Gilded and Glorious: A Literary Powerhouse
Over the last year, Megan Garr has demonstrated tremendous transparency in the editing and administration of the Amsterdam-based journal Versal, even posting a series of discussions to Versal’s blog about the desire to develop what she calls “sustainable business models.” As part of this necessary process, for the first time, submissions to Versal 10 required a small reading fee. As Garr reasons, “If we all agree we're committed to seeing writing in print, esp. non-mainstream writing that is not part of the normal capitalist Amazon economy, then does it not follow that we all join in the economics to make that happen? And thus change our minds a bit on what that looks like? The world has changed drastically since I was taught to detest submission fees and vanity presses. Can we not change as well?”
Though the decision to charge a reading fee is not without controversy, it is clear from Garr’s posts that the question of reading fees is not one she (nor the rest of the Versal staff) took lightly, just as it is obvious from the resulting Versal 10 that readings fees haven’t hindered the quality of the publication. Rather, Versal 10 is a stunning powerhouse of contemporary writing and art—one that reflects the commitment of its editors, writers, and readers, and shows us how much there is to celebrate, how much there is to notice, how much to believe.
Extending her earlier discussions of economics, Garr explains in her editoral note to the issue that “the most valuable currency for a literary journal is willpower.” Versal 10, with its wealth of arresting, compelling work, is in the black when it comes to willpower. The sleek, gold cover is a fitting testament to the richness of the issue. Garr argues that, “the collective willpower of our humanity, of our art, and of our drive to protect both, comes together in pages like these.” She is right.
168-pages long, the issue is home to a variety of writers, artists, and projects, at various stages in their careers. There are different ways of telling stories, different ways of marking time, punctuating text, denoting silence. Some rely on familiar strategies with precise execution. Others find new and sometimes strange points of access. All are strong, and all deeply engage with the human experience. Much of the work considers, undermines, surprises, and reframes our expectations, whether these are formal, linguistic, aesthetic, political, social, or thematic.
The grouping of the work, given its range, is particularly impressive. Somehow, Garr and the editors of Versal still create a whole book—a collection that goes together. Clearly interested and invested in the non-mainstream work, including the experimental and conceptual (Daniel Takeshi Krause’s exciting “Idea Green Sleep Colorless Furiously: Accidental Gap,” a kind of braided, embedded collage, is perhaps the most obvious example in issue 10), Versal maintains a kind of roundness—a journal with a vision that manages to preserve its peripheral sight.
Roxane Gay’s “Who We Are Beneath the Glass,” Bess Winter’s “The Garnet Cave,” and Luke Andrew Geddes’ “Mom’s Team vs. Dad’s Team” are among the many prose highlights. In “Who We Are Beneath the Glass,” Gay crafts a portrait of family in contradictions and turns, revising and retelling in each short paragraph what has come before. “My mother was a good mother but a bad wife,” begins the piece. The next paragraph opens with, “My mother was a bad mother but a good wife,” and the third begins, “My mother was a bad mother and a bad wife, so my father says.” Through these turns, the intricacy of family emerges, including the relationship of the family to the speaker and the speaker’s own unique perspective.
Winter’s “The Garnet Cave,” at once subtle and intense, follows a teacher as she engages the mysteries of her new Alaskan town, unraveling the complex relationship between children and adults, and the children adults used to be. Winter is always just the right distance from her protagonist. Of the teacher, she writes, “Sometimes she would follow the children. She knew this was wrong....She’d...try to burrow into the children’s whispers. She could never make out the words.” Andrew Geddes, like Gay and Winter, tells us something important about relationships, about the tension in family and groups. His story “Mom’s Team vs. Dad’s Team” feels a little Vonnegutish, in the right way, but also brand new, and is the kind of piece that makes you sit up and lean in while you read.
Much of the work throughout Versal 10 is interested in language and its limits and potential. Some pieces are particularly playful, like Laurence Levey’s “A Luste of Olde,” a hilarious romp of carnal and linguistic infidelity, flexibility, and slipperiness. Other works, including poems like John Pluecker’s “Mission the Limites” and Laura Eve Engel’s “Calendar Year,” wrestle with the difficulties inherent in narrative and naming. Particularly interesting is a selection from Livid Season by Serena Chopra. “I am a citizen. / I mean, a city,” writes Chopra. And later, “you are fooled into thinking there is no space between letters, a sudden splice of air / between two bodies.”
Other favorites include Andrew Michael Roberts’ “The Week Ted Downing Disappeared for Good,” “Assembly,” and “Ripcord,” short prose pieces that are mini-master classes in voice and understatement, Shifa Ali’s poem “Rebecca,” which intertwines place, gender, and faith in lovely long lines like, “There are millions of us on the plain in white caps like ghosts with holes punched out for the eyes,” and Eleanor Desprez’s “Union Pacific,” an extraordinary lyrical narrative poem that shows Versal’s diverse range and interests. “I was brake, all brake”, says Desperz’s speaker, “but I wasn’t enough.”
Finally, in addition to this wealth of valuable, willpowered art, Versal 10 also includes a fascinating interview by Matthew Baker with Michael Martone, covering everything from Martone’s college roommates to dreams to ghost words to Lyn Hejinian to the standards for “fiction,” “nonfiction,” and “diffiction.” Martone ends considering the comfort we find in category and naming: “It’s the way that an act of violence will become seemingly understandable once we’re able to attach a name to it... It is why we name our hurricanes.”
Versal 10 names and renames the hurricanes, harnessing and reframing the violence of experience. In her poem, “Pines Bearing the Weight of Snow,” contributor Ruth Danon writes of “breath in the liminal hour.” Versal 10 has this kind of energy. In her opening note, Garr says to her readers that, “you will know that we looked hard upon the world. That we attempted to record its failure and splendor. That we gave it the grace and ground for both.” After encountering the issue, readers will indeed know.