Scenes: Sagging Meniscus Press: an interview with Jacob Smullyan
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Scenes:
Sagging Meniscus Press: an interview with Jacob Smullyan

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Interior illustration from The Old Asylum (2016)

Could you briefly describe your press’s history?

Sagging Meniscus began in early 2015 after the untimely death of our friend and colleague J. F. Mamjjasond, who left behind a sprawling, highly personal manuscript we felt a profound responsibility to publish: Hoptime, our signature work and raison d’être, from whose text the comically ungainly yet poetic name of our press is drawn. As that project progressed, however, we realized that we were in a position to do much more than just publish one rather bizarre novel: it was our good fortune to stand in a remarkably busy crossroads of self-determined, idiosyncratic writers, mostly unknown and unpublished, whose work, often distributed by unconventional means of one kind or another, cried out to be better known. We soon saw a larger mission in creating a platform where this and other independent writing we deemed important or interesting could be given more permanent form and reach a new public. What is more, we felt that our literary tastes and instincts were well-suited to this purpose, and that the selection we would make from this very diverse body of work would create a coherent series that itself could contribute something new to literature.

How would you characterize the work you publish?

Many of the books we publish come from what we have called, somewhat haphazardly, the “American underground”: American writers who have created subterranean literary institutions, individually or collectively, outside the mainstream, or found unconventional ways of distributing their work (mostly prior to the self-publishing revolution). For instance, we have published two books so far by the extraordinarily talented and prolific polymath Roy Lisker, many of whose writings first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s in his hand-produced zine Ferment, which Howard Zinn described as “American samizdat”; we aim to publish much more of his work. Our first book to appear, Voice Lessons (2015) by John Tynan, had previously been distributed by the author in a beautifully hand-bound edition. Chris Sanderson’s remarkable novel The Too-Brief Chronicle of Judah Lowe (2016) had been serialized on Twitter, where it had a devoted following. Another of SMP’s preoccupations is a large body of work connected to an organization of writers called The Institute of Krinst Studies, which was principally active in the 1980s and 1990s; a kind of American Oulipo, its efforts tended to center around scholarly explication of the eccentric twentieth century American underground poet Alvin Krinst (whose works, hitherto passed from hand to hand among his devotees, we are planning to introduce to a larger readership, starting with The Yalta Stunts) but branched out in many directions. Hoptime, for instance, comes out of this esoteric tradition.

The “underground” label is of course inadequate; the truth is that to be an honest writer of any kind in today’s world is most likely to be an underground writer. Getting an audience is a fierce and unforgiving struggle. It would be more pertinent to say that our mission is to publish work of a strongly individual cast by writers who march to their own drummer, whatever their circumstances or nationality. The key characteristic we seek is aesthetic self-determination—the discovery of a personal, independent sense of artistic value, rather than the mere attainment, virtuosic though it may be, of a consensually received or mandated excellence. Of course, this dichotomy is not an absolute one, and while much of the work that attracts us is avant-garde, experimental, formalist, absurdist, or just plain weird, some of it is perfectly conventional in form. (For that matter, the tradition of modernism that supports so-called experimental art is by this date highly conventional in its own right, even old-fashioned.) The flavor of true freedom is a subtle thing and may exist in any artistic tradition. So while our fondness for the zanier side of (post-)modernism persists, that is merely another convention, which we feel free to flout. If this means that we publish whatever we like, so be it.

For poetry in particular, just being...