December 17, 2009

Matt Sadler in the latest Salt River Review

I'm thrilled to share the news that one of our newest poetry editors, Matt Sadler, has new work in the Winter 2009 edition of The Salt River Review.

Have a read, and congratulations Matt!

December 05, 2009

Pushcart nominations

I am very pleased to announce our Pushcart nominations from Versal 7:
  • Jessica Young - “Autosomal Dominant”
  • Rufo Quintavalle - “Ball Bearings”
  • Mark Bilbrey - “The Dog of the National Register of Historic Places”
  • Sawako Nakayasu - “5.28.2003” from “Texture Notes”
  • Lehua M. Taitano - “Suit”
Congratulations to the nominees! If you don't have a copy of Versal 7, you can get one here.

November 23, 2009


Last month marked my eighth year in the Netherlands, a number I never expected to reach. It also marked the seventh year since a small handful of writers and I put our heads together to come up with what you now see here, Versal et al.

Just back from a trip to the States and still feeling the whir of jetlag; the sensation that I'm straddling the Atlantic is slightly more keen than normal, and the months of scribbled notes I have made to myself on translocality -- upon confrontations with art, late-night drinks with friends in bars, after people ask me "so what kind of Work does Versal publish?" (caps intended) -- seem rather daunting. I'm trying to work something out, and I promised Robert, sort of, that I would work it out on the blog. But I'm a reviser, see, and hesitant -- wary -- of absolutes. If you read my editorial in Versal 7, then you can probably guess that my work to define translocality is rather, in many ways, to undefine it.

But. Last weekend, Crossing Border put on a "minisymposium" on the "correlation between (literary) magazines and literary publishers", pivoting around the (in)famous McSweeney's and its various projects, with a few Dutch publishers thrown into the mix. I ended up not being able to make it down to The Hague in time, but regardless I feel the need to say something about the fact that Versal was not asked to join the local contingent of speakers at this event. To take a card from McSweeney's deck, we're a cool group of Gen X-cusp-Yers, and Versal is no Dutch eyesore.

The symposium's focus on the relationship between literary journals and publishers, and seemingly on how "paper" as a medium is the great savior of print (a recent Eggers theme), would have benefited from Versal's translocal perspective. Here is, perhaps, where I've lost you (if I didn't lose you already because you thought this was going to turn into a bitter rant). Here is also where all my little scribbles become a great daunting pile. But stay with me for a few more paragraphs; this isn't a five-paragraph essay. That Versal was not asked to join the program underscores the question the symposium seems to have started with, about the relationship between publishers and journals -- which is layered something like: between literary publishers and writers, between readers and printed matter, between the computer screen and paper, between global and local. One could say that it's all the same "between", just seen from different perspectives. And that between is the (growing) black hole that translocal writers fall into, or the crack we fall between, pick your metaphor/onomatopoeia.

What happens to the translocal writer, exactly? For many professions, longer-term work abroad is considered a CV must-have at any level, but writers who live more permanently abroad are better off, in many cases, going back home. From a logistic standpoint, an emerging translocal writer may face the following challenges:

1. Disengagement from his/her home literary community (e.g. loosening networks, lack of "being in touch" with "what's going on")
2. Limited engagement with his/her "new" literary community
3. Rejection from journals in either community due to the work's foreignness
4. Hesitation from "home" publishers who tend to prefer local (i.e. residential) writers who can give lots of readings, etc. to sell books

This symposium was an exciting event to hit the Netherlands, whether you like McSweeney's or not. If any of you were there, I'd love to hear about it. So here, finally, is my hypothesis: I believe that translocality is instructional, that translocal writing, e.g., can be a way of understanding literary production and craft in general. Journals like Versal are that greatly-needed bridge between national literary cultures, the spanning scaffolds that will enable literary publishers to notice the ever-increasing number of writers who are taking part (like so many others) in this global world. Using "the hell out of the medium" as McSweeney's asserts oversimplifies the answer to the great digital question of our literary age (i.e. how is the publishing community going to survive it). It's not just about making paper carry its weight. Part of the answer also lies in the traverse between the local and the global, and finding the writers who are working there.

