May 20, 2012

From a ten-year editor, part 4: Occupy the slush pile

“I guess what I was inquiring was if you take solicited submissions from authors outside the slush pile. For all my lit mag publications in the next year prior to my launch, we've done the discussions between me, my agent, and editors. that's [sic] how most authors (new or established) do it.”

“I don’t know you, but I do feel old enough to take the liberty (or, if you prefer, to be so cheeky) of sending you a press release setting out my recent job as a writer. It’s up to you to decide what to do with: asking me an excerpt, a free ebook copy or putting this press release in your ‘archive’ (aka wastepaper basket).”

There’s a tumblr for weird letters to lit mag editors, right?

I recently spoke to two creative writing classes at the University of Amsterdam. We spoke about Versal, submitting to literary journals, the writing process, and editing a mag. I was mostly coherent I think; class started at something like 9am and I was delirious from getting up so early (yeah, ok).

When I have a chance to speak about these things I love, I often find my way towards opinions or conclusions that I’ve long had but never quite directly articulated. Thanks to the sharp questions from the students or my early rise from bed or their professor Jane Lewty’s acute promptings, or all of the above, we had important and insightful discussions in both classes. There were three things we spoke about that stuck out to me, that I’d like to share here. Call them things I’ve learned along the way.

The first is: being a “writer”. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to actually believe that writerly fame is possible. I’ve met too many writers now and read too many works to have a grasp of what that really means anymore. And I told the students that. I boomed something and waved my arms: “There are seven billion people on this planet. No one’s going to be famous anymore. All you've got is inspiration, that little ego inside of you, and god.”

The second: being a woman writer. The “little ego inside of you” is important. Obviously for everyone, that we for-lack-of-a-better-word embrace our drive and talent and look the world square in the eyes. But in all my ten years of editing Versal, only ONE woman has ever contacted me outright and asked me to publish her (cf. first quote at the start of this post). All of the others have been men. I don’t know them, they don’t know me, but they are sure of themselves and they tell me this. I don’t agree with the tactic of course — theirs is an extreme approach. But as I’ve grown into my role as Versal’s editor, as well as into my own poetry, I have cultured an ego enough to steel me through. Through what? Not rejection letters, that's not really a big deal. But standing on stage after the booming voices of men. But taking my place at the microphone during panels. But writing things like this post. But writing at all.

The third: being part of your community. And here is where we are all humbled. I suggested to the students that, given the chance, they should seek out community whether online, among themselves, or in the canal belt of Amsterdam. They didn’t necessarily have to get involved and organize, but they could. They could also just attend events. Become a part. And one day even join a lit mag team. I suggested they not try to start one, unless they really saw a need (in an interview with Roxane Gay not too long ago we spoke about the over-proliferation of lit mags, esp. in the US). But rather bring their talents and energies and passions to a project that is already underway — because funding isn’t great no matter where you go now, and lit mags and lit orgs in general could really use the help.

What I didn’t understand when I started Versal at the green age of 23 is that a literary journal is in and of itself a community — not just a mechanism of that community. What bugs me about the writers who email us and tell us how great they are and ask us to publish them is that 100% of the time they have not bought Versal, attended any Versal events, or even seemed to have perused our website. They are asking to be made part of the community without joining the community. Without building the relationships that are really what drive this. They feel owed, and maybe they are, but I’m not the purseholder. 

As I’ve seen Versal grow these last ten years, and as I’ve grown, I’ve become increasingly thankful of the community it has given me. And in turn, Versal continues to be my contribution back, my way to be a part. And the more that I’ve worked to be a part, the more I’ve enjoyed some of the trappings of being a writer. I’ll never be Ezra-Pound famous, I’ll probably hang out in the slush pile most of my life, but I’ll really enjoy all of this anyway.


  1. Thanks for this! What I take from it, too, especially from the two weird letters at the start, is how much more important the community aspect of writing has become over the past 10 years. The fringe is now larger than the centre, and the centre moves all the time. I'm interested in issues of writing identity you touch upon, including the aspect of being a woman writer (gender being a digitally concealable entity)—this last aspect escaped me in a post I just wrote on "How is the Internet changing the way you write". Perhaps you'd like to participate in the discussion?

  2. Thank you Marcus! I will read your post and am so glad you pointed me to it. Just give me a day or two to get over our big launch hangover! :)

    You are indeed correct. When we started Versal, our grasp of our task was unclear. We were doing what we were doing without knowing it. Articulating it came later. And community, well, it was where we started. And so we continue.

    Looking forward to reading your post, Marcus.