Versal 9 was the January selection for Literary Magazine Club (details of our next selection, Monday). Did you read the issue? What did you think? My favorite story was Carmen Petaccio’s “Tornado,” where the writer personified a tornado and created a really imaginative story. I also admired Stace Budzko’s “To Be Glad And Young,” particularly the ending. Versal editor Megan M. Garr and I had a great conversation via e-mail about Versal, the proliferation of magazines, being based in Europe, arrogance, editorial humility, and more.
Versal—where does the name come from?
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where he shortens the word “universal” to keep with the meter. It’s from a random comment by the nurse in act 2. Somewhere along the line the word “versal” also came to take on the meaning “single”. I liked that conflation, ten years ago when I was first figuring out how to live in a foreign country.
A “versal” is also that ornamental capital letter at the beginning of old texts – a fact that suits us, I think, with our attention to design.
How does your magazine work in terms of decision making? Who are some of the other key players involved in the editing and production of Versal.
We’re very Dutch about it. Everything rests on dialogue. The work that excites one or two editors is discussed by the whole team in what we call our roundtable. We read it out loud, we talk it through, we put pressure on it at certain points and see what falls out. If an editor’s enthusiasm endures that conversation, and if the work itself endures it, we’ll probably accept the piece.
Robert Glick is our prose editor. Shayna Schapp, my wife, is our art editor. Our managing editor is Sarah Ream, and she and I work with our business manager Annerie Houterman to make sure the journal stays afloat. We have another 12 or so active assistant editors on the poetry, prose and art teams – spread all over the world.
Skype and KLM should be our sponsors. Our combined bills for AWP are astronomical. You know that survey they send out? One of the questions is how much your organization spent to attend the conference. We each pay out of pocket, but still. They probably think we’re kidding.
Versal is based out of Amsterdam. How does that international presence influence the magazine?
When I moved to Amsterdam in 2001, I got ahold of all the “expat” or “anglophone” literary journals in Europe at the time: The Prague Revue, Van Gogh’s Ear, Kilometer Zero, Poetry Salzburg Review. They were full of foreignness, full of observatory narratives of the local urban scenery and the self, dealing with alienation—a very safe, upper class alienation, mind you. These journals bored me really quickly. In no way was I going to start a literary journal in this tradition, and being in Amsterdam helped. Unlike Paris or Prague or Berlin, there’s no literary mythology about Amsterdam. We’re Deep Space 9, you know, way out in the middle of a literary nowhere. We’re pretty removed from who’s-who and what’s-what, and we’re also removed from any Romantic illusions about our expatriated selves. I like that. It’s quiet. I like what that means for the poetry I’m writing, and for the work I’m interested in as an editor.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a healthy Dutch literary scene, but its crossovers internationally are usually either conservative white-man-poet or extreme in a way that fetishizes the other. I won’t stomach that. I can’t be a part of that anyway. And I keep tabs on things in the States through the internet, through sites like HTMLGIANT, and I go to AWP. My blurred sense of home affords me an aesthetic freedom, an exemption from some of the things you have to do as an American writer or editor or as a Dutch writer or editor, and that means that Versal has a lot of room.
Some writers working in translocal contexts like this complain that their homelands won’t publish them anymore, and maybe that’s true. I don’t know. I know I love what it’s done to my own writing, and I know I couldn’t have started Versal anywhere else
I notice that Versal 9 has a fair amount of artwork and really appreciated seeing that blend of fiction, poetry, and art. Why do you have that strong commitment to including art in a literary magazine?
How do you present poetry and prose in a beautiful, spacious way, not just make a book as a medium between writer and reader? I’m relieved so many editors are thinking about this now; ten years ago it felt really radical.
In 2002, Amsterdam’s international lit scene was all on stage, so I got up on it. We all did. I learned that “my work speaks for itself” is mostly bullshit. When you’re reading to a multilingual and not necessarily “literary” audience, you have to work differently, harder maybe, for their attention. You have to connect with your audience to make your work work. Their eyes and ears are as much a part of it as anything else.
We took this into Versal. We agreed we wanted to design the journal into an object in its own right. Give it a strong visual aspect. We were thinking about readers holding it, but also resting their eyes on it. I guess we were thinking more in terms of the walls of a gallery than in terms of the pages of a book. Art was never an add-on. It was just there.
How do you know when you love a piece of writing or art?
Something inside me freakin’ lifts off the ground.