November 21, 2009

More editor news

In my 6 November post I forgot to include news from Kate Foley who's on our poetry team. Kate was shortlisted for this year's Bridport prize (judged by Jackie Kay); she was commended in the Second Light competition (judged by Pauline Stainer); she has three poems and a review in the current Ambit and one poem in the forthcoming queer literary journal Chroma. Five of her poems also appear in the recently published anthology Cracking On. Congratulations Kate!

November 10, 2009

Versal welcomes another new editor

I am excited to announce another addition to our fiction team – Bonnie J. Rough. Bonnie is an American writer living in Amsterdam, Netherlands with her family. Her memoir, Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in spring 2010. Other work has appeared in MODERN LOVE: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion (Three Rivers Press, 2007), The Best Creative Nonfiction (W.W. Norton, 2007), The Best American Science and Nature Writing (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), as well as magazines, journals, and newspapers including The New York Times, The Sun, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, and Brevity. She holds an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Most recently, she lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she was a Teaching Artist with The Loft Literary Center, and became the recipient of a Bush Artist Fellowship, a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers, and a Minnesota Arts Board grant. On her blog, The Blue Suitcase, she writes mini-essays about life as an airline family abroad.

With her experience as a writer and as an editor at The Iowa Review, Bonnie brings another new perspective to our fiction universe.

November 06, 2009

Read all about it

Every so often we will use this space to post literary news of Versal contributors and editors. Here's our first round-up:

Marilyn Hacker's new book Names will be published next month by W.W. Norton in New York. He and I, her translations from the French of poems by Emmanuel Moses, was just published by the Oberlin College Press FIELD Translation Series in Ohio. Both contain poems published in Versal 5. Nicole Walker (Versal 7) has a book out in December, This Noisy Egg, from Barrow Street Press. Dawn Lonsinger (Versal 6) published her first chapbook, the linoleum crop, at the start of this year with Jeanne Duval Editions. It was the winner of the 2007 Terminus Magazine Chapbook Contest chosen by Thomas Lux. Her second chapbook, The Nested Object, came out this August from Dancing Girl Press. She has poems forthcoming in The Journal, Blackbird, Cream, City Review, Post Road, Bateau and Packington Review.

Some editors have news too: fiction editor Robert Glick has stories forthcoming from Black Warrior Review and Denver Quarterly. Contributing editor Laura Chalar received the honorable mention for fiction in the Annual Literary Awards of the Uruguayan Ministry of Culture, for her short story collection The discreet charm of lawyering.

Congratulations, everyone! We love to hear about what past contributors are doing now, so please send any more news to us via our versaljournalATwordsinhereDOTcom email address.

October 22, 2009

meditations on the rejection

Yesterday I received an electronic rejection email from The Kenyon Review. The generic aspect of the rejection surprised me; not because I expected that they would take a special interest in my work (the number of submissions they receive precludes such a thing except under very unusual circumstances), but because I had noticed that someone from Kenyon college had, two days before, looked at my website. So I went online to see other rejections sent by Kenyon Review, to see what rejection letters they usually send.

In searching Google, I noticed a number of other sites, including a blog site that rated rejections ( The not-so-surprising thing about the rating of rejections was that the writer (to a large extent, rightfully so) expected that the rejection slip would convey a sense of care and respect. That is to say, an ideal letter, short of including personal information about a person's work (always, always a good sign), succeeded in making the writer feel a combination of hope, admiration, and respect as well as a general support for the act of writing itself.

I'm not saying that journals should be cold, callous, or unprofessional. I'm saying that even a good rejection slip (again, short of a personalized letter) is presenting the illusion of personal attention, and we might be better off if we understood that.

