June 22, 2009

Versal 7 acquired by the Itinerant Poetry Library

The Itinerant Poetry Library was installed at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam last week - during which time the 1000th Valued Patron of the library was signed up. Versal 6 was accepted into the library last year after a nerve-wracking acquisitions procedure, and was on display in the Itinerant Poetry Library for a day during the festival as part of a "poetry with pictures" selection. This year, Versal 7 scored 17 out of 73 on the acquisition questionnaire, and was also accepted into the library - hurrah!

HERE: HP-09-05-004

ID number: HP-09-05-004
Location: Buenos Aires
Reader: Laura Chalar

Hey everyone,

After a brief sojourn in my hometown of Montevideo, this copy of Versal 5 reached Buenos Aires in the luggage of my brother, Martín, come to visit me with his girlfriend Aline.

In this picture, Versal 5 shares the spotlight with two not-so-unlikely partners: the singing toad we bought in South Africa during our honeymoon and Mr. Thomas Gainsborough, a beloved artist.

The journey's starting soon!


June 15, 2009

Postcard from W. Alder Street, Missoula, Montana, USA

I had every intention of blogging intelligent thoughts from here. But I've been more content to waste hours at Butterfly and in backyards drinking Beltian White than to write (poems) about either or otherwise. Have hiked Waterworks, the L, and the North Hills. Still plan to walk the Kim Williams and go up the M. Spent a good night at The Rose and other evenings at Old Post, James Bar, etc. I like saying the names of these places, some new, some again. Up the Bitterroot. Hellgate Canyon. Clark Fork. The M. Details I suppose will surface once I'm back in Amsterdam.

June 08, 2009

a really not-a-rant about the so-called transparency of language

A strange thing happened to me when reading Flannery O'Connor last month. While I generally love her stories, characters, symbolism, and plot construction, I nonetheless felt a bit hollow, incomplete, because I was unsatisfied by her use of language. Granted, there are many good reasons why O'Connor uses the language she does. Nonetheless, because I have been reading so much fiction lately that turns "accepted" conventions of fiction on its side, I am starting to wonder if the conventions of the story and/or language are too normalized. As with 99.9% of the fiction we read, O'Connor prioritized plot, character, symbolism, and tension - language is, to a great extent, transparent, if by transparent I mean sentences that do more or less what we expect them to do.

Last week, more of the same: Toni Morrison read from her latest book,
A Mercy, here at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (sponsored by the John Adams Institute). Toni Morrison is often rightfully praised for her lyric sensibility, and I'm a massive fan of her work, but - and this shocked me - I became frustrated when I heard her read sentences like, "Her face was hard." It wasn't simply that some of Morrison's choices were easy or cliche. It was more my sensibility that while we live in a weird, crazy, complex, paradox-riven world, we expect - and, for many, demand - language to function in very standard ways. Perhaps certain uses of language function as necessary anchors when delving into difficult content, but too many authors seem content to write a decent sentence and get their characters round.

At that moment, listening to Morrison, I realized that I'm having a sort of crisis of writing. Or of aesthetics. Perhaps I'm no longer interested in characters and plots, no matter how insightful or interesting, if the prose isn't similarly interesting. And by similar, I don't mean that content and form run in parallel, because I'm not sure they should - why should form "enact" story? I just don't want language to function as a delivery mechanism for story.

It strikes me that, as gross generalization, poetry has license to disturb language (or syntax, or page placement). But for fiction, especially if you only have access to mass-market (if still literary) fiction, expectations run in precisely the opposite direction. You specifically don't mess with language because it gets in the way of story. By letting prose function seamlessly, you can focus on arc, tension, point of view, and other elements of "craft."

As case study, take the use of the second person. Why do most people hate it? It's too easily argued that it's pretentious (Bright Lights, Big City) or confrontational (uh, Bright Lights, Big City, or much of Lorrie Moore's Self-Help), but that doesn't explain why many people just think it's a bad idea. Unliterary. Granted, I'm not planning on writing an opus in second person, but I would consider that its intrinsic scariness and the tension in its implicit, in-your-face contradiction (you simultaneously try to inhabit the "you" and find that you cannot) opens up possibility spaces. Besides, doesn't the first person do the same thing? That "I" on the page is, at once, the narrator and the reader, but most people don't get cranky about the first person. Somehow, first person is considered authentic, while second person is gimmicky. Hmmm.

What does it mean for my own writing, or the writing I want to publish in Versal? Can the writing space I crave, one in which interesting stories are told in interesting ways, with interesting words and unusual syntax, not be considered experimental or self-reflexive or pretentious? Must the structure of a text "follow" the dictates of the content? How can our words train people how to read - or expect - differently?

