Interview (with Soundtrack) with Megan M. Garr, Editor of Versal

by Posted on March 16th, 2010 at 4:04 am

Desmond Kon Reading Versal Seven

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé: It’s a wet 4.33am in Singapore, and I’m plugged in to Motohiro Nakashima’s “Duck Pond Evening.” Versal Seven is beside me, to the opening poem by Lizzi Thistlethwayte, and its lines:

through the scratch and the song thrush

lay you down yourself
a rope

tight to the sea bed

This interview is about how Versal Seven has been a large part of my life in the last three months. It was the first journal I received in the mail after I returned to Singapore from five years in America, and it’s been my trusty companion. I have it in my bag everywhere I go. With all my books on a container ship on some ocean, I’ve enjoyed interacting with one journal with such intensity. Now, I’d like to know how it all began all those years ago, of putting together Netherland’s only English-language literary print journal.

Megan Garr: It’s a casual story with the usual suspects: lonely writers, a foreign town, alcohol. When I moved to Amsterdam in 2001, no literary community existed that was accessible to foreign residents. I was surprised. Naïve, I guess, that Amsterdam would be like what I thought Paris would be like; well, really that all great European cities would have these shadowy expatriate writers in bars, some sense of international literary exchange that was going somewhere. I grew up as a poet within strong literary communities, and finding none here, I decided to build one. Versal and our community work all started in an effort to extend Amsterdam’s literary spirit with the international reach it already had, but wasn’t using.

One very personal way that I look at Versal is how it has served as my anchor in the Netherlands, how I made a place for myself here, one that has been at once familiar and deeply foreign. Lizzi’s poem which opens Versal Seven is many things, but on one level I read it as instructions for survival.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: I’m now listening to Paul Schwartz’s “River of Stars.” I love your preface written up as a missive, and how it discusses your views of translocality, and paces it through its own revolutions. In Ewa Wojtowicz’s article “Global vs. Local? The Art of Translocality,” I read ideas of translocality within our Internet-based culture and ideas of what constitutes net art. I quote a paragraph from the article (quoting Arjun Appadurai):

Yet it’s hard to know exactly what locality might mean in a world in which other places are constantly part of our own worlds. For intellectuals, artists and other cultural workers, especially in post-colonial contexts, being local – in other words, imagining and representing the here and now – always encounters a double challenge. One is the burden of repetition i.e. how to be modern or contemporary for what always seems like the second time. The other is what I am calling the anxiety of tradition, i.e. how to be local or regional or national or otherwise culturally distinctive without always having to work through or rewrite the cultural, civilizational and historical genius of one’s own specific traditions or localities. The best imaginative efforts to dispel this anxiety and to re-figure this burden are necessarily both cultural and political.

Could you add to Appadurai’s observation?

Garr: My interest in translocality was initially sparked by a concern that it was being used here in Europe to distinguish some art making from other art making, rather than as a way of understanding art making in general. For example, am I a translocal poet because I am an American living in Amsterdam? Does that make my work essentially translocal? Or can translocality surface in a writer who has never left Midwest America? It was starting to look as though a movement, manifestos and all, would rise up out of the major European cities, which would alienate translocality from its own ethos (and thus wreck its potential to instruct us as we work our way through this “zero hour”).

It’s no secret that I’m wary of margins. And I’ll be honest, I’m still working out my own thoughts on translocality, and the language I use to talk about it. But I have a few hypotheses about it, and one of these is that translocality is a way of reading text – and though translocality has come up to the surface today, seemingly very particular to our times, it has historical significance as well. Here’re a few easy examples: take the recent “Altermodern” exhibit at the Tate, or Gertrude Stein’s texts. My sense is that viewing either of these through the lens of translocality will uncover much that is happening between the lines, at the margins, in the subtext. Working out that concept in more detail is much of what I’m doing right now, and through Versal.

I’d also like to add that there’s a geographic translocality that many experience when they are “abroad” for more than a vacation, and which enters their work (whether it’s accounting or writing). The “anxiety of tradition” that Appadurai points out touches on this. As a poet, editor, and as a literary community organizer in Amsterdam, it’s important to me that I try to work out translocality’s effects on writers who are “away” from their home communities, and how we can be present here to them, and build community in that.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: It’s “Hammock Island” by Kinobe now. The strumming is ambient and aurorean. Could you tell us what you love most about America and Amsterdam? Tell us your memories of life of being in and between two places.

Versal Seven

Garr: I was 6 years old when my parents took my sister and me to join the human chain that was Hands Across America. I’m sure they told me what it was about but I was too young to get my head around it. I knew I was part of something that mattered. But I keenly remember the immensity of standing there holding hands with a stranger, and seeing the line of people stretch down in either direction of a hot country road somewhere in Tennessee.

I think of those 15 minutes a lot. That early memory of the sublime contrasts sharply at times for me in this steadied Dutch culture, in this flat land. I admit that I miss America’s audacity; I am in love with its largeness, its landscape. And yet, it’s a culture which is struggling, sadly, with questions of equality and access—queer rights, healthcare—which the Dutch have already sorted out. So living in Amsterdam affords me a level of human rights that I would not necessarily have back home, and I am thankful for that.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: I like the honesty of your submission guidelines, that you “seek work that is urgent, involved and unexpected.” Tell us about some pieces you loved—the ones that made it to publication and the ones that couldn’t—and what made them distinct and special as voices.