Why? First, the cold truth of quantity. Given the number of submissions a journal receives (hundreds or thousands per month), very, very few people will receive personal attention, and while a rejection letter may allow the writer to feel loved, chances are they skimmed your piece, or, at most, had a few editors read it. Second, because rejections are mass produced, the attributes of a "good" rejection letter such as properly cut pages, handwritten signatures, a mention of care, appreciation, and thanks do nothing but fall within a fairly recent discourse of professionalization.

The writer wants to feel that in rejection, the institution has taken as much care with their work as they have in writing it, but that can never be true - you spent hundreds of hours in that story (I hope). Accordingly, the writer receives reasons to alternately feel hopeful or bitter, consoled or inconsolable, instead of taking the rejection for what it is: which could be almost anything. When there's a black hole of information, the rejection slip offers a locus for the rant of not knowing.

What I'd like to suggest, however, is that a rejection slip could provide not just emotional support, but actually useful information. I'm not arguing that each letter be personalized - however, journals can and do have more than one rejection slip which, coupled with either transparency on the side of the journal or a collective sharing of resources, could help both writers and journals become more efficient.

Let me explain what I mean by explaining - this may be especially handy for non-editors - how the electronic submission system, at least the Submission Manager designed by Devin Emke, is set up:

When rejecting a work, I have a choice of four rejection letters which can all be customized with canned text or personalized information. In general, journals can choose to use any or all of these four letters (if they are extremely technically savvy, they can create more than four). Generally speaking, one of the four is reserved for a purely personal note without canned text, and so most journals will use between 1 and 3 rejection slips.

This is also true for Versal. We use two canned text rejections, which differ by their level of encouragement, and one hybrid, which allows us to add customized text to the more encouraging of the two canned notes.

And this is where, with the option of multiple notes, efficiency comes in. While we love the fact that people are writing, and we want to encourage them in their writing practice, we don't, given our workload, necessarily want to encourage every single writer to resubmit to us the year after a rejection. Normally this would be because we don't see enough merit in the work, and we don't see that at this point in time, the writer has potential enough to improve their craft in a year. That is to say, very rarely does a writer go from nothing to everything. (This is, at this point, all about (perceived) quality, and has nothing to do with aesthetic - although of course quality is equally subjective).

In a brutally cruel world, we might write, "Hi, we appreciate the fact that you are writing and submitting to us, but this work is really far away from what we're looking for in terms of quality, so maybe you should just concentrate on your craft for a bit, or consider some less restrictive journals." Or: "Hey, we don't accept 10,000 word stories about robot vampires, but you sent us one anyway, so please don't send another." But that's not very nice, so we write a neutral-toned canned text that offers little encouragement, and we hope that that dissuades people from resubmitting at least for a year or two.

This also, of course, can be of help to the writer, who, it would stand to reason, would want to be told, nicely, that their work has an extremely small chance (far less than the "normal" extremely small chance) of being published by this journal at this time - saving the writer time, money and heartache.

In Versal's case, the canned text rejection that offers encouragement is just that - we don't think this work is good enough, but it has plenty of merit, and we believe that you are capable, next year, of submitting a work that is good enough - so keep trying.

As a writer receiving the rejection letter, you have very little information with which to decipher the letter. Without understanding Versal's process, or having access to all three rejection letters, you don't know if we're just sweet-talking you or if we really want you to resubmit. The problem: if the institution does not make their processes clear, then the writer has no way of knowing what the letter might mean. The writer doesn't know how the letter is produced, what system, how many letters there are, and so forth.

Naturally, a journal wouldn't want to make the letters too hierarchical (i.e. you made it to the second round), because you then encourage people to imagine a linear scale, whereas the complexity of submissions (the quality of the work, the aesthetic, who reads it (and in what mood), how many pieces they are taking, changes in editors) precludes any kind of pathway for a writer to follow. It's completely common for a work to be rejected with some love, and then to have the next work, which might be "better," receive no love at all.