Conspirators in possible disruption,


PS: if you want a gory, disturbing, crazy, literary, and very good read, take a look at Brian Evenson's horror-noir
Last Days...

June 03, 2009

HERE: HP-09-05-001

ID number: HP-09-05-001
Location: Paris
Reader: Pauline Chevalier

I'm very excited about our first HERE post. Thanks to Pauline, who has sent in some photos of a HERE copy of Versal 5, which she has been wandering around Paris with. We look forward to hearing more about where HP-09-05-001 travels to, and about the other roving HERE copies. Email us at here@wordsinhere.com with text, sound, images, video, artwork etc.

June 02, 2009

Glimpsing Versal's aesthetics...

As an editor (and as a writer who feels that the task of unencoding the gestalt of a journal is frustratingly mystifying), my hope is that writers interested in Versal feel that they can understand a bit of our process (I’ll write more on this in a separate post) and a bit of where we’re coming from aesthetically. It’s a difficult world, given how many pieces we receive compared to how many we publish (fiction acceptance rates will clock in about 2 percent this year), but at the least we want our submitters and readers to know that for us, this is a labor of love, and it’s of supreme importance to us to communicate well with you.

In this vein, I wanted to talk a little bit about some questions you asked at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago this year:

The most frequently asked question was: what's the relationship between Salt Lake City and Amsterdam? I told people they were sister cities, but most are too smart to fall for that. Really, Salt Lake City was an innocent error made by the nice people who created the Versal Banner.

The next question: what kinds of work do you take?

At a simple level, the answer was: the good kind. And this is true. On both fiction and poetry teams, our readers come from quite varied aesthetic positions - we're not one of those journals that only accepts allegories featuring seven-legged spiders. And we tend to push each other to work carefully with forms or structures we find uncomfortable, so that we expand our understanding of literature - if the mind is fairly broad in the ways it understands the universe, why should literature be constrained by a stifling set of rules? Trust me, when I meet you, I'm not wondering how long it will take until you transition from a flat into a round character.

However, speaking only from a fiction (not fictional) perspective, I thought we could refine our interests in a way that provided insight into our (thought, submission) processes...

• The 3,000 word limit we place on our fiction submissions is not simply a publishing and economic constraint - it is a challenge to writers to try to (re)imagine how story length can be a breeding ground for new formal structures. It is incredibly difficult to follow the "rules" of a more traditional, longer story (round characters, Freytag's Triangle) in a shorter story. True, the preferred structures within the vague category "flash fiction" are starting to codify, but there is still an incredible range of play in shorter forms. I am fascinated by what people can do in the 1,500 to 3,000 word range, and we love good work that explores the possibility in these spaces.
• Similarly, we like people who pay attention to language. Story, even if it's abstract, is a must, but we tend to really be drawn to stories in which language isn't a neutral medium. When I say attention to language, I don't mean that the author uses lyrical language, nor do I mean that the author can't use standard syntax or diction. It doesn't have to be a self-aware use of language. It simply means that it is clear the author is considering each word, even if that word is "the."
• Cute and surreal is great, but we like it when there's dark water lurking beneath the surreal. I love Aimee Bender, but too many people are trying to write like her without considering what makes the best of her stories great. At their best, her stories have a surface-level twist that engages our imaginative senses, but this twist does not overwhelm the fact that the stories have real pathos - a sense of longing, loneliness, of communion. At their worst, or if the reader isn't getting her vibe, the stories feel like one-trick ponies, but at their best they complicate the mystery of our lives. So it's awesome that the bats in your story don't suck blood but instead remove earwax - but push that just a little further.
• We don’t have any aesthetic no-nos – we accept both highly realist and highly abstract stories, the linear and the fragmented. Some stories have traditional conflict, while others are closer to performative rants. Everything’s fair game.

• I know this isn't worth saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: it happens all the time that people don't follow the rules. Sadly, submissions that don't follow instructions get a little black mark. If you still have questions after reading our guidelines, please feel free to ask - we love talking to you.
• Some of the best literature is full of sex and drugs, but imagine, especially given our Amsterdam connection, how many stories we get that focus on sex and drugs. Sex in literature is not intrinsically racy or experimental - people have been doing it in all sorts of ways for thousands of years. Have you read Dante lately? And for most of us, the world is always already strange. So make the stone stony, but make it something un-stony as well.

Feel free to ask questions, rant, applaud, grouse (in a compassionate and detailed way). I’ll try to be as open and candid as possible. It's even possible that other editors will chime in with different stories...


Fiction Editor