Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I wish it were easier for me to speak my heart to people I don’t know. As a writer, I strive to be honest and self-revealing. But put me in front of a microphone, ask me about my passion for the magazine I started thirty years ago, and I’m like some bashful suitor struggling to put his love into words. That’s why, when our local public radio station asked to interview me recently, I almost said no.
I’m glad I didn’t. For one thing, I felt less shy as the call-in show wore on. For another, the radio host took a call from someone whose voice I was thrilled to hear: the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, phoning from New Mexico to talk about his connection to The Sun.
Baca recalled how he’d discovered The Sun in the midseventies in an Arizona prison cell. After teaching himself to read and write, Baca read whatever he could in prison, but he found little writing that addressed his own stark reality. “Prison strips you to the core of your essence,” he said. “All around you, people rise to the occasion like a phoenix or descend like a dark bird into the canyon.”
A friend sent him a copy of The Sun, which spoke to him, he said, with writing that was honest and humble. Baca submitted some of his poems. He remembered the hot summer day when he got our acceptance letter, which made him feel recognized, he said, “as a human being, first and foremost, who happened to be a writer, who happened to be a prisoner.” He remembered, too, the check for ten dollars. “It was the first money I had ever earned from writing. To me, at the time, it was like receiving the Nobel prize.” He went directly to the commissary and bought ten dollars’ worth of ice cream.
Baca’s story brought back my own memories from that era, when I, too, was struggling to find my way out of a dark place. I’d quit my job as a newspaper reporter and moved to North Carolina to be part of an intentional community, which dissolved soon after I arrived. I’d lost a child; my marriage had fallen apart; my father was dying. Broke and living in a friend’s garage, I borrowed fifty dollars and started The Sun.
Three years later, when we printed Baca’s poems, The Sun was still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. But, like Baca in his prison cell, I was learning that committing yourself to work you love can be an act of self-preservation. I was learning, too, that in the midst of the greatest tragedies, the implausible sometimes happens: from the ashes of a life, a phoenix takes flight. A formerly illiterate prisoner goes on to become an acclaimed poet and the recipient of numerous literary awards. A little independent journal defies the odds, month after month, year after year, and becomes a national magazine with nearly sixty thousand subscribers.
Baca’s words that day meant a great deal to me, because The Sun still tries to respect its contributors and its readers as human beings, first and foremost. That’s why we publish writers whose heads are on speaking terms with their hearts. That’s why each issue acknowledges our fundamental connectedness as well as our astonishing uniqueness. That’s why, during a dark time for our country, we don’t wave the flag; nor have we forgotten what the flag stands for.
A lot has changed since I typed up those first issues in my friend’s garage. Today I work with a dedicated staff of more than a dozen men and women in an old but lovingly maintained house in Chapel Hill. We pay writers considerably more than ten dollars, and when the phone rings, I no longer worry that it’s a creditor whose patience has run out. Yet, in an increasingly consolidated magazine industry, the odds are still stacked against a publication like ours. Many chain bookstores won’t carry The Sun because it isn’t commercial enough, and independent bookstores are getting harder to find. And while most magazines depend on advertising for at least half their revenue, as an ad-free journal we rely on our readers to keep us afloat.
That’s why I’m writing to ask for your help as a Friend Of The Sun. Your tax-deductible donation will allow us to continue to print the kind of brave and honest writing that’s almost impossible to find in the mass media. Your support will allow us to continue to give away hundreds of free subscriptions every year to libraries and prisoners. It will allow us to remain free of advertising, which would be an unwelcome distraction in a magazine as intimate as The Sun. In the world of publishing, The Sun is like a wilderness the developers haven’t gotten their hands on yet. I intend to keep it that way.
When I returned to the office after the radio interview, I poured myself a cup of coffee, walked up the creaky wooden stairs, and sat down behind my desk. Instead of getting right to work, I took a moment to lean back in my chair. Thirty years. From half a lifetime away, I saw an idealistic young man, hair down to his shoulders, standing on the street with a stack of magazines under his arm. He, too, was struggling to overcome his shyness as he tried to describe his new magazine to passersby. The afternoon light was fading, but he wasn’t ready to quit just yet. I imagined reaching across the years to shake his hand, to thank him for not letting shyness get the best of him, to encourage him to keep on.
Editor, The Sun
P.S. You may send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org. Your donation is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.
If you’re a subscriber, you may already have seen this letter in your mailbox. We publish it in the magazine for the benefit of our newsstand readers.