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An Interview with Megan Garr, Part 2

2011 November 30
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by Wren

Megan Garr[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.

An Interview with Megan Garr, Part 1

2011 November 29
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by Wren

Megan Garr[Editors’ note: This is the first in a two-part interview with Versal founder and editor Megan Garr. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow at 10:00 am CST.]

Versal is one of my favorite literary magazines, as you know from my previous ranting about it. A happenstance find at AWP-Denver, I quickly fell for the clean design and contemporary, moving content. Luckily for you, dear reader, Versal is currently open for submissions for its next issue. And it’s not just any issue, mind you; it’s the tenth anniversary issue with surprises in store that even I couldn’t weasel out of founder and editor, Megan Garr. But I did get some answers from her, including everything you’d ever need to know about Versal‘s history and look.

Hazel & Wren: How did Versal begin? Have you always wanted to start a literary journal?

Megan Garr: In 2001, I chose a girl over an MFA and moved to Amsterdam. I figured it’d be like Paris.

But it wasn’t. There was one open mic in this sterile gallery and there was the American Women’s Book Club. I freaked out. Which meant I posted flyers around town and went to that open mic to meet people who were equally dissatisfied with the status quo, who might be willing to build something with me.

That’s why Versal started. I figured to build a literary community from scratch we needed three things: writers (and writing groups), a reading series, and a literary magazine. By December 2002, we were up and running. Today, Amsterdam’s international literary community is still small, but its reputation rivals Paris or Berlin. Versal has had everything to do with that.

I think I was always working up to something like this. I just needed the right set of circumstances. I was getting my hands dirty early on, maybe in 7th grade, learning Hypercard and Quark. In high school, my English, Latin and theater teachers were all writers, and poet Bill Brown was my creative writing teacher. Mr. Brown had us workshopping, submitting, designing our own chapbooks, reading at events, winning awards, attending writing retreats, and editing a school literary journal. I didn’t know it then, but I was apprenticing not only to be a writer, but to be an active part of the literary community. And learning everything I’d need to start something like Versal.

H&W:  Versal‘s design is clean and bold. Who designs the issues? How important do you think design is to a literary magazine?

MG: I’m always surprised to see new journals crop up or old journals continue with designs that, frankly, disrespect the work they’re publishing. And I include online journals in this.

As a community, we can expect more from our literary journals than being mere containers for writing. Plasticized oil pastel covers, poems and stories crammed into poorly chosen fonts and margins, black and white photographs with all the contrast mushed out by cheap printers. For what? For the sake of getting work into the world? This is often the only way work gets into the world. And it should look fantastic.

It’s like that writer who says, “I don’t need to worry about how I read my work in front of an audience. The words speak for themselves.” I completely disagree with that sentiment, just as I disagree with the disregard of the object-ness of the literary journal. It’s a relief to see journals that give design the attention it really needs. And there’s a fetishness about it that people are fessing up to. I love it.

This was my starting point for Versal’s design. I wanted our contributors to open it up and see their writing on the page and be totally stunned and to feel respected. I wanted the work to have a lot of breathing room, and thought a square format could go a long way for that. I asked my friend, designer Daniel Baars, to draw something up. It was perfect. After a few issues, Daniel turned the reins over to me. I typeset it now, and tweak it a bit here and there, but the design is Daniel’s. The credit goes to him for blowing the look of a lit mag totally out of the water.

H&W: Versal publishes contemporary art next to the literary work. What do you look for in the art you select? Do you think the art should support and/or directly inform the writing piece next to it?

MG: I wanted Versal to include art at the same level as the writing, but I didn’t know how to get there, there weren’t a lot of journals back in 2001 with a significant art presence.

Pushing Versal into itself has been about people – our editors, our local community, our contributors. And so to get fantastic art, several pages of it, I knew I needed an art editor, if not an entire art team. Someone already connected to an art scene. So that was our starting point.

When Shayna Schapp took over as art editor, she made a concerted effort to build an art team so that the process of choosing art could become a dialogue. As our art team has grown, so has the reach of the art we publish. This is true for poetry and prose as well. Our aesthetic range depends on a dialogue between editors who are often very different from each other.

Our selection of the art, poetry and prose are separate and parallel processes. At the end, we carefully piece the issue’s arrangement together to avoid illustrative moments. But we’ll find motifs, pieces in conversation with each other, tones and patterns. This is how we get from the first page to the last, even if no one else reads it from cover to cover.

H&W: How has the literary content (ex: prose vs. poetry) Versal publishes changed over the years? Was this an intentional or organic shift? Does it reflect changes or shifts in what you and the other staff members personally read?

MG: The content has changed as a direct result of how we’ve shaped our editorial teams. And with the core intention being to have a diverse range of editors. Writers or artists themselves who come from very different backgrounds, who like very different types of work, some educated in writing, some not.

We started out with one small team. We were all poets, so our prose and art choices were limited. Building a strong fiction team was one of our first major evolutions. Meeting Robert Glick in 2004 was the catalyst for this. Robert is both a poet and a prose writer, and he takes a lot of risks in his work, not to mention his knowledge base is incredible. He was the perfect person to take Versal to a new level, and he did.

But has our content changed fundamentally over the years? I’m not sure. I’d like to think the temperament of that content has carried a resonance of even our earliest intentions. Ten years later we have the benefit of three strong teams, a reputation that brings us a good number of submissions, and ongoing dialogues with the greater literary community out there in the world which keep us tapped into whatever’s going on. It took the full ten years to build that, because we’re in Amsterdam and not in Paris or New York. We’ve had to build some pretty significant foundations on our own, but I think that’s exactly what has made for a really strong and tightly-knit team, which despite our differences – actually because of our differences – can sift through amazing work and choose the pieces that punch you in the face, if however gently.

H&W: You live and publish in Amsterdam, but are originally from the U.S. How does this duality of location play into Versal, if at all? Where do the majority of your readers come from?

MG: The translocal character of our editorial team is what called Versal into being, so I’d say it’s central to our ethos. The need for a literary journal in international Amsterdam – in international Europe, even – that could live up to the incredible range of translocal experience, for something in the gray space between nationalities, cultures, literary affiliations and aesthetics. Being in Amsterdam, which has no myth of expatriate writers like Paris and no cool exaggeration of itself like Berlin, is what let us get down to work and accomplish something exceptional in that inbetween.

We did some number crunching earlier this year and discovered our readers are about half in the USA and half in Europe. I’d like to keep pushing that, if for no other reason than to increase submissions from the so-called ROW.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview right here tomorrow!