What I envision is a journal that makes public and transparent both their reading process and modes of rejection. It helps the writer, by giving them a focus on whom to submit to, and it helps the journal, who will receive a greater percentage of submissions that correspond to what they want. As complement, I would support a web site (Duotrope?) that stores copies of rejection letters sent by the institution. This would further encourage journals to be up front with their processes.

I'm trying to think of ways in which the public revelation of rejection letters compromises the journal, or forces the journal to spend extra resources on rejection letters. I don't believe that it would. On the other hand, it would give some (not a lot, but some) clarity to the writer on where they, at this moment, with this work, stand.



The Scottish Poetry Library loves Versal

The wonderful Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh has blogged about Versal.

October 21, 2009

Horizon Review

I've been reading the third issue of Salt Publishing's online literary journal Horizon Review and came across a review of the British Oystercatcher Press, a Norfolk-based publisher of poetry pamphlets, which won the inaugural Michael Marks Publishers’ Award in June this year. The review includes glowing coverage of Versal 7 contributor Rufo Quintavalle's pamphlet Make Nothing Happen. Read it here.

October 02, 2009

Versal: officially the best literary mag in A'dam

Last night, Sarah, Jennifer, Shayna and I trekked down to the Stadsschouwburg for the one-year anniversary party of Time Out Amsterdam. Time Out hosted an exclusive party to celebrate its birthday and the nominees of its first-annual "Best of Amsterdam" awards. The crowd was a who's who of Amsterdam's Amsterdam, the people who make the setting which makes it worth living here, and to be honest I was surprised every time I was recognized.

Versal was nominate
d for "best literary magazine", and won. Thanks to everyone who voted for Versal. I shall carry the placard with me to AWP next year. And thanks to the folks at Time Out for continuing to support the city we all moved (in)to. And thanks for the free alcohol last night. We topped it off with some fast food on the Leidsestraat, which we ate with our feet dangling over the Prinsengracht, until is started to rain.

September 16, 2009

Versal 8 general call

Versal wants your poetry, prose, and art for its eighth issue due out in May 2010. Internationally acclaimed literary annual published in Amsterdam, bringing together the world's urgent, involved, & unexpected.

See website for guidelines and to submit:

Inquiries (only) can be directed to: versal AT wordsinhere DOT com

Deadline: January 15, 2010

September 15, 2009

Versal 8 Art Submission Call

Seeking art submissions from around the world for Versal 8.
Help spread the word. Download this flyer and pass onto friends.

September 11, 2009

New editors join the pages

We're a few days away from the opening of the reading period for Versal 8. So a bit of news: I'm very pleased to welcome four new editors to Versal:

Jennifer K. Dick joins our poetry team. She is the author of Fluorescence (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2004) and Enclosures (Blazevox, 2007). Originally from Iowa and now living in Paris, she has just completed her PhD at Paris III in Comp Lit, teaches for L’EHESS & creative writing for the École Polytechnique. She writes regular columns for Tears in the Fence in the UK (on poetry) & EyePreferParis (on artists working in Paris). She also co-coordinates the IVY writer's series in Paris and with poet Sandy Florian started the 60-poet collaborative project Rewords.

BJ Hollars is joining the fiction team. BJ is a 25 year old MFA grad student at The University of Alabama where he lives with his wife and his dog. He edited the recently released anthology You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story from Writer's Digest Books and he also edits (currently taking submissions!). He's the former nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review and former assistant fiction editor.

Matthew Sadler is coming on board our poetry team. His first chapbook is coming out with Flying Guillotine Press, in Brooklyn, and he publishes poems in literary magazines around the US. He lives with his family in Detroit, Michigan where he teaches English composition and essay writing, as well as film studies.

