An Interview with Megan Garr, Part 2
[Editors' note: This is the second part in a two-part interview with Versal founder and editor Megan Garr. Part 1 can be found here.]
H&W: What is your editorial process once you receive a submission?
MG: Here’s how it goes in most cases. Within about a week, a new submission is forwarded to one of the assistant editors. He or she then reviews that submission and decides if another editor should take a look, or if the work’s not a good fit for the journal. The first editor might pinpoint one or two pieces in the submission that stand out, but the second editor reviews the full submission again. Often a discussion takes place (usually within the submission system) between these two editors, or another editor is brought in. If support for the submission is evident, it is forwarded to the entire team and discussed at a roundtable.
The roundtable is when we all get together. There used to be a lot of wine at these meetings, but now we’re pretty sober since most of them are over Skype. Robert, Shayna and I facilitate these meetings, as the respective team leaders, and it’s about facilitating a dialogue around a piece that uncovers enthusiasm around it, or not, depending. I wouldn’t call our process democratic, because two editors can be really behind a work and three others not, and we still publish it. It’s therefore also not consensus-based. It’s about hearing what another editor sees in a piece; often this is a learning process, in some technical motion or canonic tradition, or something else more subtle. And so our aesthetic is a dynamic force, it’s changing constantly, widening as we learn and grow and read more.
We call it our process of enthusiasm. Or a kind of convergence around each others’ excitement. Even I may not like every piece we publish, but I’m 100% behind it because I know why it’s in there.
H&W: What are you looking for in terms of content, style, etc, from submissions? Do you solicit work, or is it all from submissions?
MG: We want urgent, involved and unexpected work. These words have been with us from the start; I think we had them even before we had the name of the journal, because we knew we wanted to publish work with some inherent need to exist on a planet it cares about and in a way that makes you wake up to all of that.
99% of what we publish comes through our regular submission call. This is the nucleus of our editorial process. For Versal to stretch to the full possibilities of its aesthetic range, for the editors to succeed in that, we need a fair amount of choice coming in. Ideally, the submissions taken together reflect an even broader range than we as editors reach ourselves.
We solicit a few folks each year, usually “bigger name” writers or artists we’ve met at some point but who wouldn’t just send us work through the call. But we won’t just publish anything they send us, and they know that.
H&W: How many staff members work on an issue, and what are their roles?
MG: Eighteen of us are working on number 10. There are five assistant poetry editors, five assistant prose editors, and three assistant art editors, with Robert, me and Shayna at the helms. As an assistant editor, you’re responsible for the submissions, for the careful sifting through. We don’t have interns, we don’t have “readers”, we don’t even think of our submissions as a “slush pile”. Every single work that comes to us is read by at least one, hand-picked and incredibly talented editor.
Sarah Ream keeps us sane as our managing editor, and is my right hand in the day-to-day running of the journal. Until she came on board, I was doing it all myself, and was in grave danger of becoming either really boring or really moany, or both.
Annerie Houterman is our business manager. She’s been here from the beginning; she files our taxes and thinks with us on the big strategic questions, and if it weren’t for her we would probably have folded a long time ago.
H&W: Versal‘s 10 year anniversary issue is currently open for submissions. Is this issue going to change up or have additional content to mark the special occasion?
MG: I think at first we considered a redesign to commemorate the anniversary, but we love the design so much we decided against that. Why change what works?
Our biggest challenge this year has been to allow ourselves to undergo some fundamental changes, ones that have to do with the way we run. We’ve operated with the same business model for 10 years, and times have changed. A lot. So a big part of Versal 10 is that we’re actually reaching that milestone, and that we’re doing it with our eyes wide open to the changes ahead.
But yes, the issue will include some marker of the moment. Though I’m going to be a dork about it and keep it secret.
H&W: 10 years later, what are the most important things you’ve learned about starting/running a successful literary journal?
MG: If someone came to me and asked if they should start a literary journal, and they lived in Chicago or New York or Paris, I would say, no, please don’t. We have enough of those already. Get on board with some of the fantastic projects already running, and make your mark that way. If there’s already a community around you, join it. The differences between you and your community are what will make that community and its projects stronger. We need less cell division right now and more coming together. It’s harder, and maybe more confronting, but we’ll all be the better for it.
I say this because the editorial community is struggling, deeply, with the changes at our doorstep – in our houses already, even. The digital revolution, online submission systems, funding cuts, submission fees, the rise of submission numbers, etc., etc. I’m seeing a lot of editors, even new ones, digging their heels into old and outdated paradigms about what it means to be an editor and what the relationship is between an editor and a writer – and a journal’s relationship to its community as a whole. Even Kickstarter reflects an old belief that core funding should come from the outside – and the inundation of these campaigns in our community will ultimately hurt us. We need to think critically about our assumptions, and be willing to experiment with new models and paradigms. To take some uncomfortable risks. To build our journals so that they stand on the feet of their inherent greatness.
Versal came out of a specific and urgent need for a literary community in Amsterdam. Versal didn’t start as a rebuttal against some other journal, or to prove something, or waving some manifesto around, but simply and importantly to build community where one was missing. It has been beautiful to watch that community grow from our local canals to one that spans the globe. Keeping community at the center of all of our work, of all of our decisions, has been central to our success. I suppose I believe that no one – and no thing – can exist in a vacuum of itself. We need each other. And that’s our point of departure, again, now, as we head towards another ten years.