Versal recently chose to start charging a nominal fee for submissions. I remember reading the initial post where you shared the decision and the logic behind the decision. How has it been, having the fee? Has it affected the quantity or quality of submissions Versal received during the last submission period? Will you continue to have a fee?
There are a lot of reasons that I’m glad we did it. From a purely financial point of view, our goal was to replace our ongoing workshop programming here in Amsterdam, which has partially funded the journal for over five years and which was becoming unsustainable, with a revenue stream that came directly from the journal itself. We did that.
I recently shared some initial conclusions on our blog. Submission numbers were down 39% overall. I think Duotrope’s no-fee policy accounts for much of this drop (they changed this policy two days before our reading period closed). The prose team tells me that the quality of work went up significantly. The poetry team tells me that the quality of work polarized: either it was really good or really bad. Art seems to have stayed the same.
Our business model is selling Versal, but we’ll continue to have the fee, at least in the foreseeable future. And I’ll continue to participate in the dialogue about financial models for lit mags, because I think Versal’s experience has a lot to offer these conversations. We’ve done good work here.
There’s a lot of fascinating work in Versal 9. A lot of the writing was really lyrical. Do you notice that themes emerge as you shape an issue?
You know, I hate theme issues, I don’t really know why. But every year there’s something that makes the editors say, “I’m reading so many poems about this or this.” I think Versal 9 had a lot of sea creatures. Or maybe just animals in general. But no, we try not to encourage themes from taking too much root in an issue. If anything, we try to disrupt them. But at the end of the day we just accept work we’re really excited about and see what happens.
Why do you hate theme issues?
Maybe hate’s a strong word. I heard that themes help sell journals, and I was like, really? Most themes just make me shrug. Love and violence? Beauty? The body? I like how Sidebrow handles it, with its “projects”, but a themed issue doesn’t make me buy a journal or not buy a journal. It just doesn’t matter to me.
What is your favorite piece Versal 9?
There were two pieces I fought hard for: Ken White’s “Oculus” and Suzanne Warren’s “The Reindeer Daughter.” Maybe I didn’t have to fight hard for them but I was ready to go to the wall at the roundtables.
I’d love to hear more about your roundtable. What happens in your deliberation process?
The roundtable is when an editorial team—poetry, prose or art—gets together and discusses work that’s been shortlisted for publication. I like to start the meetings by asking the team what pieces they’re excited about. We read the work out loud and dig into it. My job is to listen for enthusiasm, where the editors are converging and where they’re in opposition, and if that opposition is purely aesthetic or if the work has weaknesses that we can’t account for. Sometimes there’s a piece that everyone loves. But more often, only a few editors love it, and the others hear that and hear why, and the excitement about the piece kind of gets shared around. Like it’s contagious. When that happens, we accept the work. When that doesn’t, when an editor’s enthusiasm wanes over the course of the conversation, usually because there’s something in the piece that’s not working, really not working, then we let it go.
I’ve fought hard to make this process work. It means that each editor has to let their ego down a bit. We’ve lost editors because they couldn’t put up with the idea that they weren’t themselves the last word on what was good or what was not, or that a writer’s reputation alone wasn’t enough for acceptance. The roundtable hinges on that we listen to each other and how we listen to each other. It takes a great deal of mutual respect, sometimes even humility. Not everyone can handle it.
Do you ever work with writers on developing their writing?
We do. We try to give feedback as much as we can, even if we reject a piece. Sometimes we’ll work with a writer to tighten up an ending or a line before we go to production. But we see a lot of excellent writing, so if there’s still a lot of work to be done on a piece it seems more fair to go back to the writer with specific feedback and an explicit invitation to send work again next time. I also try to build relationships with our contributors. Many of them stay in touch with us, try new work out on us, so we get to continue dialogues with them about their writing, their development, successes.
You mentioned that there are some extremes in the lit scene with white man poets and the extreme fetishization of the other. What else is going on?
I think there are extremes in the way Dutch literature presents itself in an international setting, and the international literary events held here often fall into these extremes too. But Dutch literature has many parts, and those parts that are not white and not man are starting to gain better footholds, they’re just harder to see from the outside. And there’s more experimentation, too, with poets like Rosalie Hirs and Samuel Vriezen.
A Dutch poet once told me that the Dutch believe poetry comes from God. If that’s true, I can see why there is a really stable masculine and white hierarchy in Dutch literature. But that belief and the hierarchy seem to be breaking down. A few colleges have creative writing classes or even degrees now. This means, at least in some initial way, that Dutch literature is opening up.