Shayna Schapp is joining our art team. Shayna is an American artist living and working in Amsterdam. Shayna received a B.A. in Art from Houghton Wesleyan College in 2003. Her photographs, drawings and sculptures have frequently been exhibited in the U.S. and are a part of several private collections. In addition to her work as an artist she is an instructor for the Interactive / Media / Design department at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague and runs Lately 3, a creative collaboration focusing on book projects and other printed matter.

It's exciting to welcome these editors to our pages, all talented writers & artists themselves. They have all been involved in Versal in some way in the past. Matt and I go back a long way together. We met in an undergrad poetry class with Patricia Goedicke at the University of Montana. That would have been 1998. He's been in three issues of Versal over the years: 1, 3 and 5. And many of us have known Jennifer since a Versal reading in 2005 at The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris - which I still remember clearly because I had the honor to read alongside Marilyn Hacker that day. A selection from Jennifer's translation of work from Albane Gellé is published in Versal 7. BJ's short story "Kin" is found in Versal 6. And Shayna co-created the HERE project with Sarah last year, and yes we're also getting married.

So a big welcome to the new editors! And a reminder to all of them to download Skype or update their apps to the latest version, because we're going to need it. Versal's transatlantic on all teams this year save art.

September 09, 2009

HERE: HP-09-07-023

ID number: HP-09-07-023
Location: St. Catharines & Algonquin Park, ON, Canada
Reader: Magdolene Dykstra

Versal ID HP-09-07-023 started with me on the plane from
to St. Catharines, ON - and on to Algonquin Park (ON).

I found the only way to respond to these this collection was to
respond visually to particular pieces.

Versal and my visual responses will travel with my sister
to Japan and S. Korea. It will be left with her friend in S.K.

Versal ID HP-09-07-023 was well loved and well worn.

August 26, 2009

A windy toon o' cloods an' sunny glints

I got back to Amsterdam last week from Edinburgh, where I used to live. If Megan reckons the weather is bad in Amsterdam (see post below) she should think back to her time in Scotland and realise that things can be much worse, although I will concede that no light is as gorgeous as Scottish light. And it was worth stomping through the rain to see friends and sample some festival events. In the wind-blustered tents of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square, I watched Tom Pow read from his book of new and selected poems In the Becoming, which I had the privilege of editing earlier this year. It was wonderful, having worked on the book by email, to hear Tom reading the poems aloud, bringing to them new resonances: they've somehow settled differently in my head now. Alan Spence, the "Glasgow Zen" poet, also read at that event and reminded me just how much I respect the haiku and tanka forms. A couple of days later I went to the launch of poet Sam Meekings' fantastic debut novel Under Fishbone Clouds and caught up with Jane McKie, whose second collection, When the Sun Turns Green was published earlier this year. Sadly, however, I just missed the second Westport Book Festival, a free, fringey counterpart to the EIBF run by lovely people. I am determined to attend it next year.

I took some copies of Versal 7 with me and am delighted that Edinburgh now has three retail stockists of Versal, as well as being in the Scottish Poetry Library. Edinburghers can now buy copies of Versal 7 in the fine establishments of Fruitmarket Gallery, Word Power and Analogue.

August 19, 2009

Poets with healthcare

A few years ago when I came Stateside, my father asked me to join him on his weekly indy radio show to talk about the Dutch healthcare system. My father is Tony Garr, a major advocate in Tennessee for healthcare reform. He's one of those advocates who spends his days talking to folks who've lost their care or can't get it, and his nights flying to Washington to talk to politicians about how things could change. He's been doing this work since before I was born. He's also nearing retirement age. These days must feel to him like the last best chance he has to help realize a fair and affordable system for all.

Mark Wallace, a poet I recently met when he and K. Lorraine Graham came though Amsterdam, just blogged French system anecdotes from Paris-based poet Joe Ross. Reading these, and comparing them to my own Dutch experiences (which have also been positive), I began thinking about how many of us Americans out "here" must feel exiled from our homeland in many ways, though of course the state of exile itself is by no means our situation:

1. Love exiles - My friend Martha McDevitt-Pugh began an organization several years ago called Love Exiles, calling attention to the unequal marriage rights in the USA (and elsewhere) for (transnational) queer couples.

