called “Us” where people just write in, and we print almost everything we get. And it’s of a pretty decent caliber also. The nature of THE SUN is also changing now from that of a local forum to a more national context.
Bozart: Where is THE SUN distributed now?
Sy: We have a national distributor who distributes the magazine to newsstands; we have regional distributors in California, the Southwest, Wisconsin, New York, the South, Texas, Georgia.
Bozart: In ’72 there was room in Chapel Hill for visions like New Eden, but now it doesn’t seem so much like an alternative place. Do you ever feel anachronistic here?
Sy: No. I think the kind of excitement that was perhaps more visible in the early seventies has matured, and that in fact the energy, although it’s not as visible, is still present. For example, just around the corner the new Community Holistic Health Center has rented a building. That to me is a real obvious expression of the kind of energy we’re talking about having been perhaps more visible in the early seventies. One of the things that has always interested me about this area is that there are many people quietly living in the country, having built their compost privies and doing all these things and having all these thoughts that are associated with a counterculture, but just doing them not so dramatically, or melodramatically, as was the style in the late sixties or the early seventies. That makes me feel good, because as I’ve gotten older I come to trust that more than the flamboyant flavor I associate with ten years ago — necessary as that was for getting things in motion. Notwithstanding all that, I can sometimes feel that there isn’t as much of that kind of energy around here, i.e. not that many people buying THE SUN as I would like — but when I’m being most reflective about that it seems to me that nobody said that it was going to be easy, that making your ideas known was going to be easy, and if we’re acknowledging that the ideas we’re putting forth are not mainstream ideas, not the predominant stamp of this culture, then it’s okay to feel a little bit out in the cold. It’s a test. It makes you question where you’re at. It makes you stronger.
Bozart: So you still see THE SUN as a voice of the New Age?
Sy: I wouldn’t put it in those terms because I think that’s another way in which my thinking and the magazine have changed. The magazine used to much more obviously address an alternative audience. Now there’s more of an attempt to present THE SUN so that a middle-aged, non-countercultural person from Toledo, say, can pick up the magazine and feel comfortable with it, and not be put off by whatever would be a magazine’s equivalent of long hair and beads. And the motivation for that has not been to make more money or to sell more magazines, although those are not undesirable goals. It has been to emphasize an inclusiveness more than an exclusivity about those ideas that are important to us. Because what’s really important are all the ancient ideas about a commonality, and a love for one another. That doesn’t need to have an exclusive, off-putting, air about it. The core of it is nothing alienating; it’s just the way it gets dressed up. So I don’t feel like I’m addressing, or the magazine is addressing, a bunch of aging New Agers.
Bozart: It seems that the evolution of THE SUN very much reflects your own evolution. Does what you, in particular, feel and think still direct the magazine?
Sy: What I feel and what I think directs it in a certain sense. I feel like I’m a guiding spirit. But because of the nature of what comes in, there’s not as much choice as might sometimes appear. Since we’re not paying people, we’re pretty much beholden to the good intentions of those who contribute. And often stuff will get printed not because it really interests me, but because it’s the best of what’s available. So in that sense my personal direction can be misinterpreted in terms of the editorial shape of an issue.
Bozart: How would you like THE SUN to evolve?
Sy: I would like it to do more of what it’s doing. I would like there to be more honoring of its local and regional roots. We’ve started this Chapel Hill section which hopefully can grow out of one or two pages into a whole section of the magazine because this area is the physical and spiritual ground of what THE SUN is about. I’d like to see more of a focus on some of the people around here, and the ideas here, and all the rest. Part of the reason I hesitate to articulate more than that in terms of a purpose, and the reason I’ve never wanted to print a statement of purpose, is that I feel that one of the strengths of the magazine is its openness and its sense of evolving on its own. Although there’s obviously an intimate relationship between the personalities involved here and the form that evolution takes. I would just like its many voices which make its one voice to become more and more precise, and more thoughtful. And that’s as specific as I feel comfortable getting.