Do you make an effort to publish European writers?
Yeah, but it’s not easy. American writers are raised to submit as part of the writing practice. This just isn’t the case elsewhere. In the Netherlands, if you’re a poet, then you make friends with other poets and editors and then you get published. There’s not really a submission process.
A lot of American journals run theme issues where they focus on a particular national literature, and that creates a lot of buzz and gets the work in. Since we don’t want to do that, we want to gather rather than stockpile, we have to continuously cultivate relationships with people and organizations around the world so that the word gets out.
Also, my hunch is that the economy around translation is different in Europe, and so translators working here are less likely to send work in an open call. The translators I know in the Netherlands are paid for their work, commissioned by publishers or solicited by anthologies. Another problem has been that European writers try to translate their work themselves. I think this succeeds 1% of the time. We’ve had to reject a lot of Dutch poets for that reason, and they aren’t happy with us.
We worked with Laura L. Chalar, a Uruguayan poet and translator, for a long time. We would receive Spanish-language work, she would translate it, and then we would choose what to publish. That was exciting but the process wasn’t very sustainable – we couldn’t publish everything she translated, so she was doing a lot for very little payback. But through her we were able to connect to exciting poets like Alex Piperno, so the process didn’t fail entirely.
Anyway, it’s an ongoing effort.
Why did you move to Amsterdam?
I moved to Amsterdam for a girl. The same reason I’ve moved pretty much everywhere.
You remarked that ten years ago editors weren’t thinking as much about presentation. What other changes have you noticed in literary magazine publishing over the past decade?
The numbers! There are so many of us! Was this always the case? When I first started to publish, this would have been 1997, I feel like I had a pretty good handle on what was out there. I can hardly keep up now. This worries me a little. Does it still worry you? Flooded markets eventually freak. But there are good support systems, like CLMP, and some critical conversations being had, that should help us all navigate whatever’s going on.
If I lived in the States right now, I don’t think I’d start a literary journal. I would just try to join a community that already exists, give it what I’ve got, rather than splinter another group from it off.
The proliferation of literary magazines definitely worries me. Every time I see someone say, “I’m going to start a new journal,” I get really frustrated and I think, “WHY?” I never want to deprive anyone of the opportunity to edit, because it has helped me become a much stronger writer and editor, but at the same time, there’s no reason why would be editors shouldn’t simply join an existing magazine and contribute to helping sustain the magazines we do have. I have a particular peeve with all these magazines that don’t even bother to buy a domain name. Do you think it has become too easy to be an editor these days?
It takes ego to say, “I can pick good literature from the bad”. I was 23 when I started. What was I thinking? Sure, I had a specific goal, Versal was a way to bring writers together here in Amsterdam. A project, I thought, could build a community. And it did. But I won’t downplay my own arrogance, a young American in a new country starting a literary journal. I have to laugh at myself sometimes.
Publishing has become accessible enough that editing can seem, at least logistically, pretty simple. You’re right, editing is an important learning process. But in most larger towns in America there’s already something underway. Maybe it’s not perfect but new voices and new ideas can come in and make the project stronger. I’m especially surprised when I hear of a new journal in a place like Chicago or New York City. Really? Does a new community really form around that new journal, or is it just a way for an editor to position himself at the top of something quickly? I’m pretty suspect of that, and I should be. The history of literature is full of egos manifestoing themselves against other egos. Everyone has to do it new or do it better. But engaging in community as an ambitious, would-be editor—that can be harder, more confronting, put you in a more vulnerable position. It’s easier to sit home alone one night and start a journal on Kickstarter I guess.
You know, Luna Park Review just changed course, recognizing that there are so many forums now for what they set out to do that their mission is no longer necessary. I respect that. Our community is made stronger by that kind of honesty.
What do you love most about editing?
Here’s what I’m supposed to say, and it’s true. I love putting good work in the world in a really beautiful way. But here’s what I love too: I love what I learn from editing Versal. Several of our editors have said to me recently that they think their work wouldn’t make it through our roundtable. I also think this sometimes. It’s one thing to be a lone editor of a journal, where all decisions are made by you. It’s an entirely different thing when you’re part of a team. I have learned so much about writing, about aesthetics, about ego, about what makes a great poem or story, about what doesn’t really matter. Could I have learned so much if I had edited Versal alone? I don’t think so. At the very least, doing it alone would have been boring.