2. The Bush years - I left America in September 2000 and watched the country seemingly fall apart from my (safe?) vantage point in Glasgow, first, then Amsterdam. I saw much of the political fire get drained from even my most activist friends; I saw my parents and their friends grapple at the last strings of all they'd fought for in the 60s and 70s (and not just in terms of legal rights, though of course those were threatened - but watching them fight for human kindness, forgiveness, the values that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.).

3. Healthcare - At least in Europe, American "expats" can participate in public healthcare systems that are not only affordable, but also very, very good. In the Netherlands, it is mandatory that every resident have healthcare. I have been very sick here and hospitalized several times; the care I have received has been nothing short of excellent. I would not be covered Stateside, and would be drowning in debt by now.

For me, at least, none of this adds up to any real sense of exile (and by real I mean danger) because when I want to go back to the States, I will. And I'll still be queer, and left and a Crohn's patient. But I wonder to what extent my "freedoms" here in the Netherlands have impacted my abilities to do what I do now: write, begin a literary organization and journal, make a living from texts and translation (and at that, freelancing it). I hate the weather here, but I am in this country's debt.

August 08, 2009

Real news in the komkommertijd

I'm going to break into the cucumber time with some news

though there's news everywhere, and perhaps "silly season" is a thing of the past and COME ON why has the health care debate in the States turned so vicious

Versal is now available at two bookstores in Seattle: Left Bank Books and Pilot Books, thanks to the wandering Kai (or Sir Kai as poet Aleida Rodríguez dubbed him) who, I believe, is currently on an island off the coast of Washington State helping his friends build a house

I don't recall the last time I had plans a year in advance but I'll be in Denver in April 2010 attending the AWP conference: brushing shoulders with the American lit world (oh, home) and spending quality time with Robert. We've upgraded from having just a table (which we'll have again) to being part of a joint reading (bringing you some live Versal action) and a panel about literary mags (more on that later). I hear AWP's a real boozer

That's it, really. It's quiet around Versal right now. The editors are scattered around, orders are slow, and I'm getting a fraction of the emails I normally receive. So for Versal anyway it's komkommertijd. I suppose we'd better keep up on the blog a bit more though, if a blog is to be a blog (what.)

Course come September we'll have lots to tell. Submissions open September 15, y'all

July 13, 2009

HERE: HP-09-07-007

ID number: HP-09-07-007
Location: near Missoula, Montana, USA
Readers: Audra Loyal & Amy Capolupo (& dog Moses)

July 11 chat:

Audra: we took Versal Here out for a spin today on our date
me: where did you two go?
Audra: just to 8 mile up the blackfoot
took moses to the river
read versal and some trashy mags that amy got at the store
then went to red bird wine bar
and a movie at the wilma
me: oh, that sounds so nice
Audra: it was
me: could we call you in a little bit maybe?
Audra: the river was still a little cold for my taste
me: on skype?
Audra: hang on, we're trying to decide what time
is an hour and a half from now too late for you guys?
we have to do a few things and then we'll be free
me: nope that should be good
Audra: cool it's a date
me: ttyl

Highlights from July 11 Skype call:

Amy and Audra spent the afternoon by the Blackfoot river, just off highway 200, before Rainbow Bend. They watched floaters go by, but it was still too cold for them to float. Moses went in the river and enjoyed herself. Audra enjoyed about 20% of the work in Versal 7. She found some of the poetry akin to the Laborist movement in art, which she finds somewhat infuriating. But everyone agreed 20% enjoyment is a good number for a journal of this size. Additionally, as Audra read the poems she would flip back to see the authors' bios and coincidentally enough, the one she liked best was also by a bookbinder, Lizzi Thistlethwayte. Her other fave was by current University of Montana MFA in creative writing candidate, Lehua M. Taitano. Can we say connections, connections? Along with enjoying some fine poetry, fiction and art, the ladies also learned about jealousy and Winnie Cooper the math wiz in Psychology Today and Sunset magazine. After the river, they enjoyed delicious Indian food at the Red Bird's wine bar. After the Red Bird they saw the film Moon at the Wilma theater and highly recommend it, along with Closet Land.

