We Are Happy
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. After tearing away the brown envelope and letting it drop to the ground, I held a light, square book, flexible in my hands. I stared at a predominately white cover. A small assembly of handwritten letters and numbers were centered there, the word “Happy” was crossed out. I turned the book over, saw gray merging with black and another word etched in thin white letters. Should have guessed, it was Versal, that intriguing literary journal from Amsterdam. Settling onto my lounger with the blue Pacific inches away, I began, knowing I was in for a treat.
MG (who waits until the end, after the writing and the art, after the contributors’ notes and a handful of tasteful advertisements, to remind us she is Megan M. Garr, Editor) writes an introduction that I review three times, each reading providing more insight into her efforts and the world of literary editing overall, including the impact of the “count,” the recently published Vida report. MG writes honestly of the challenges inherent to her role, admitting that the “…problem of publishing is that it is still largely a pyramid scheme,” and “…how we cheerlead women to submit as the answer, how we vaguely encourage diversity, but how the community at large has failed to reexamine the selection process, all the way down to the bones.” There is mention of a “methodology” being used by Versal “as an answer to the numbers problem” and my curiosity rises. Whatever the method is, it seems to be working, I decide as I read the richly contexted, gender balanced contributors notes, from folks all over the world.
This is a challenging time to be an editor and clearly, the staff of Versal take this challenge seriously. MG writes, “Maybe creation does come out of misery,” and I imagine lost sleep, long discussions regarding submissions, concerns about equality. But there is an evolution of sorts in this introduction, a seemingly hard won confidence that shines through at the conclusion when MG writes, “…we have come upon ourselves…I’m sure Versal will change, but right now I’m happy to let it be.”
Heartened, I conjure up a pleasant picture of MG and her staff, exhausted, but celebrating at a local pub—tabletop crowded with glasses, editors flipping through fresh off the press copies of Versal 9, remarking on a favorite piece, sharing something seen in a new way, or perhaps cursing at a grammatical error (that no one else will notice). Then there is laughter, and with beer mugs in fists, a toast is raised to the journal and to the deep satisfaction of a difficult job well done.
After the introduction, Versal 9 continues in its usual aesthetically pleasing style. The lay out is sophisticated, primarily black and white (although color prevails in some of the art, such as “Flow” by Ayumi Suzuki), block letters, uncluttered spacing that allows the reader to hone in on each page without distraction.
Carmen Petaccio's story “Tornado,” blew me away. The vivid magical realism made me nostalgic for my girlhood in Iowa (although tornados were never this much fun), and I enjoyed the adroit use of language, like “sings her calm,” “laughs until she halves over,” and being introduced to “lead raincoats,” and “girlnadoes.”
“Tornado” is brief, as are all the stories here. Versal has a 3,000 word limit and although a writer of prolonged short stories myself, I admit to the advantage of this length in a literary journal. Brevity lends itself well to the format (like a museum where one moves from exhibit to exhibit) and it also allows more work to be shared.
Everything in this journal raises questions, and inspires thought on the complexity of language and experience. There is nothing simplistic and nothing bland here. In reading Jane Lewity’s poem “Freight,” with words like “soundsilt,” and “shutterlid,” images are conjured up that I recognize even though the words are unknown. I had the same relationship with Dawn Pendergast’s poems, singular but relevant, and I enjoyed the laughter “Mouse + Rat” inspired.
Consider “Demonstraum” by Nate Liederbach, a story about a monsterish character loping through the woods, “…talons finding a sweet tickle of dewy grass…” There is more language play here, “bone-broke,” and “soil-smudged,” as the struggling creature seeks a child’s bed to hide beneath. We are given just a glimpse, two short pages, to live in the monster’s world, and yet there is such density that we are satisfied and even a bit sympathetic to the unlikely protagonist.
And then there’s a bizarre chest game between God and the Devil in “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” by Brandon Getz. Believe me, your wildest imagination will seem dull next to this diabolical biblical tale. Another of my favorites was “Letter From a Suicide To a Troll,” by Jacqueline Vogtman, an inspiring story, although anything but sentimental, about a girl whose life is saved by a troll. When the mysterious troll kisses the girl, she finds that his is unlike any other male kiss she has experienced. “It was like you [the troll] breathed into me, giving me something rather than taking.”
Alice Notley makes a notable appearance with excerpts from the opening pages of “Voices.” This is new work resplendent with her customary multiplicity and depth.
“I am always the spirit of more than myself—“ the piece begins, and we perceive this to be true as Notley dips into one world than another, from pyramids to prehistory to a “cupboardy shack.” This reading brought me feelings of despair and loneliness, as well as anger; with war, violence, inequality, and the acceptance of the status quo. I related to Notley, felt her frustration in the words, “I mean its just so hard to live…I’d rather have wrath and bewilderment.”
Spend time with this journal, take it to the beach as I did, and imagine you in the brilliant photo “Summer Affair” by Romy Pocztaruk, blissful, yet gazing into the horizon for what may come next. And bring your laptop, or better yet, a set of encyclopedias, for there is research to do (at least for many of us on this side of the big water) in deriving full benefit of “Literarization: An Introduction to Miniaturism,” by Benjamin Van Loon. This erudite essay is full of history and intrigue, and is well worth the effort. Remind yourself, as many times as necessary, it is good for the brain to do this work.
The ingenious and energetic poetry, prose, and art of Versal 9 make definitive interpretations irrelevant and shallow compared to the deeper evocations they produce. Enjoy these gems, sink your teeth into them, and allow them to have their way with you. There may be labor involved but there is also tons of fun. Isaac Bashevis Singer would have approved, for in his words, “Literature is to entertain and to instruct.” When asked the same question again, he repeated himself, emphasizing that “to entertain” comes first. The staff of Versal 9 has fulfilled both edits, and they did not mess up the order.