Betsy: I think we’re both in love with the unpredictable nature of the magazine. I think that’s a lot of what we feel about it, and don’t want to become institutionalized, the way that publications can. And that’s a little scary, to try to become consistent, and not institutionalize. It’s very hard to do.
Bozart: If THE SUN is indeed a magazine of ideas, then those ideas must change as THE SUN does. How do you define those ideas now, as opposed to when THE SUN was more spiritual?
Sy: THE SUN is no less spiritual in the sense that that word has any meaning. It’s less self-consciously spiritual. And calling it a magazine of ideas has never really seemed right either. It’s just that you have to acquiesce to some sort of label and that seemed like the most open one around. It’s as much, probably, a magazine of feelings, of that emotional realm, in fact maybe even more so — but certainly as much as it is ideational.
Betsy: I’m thinking about contradictions, and how we try to marry contradiction. And how the magazine sometimes contradicts itself. To marry those contradictions, of the mind and the heart or whatever, is a lot of what we’re sensitive to. Trying to develop a tolerance for intolerance. I think a lot of Sy’s criticisms about alternative culture’s attitudes is a criticism of intolerance. That constant polarization. I think one thing we’re supersensitive to in what comes in is if somebody’s work is weighed down with a very heightened self-righteousness. We’re both extremely self-righteous at times, but we dislike that in ourselves a great deal, and we dislike the magazine a lot at different times for that reason.
Sy: I don’t like putting out the image of us being any sort of New Age magazine or countercultural magazine. The most useful thing we can be doing is healing over some of the stuff that’s gotten so torn up in the last 10 years or so. Because when I look at, the politics which have become associated with the left, or those expressions artistically, or wherever, there’s not as much love in all that as there pretends to be. And okay, putting “love” in 72-point type is not going to create love either. I never thought that it would, but in some ways I was ignorant of how putting other things in 72-point type was not necessarily creating what I wanted it to. I personally, and THE SUN and the people writing for it now, are trying to address a larger audience.
Bozart: How was THE SUN received originally in Chapel Hill, and how is it received now? There surely was a period when it wasn’t as well received as now.
Sy: The funny thing is that our circulation in Chapel Hill hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 5 years. The growth has been in other areas. If you’re going to be typecast people, it’s the same type of people in other areas who are picking up on the magazine, so maybe you could say that we reached our audience at the very beginning, and that we’re not reaching more people now. That would be an exaggeration, not quite true, but. . . .
Betsy: My theory is that the magazine was not consistent in quality when it was just local, and it has only reached the West Coast and other places as it has become better, and therefore it has grown more in those places. So many people around here still carry around this image — “Oh, THE SUN,” you know, and don’t know what it’s like now, while we’re getting all these subscriptions from California. . . .
Bozart: So do you feel that you’re any more accepted now than in the beginning?
Sy: Well, if “in the beginning” is the first year, we definitely feel more accepted. Five times more accepted for five years of work. And yet, because one’s ambition in terms of what you want to do increases along with whatever success you have you can still feel frustration at not being able to do more, and at not having more support. But I don’t blame the community. I like to feel that as we do better, we’ll get more support.
Bozart: What kind of material are you looking for now from writers?
Sy: I would say what I say in the magazine, which is true. Articles on any subject, because in fact the subject is not in and of itself as important to me as the intensity of expression, and the need to write it on the part of the person who’s writing it. You can usually smell something before you open the envelope that doesn’t have very much heart in it. Maybe I’m saying something about the medium being the message, and the medium having something to do with passionate intensity.
Betsy: Specifically, we would like to have more fiction. Photographs. Artwork. And anybody can contribute to the “Us” section.
Bozart: But you’ve made the “Us” section a special part in itself, rather than the entire magazine.
Betsy: The progression is interesting, because in the beginning the magazine had a theme for every issue. And now there’s this boiled-down “Us” section, which is sort of the way the magazine first started coming out.
Sy: A SUN within THE SUN.
Bozart: What would you say to people who dismiss THE SUN? How would you say, “Come on in, it’s different?”
Sy: Buy an issue. And sit down with it in your bathtub or your easy chair, and give it another try.