Audra runs The Vespiary Book Restoration & Bindery

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 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

May 24, 2009

A bit more about the HERE project

Perhaps something as simple and open-ended as HERE isn’t so much a project as a starting point: we’re giving away 100 copies of Versal 5, 6 and 7 in the hope that they make their way to far-flung places and people. We want to be surprised about where and when Versal pops up in the world, so we’re encouraging the readers of these numbered and labelled copies to respond to us in any way they like. We’ll see where things go from there.

The HERE plan, inspired by initiatives such as Bookcrossing, was born one evening when a few of us were in the park. We were talking about expanding our distribution and finding different ways to pepper the globe with Versals (rather than simply stock-piling surplus back issues in Megan and Shayna’s flat). Our bookshop and online sales are vital to ensuring that people who know about us can get their hands on a copy, and these sales help us to recoup some of our printing costs. But in a time of economic recession, we can’t count on a lot of sales. Furthermore, shipping Versal (particularly outside of Europe) is very expensive.

To reduce postage costs, we already ask friends and editors to take copies with them when they’re travelling overseas. The HERE project is really a more organic, non-time-sensitive extension of this process, and a way to expand our readership amongst people who have never heard of Versal. Encouraging journals to be passed from hand to hand reduces transportation costs – both financial and environmental – and increases the number of readers per copy. I’m sure some people who currently buy Versal pass it on to friends, but the gifting of it is made easier (and perhaps more fun) when it never really belongs to any one person. The HERE Versal copies will improve the more scuffed and dog-eared they become; fingerprint smudges and coffee-cup stains will add to rather than detract from their value. And while we are happy to let these copies simply get lost in the world, we are also excited about the vagrant Versals’ “postcards home” in whatever form they take.

Breaking even is essential for our continuation, but profits are not – we are more interested in producing a journal that we’re proud of, which is read and appreciated by as many people as possible, which attracts quality international submissions. So if we are not driven by profit, why should we then adhere to distribution and sales methods of the commercial publishing world, in which much of the success of a book or publication is measured in terms of number of copies sold rather than total number of readers?

Fewer copies – less paper and ink, less air-freight – with more readers per copy. It might make sense in the long term. The HERE project will hopefully tell us more about what happens when a literary journal is allowed to wander.

May 15, 2009

Versal in the air

In a few hours' time we'll be launching the seventh issue of Versal at the Sugar Factory. Poets Jennifer K. Dick and Rufo Quintavalle have traveled up from Paris, and writer Rita Buckley has flown in from Boston – converging here in Amsterdam for a night of revelry.

This blog is obviously a new step for Versal. With it, we hope to join the lively online literary dialogues, adding our two cents from our perspective "here". Our editors will contribute thoughts about our submission review process and the wide(ning) aesthetic that Versal seeks out. We also hope to invite contributors from Versal's pages past and present to enter into the discussion. In the end, I guess it's just a blog – and in that sense also a bit of an experiment for us.

In this first post, I am also excited to introduce the HERE project. Starting today, copies of Versals old and new will be passed into the hands of a number of potential readers around the world. The project is simple: read & pass on. These copies are marked and numbered, and readers are encouraged (but not obligated) to contact us with their responses: text, image, video, sound...These responses, when received, will be posted on this blog.

In the coming days, we'll be writing more about the HERE project and how&why it came about. And, generally, getting this blog off the proverbial ground. Comments encouraged.