Garr: Daniel Godston’s “We wish to inform you that tomorrow,” which opensVersal One, surprises me every time, going back to it, as still very representative of the kind of work I love and that is my personal editorial starting point with Versal. The poem’s poetics, its politics, its language (“Dear unexploded landmine / we wish inform tomorrow killed with / If Goya had put a paintbrush to”). Work that interrogates its world, poetics and language that interrogate themselves, work that is accountable but without answers, and admits it. I think everything we’ve ever published accomplishes this on some level, but I’m biased.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: A month ago, I was almost done with a painting for the Singapore Writers Festival. It’s a mixed media canvas, hen scratchings in charcoal, graphite, and metal. I was just about to mask areas and spray in a seal of matte finish. I remember taking a rest on the couch, flipping to Sawako Nakayasu’s piece and reading its opening line: “A directed texture.” Scanning the text and settling on how the “giant hand… called upon to lift the top portions of each train car one by one.” Then finding in the final-to-last paragraph an exhortation:

When the compression finally comes forth, allow for the bodies to settle, before measuring the resulting thickness. Measure the authenticity. Measure the artifice.

Before I knew it, I had returned to my painting, and started deepening the whorls yet opening them up, applying water with a tissue to muddy the friction, accentuating more of what my sister calls “seashells in a thunderstorm.” I had to “measure the sway,” as Nakayasu wrote it. Thinking back to that moment, I remain enthralled by how poetry does matter, even if it’s in these small, important moments. My iPod’s at Mandalay’s “Beautiful”. Tell me about “the sway” of Versal, how it has touched the lives of some of its readers over the years.

Garr: After she got her copy of Versal Six, my mother xeroxed “Human Spontaneous Involuntary Invisibility” by Lara Frankena and posted it on the refrigerator. My father is an advocate/activist for universal healthcare, and has been so for a very long time, and I think Mom was trying to communicate something to Dad. I also heard that that very poem made someone cry at our table at last year’s AWP. Very cool.

This year, we started the HERE project as an experiment in hand-to-hand distribution. The dispatches we’ve received have really stopped me in my tracks: a map of a poem through Paris; an artist’s sketch of Nicole Walker’s “Doppler By Rail”; a copy of the journal on a table in a country I haven’t visited yet. Visual representations of a person’s interaction with Versal. Just knowing that they have taken the time, to draw, to write, to take pictures and email them—blows me away.

I guess I’ve always measured Versal’s success in small parts. Each and every reader we have is critical to our project. Versal has never been a project for our own literary egos, a check off the list of literary ventures, something we can say we did. Rather, it’s a journal we want to hand to others, something to take with you, as if to say, these little bits of art have moved us, maybe you will like them.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: I did an experiment once with Versal Seven. I left it out in the sun outside the Asian Civilisations Museum at Empress Place, in the intimate triangle it forms with Victoria Concert Hall and Cavenagh Bridge. I sat some distance away, my nose deep in GQ’s cover story on Robert Pattinson. When I looked up, I saw an old man in shirt and slacks, seated, and giving Versal what seemed like a cursory once-through, but he stayed there for more than two hours of that afternoon, and seemed to know this was literature he should be paying attention to. I like the idea of a stranger sharing the sort of discovery and intimacy I experienced. My take on literary journals is to treat each one like a book rather than a periodical. I approach the journal in its self-containment like an anthology, as if to untitle it, without charge, off tradition’s hook. How do you view Versal as the serially-produced artefact, and the texts it represents and enables?

Garr: Versal has always had a bit of a split personality, because the word for “journal” in Dutch is “tijdschrift,” which actually means “magazine.” There’s no specific word for “journal” in the literary context, that I know of at least. So in Dutch, we’re a magazine, and we went with that for awhile, and the “lit mag” culture, etc. But probably because I like the sound of the word “journal” better, probably because it denotes something closer to what I think we’re doing, we’ve switched in recent years.

To use your own words, I do think that Versal—though by no means unique in this—is a self-contained publication, and this is likely an effect of time. Since we only come out once a year, we can’t expect our readers to “read along with us”; say, if we were to serialize a novel it just wouldn’t work. That being said, my editorials do intersect and carry each other forward, so each new edition is working on some meta level, to be sure. But self-contained enough that it can be read whole.

When an issue is about to go to the printer, I sit down with all of the work and put it “in order.” This is when Versal becomes a mixtape. I’m going to figure out how to begin and end, and what pieces transition the A and B sides. How each piece may speak to each other, may detriment each other, if read in succession.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: As the literary world rethinks the viability of the print medium—the challenge of new technologies and its promises have never been anything to brush off—what new journeys do you intend to take Versal on? What are the challenges and difficulties you feel as its editor, and trying to keep the integrity of its literary purposefulness?

Garr: The shift you speak of is forcing those of us who have taken paper for granted our entire lives to rethink our decision to use it. I’m speaking about the way the literary world is thrown up against the digital world, and how many journals are choosing to go online. Some of these efforts are really exciting, especially those which use the online medium as the starting point rather than trying to stuff the traditional paged journal into a website.

But I don’t see Versal going that route, primarily because of the paradox it represents while staying “in print,” or as an object. Versal seeks out the traverses (be them across regions, cultures, languages, aesthetics) and so one may say that we should be online so that we’re accessible all of the time everywhere. I don’t disagree, but part of my work with Versal is about the staying power that is needed to hold onto a poem, hell to even write a poem, and to read it, return to it, study it. I’d like to think that the work we choose is worth carrying with you, returning to, reading in quiet corners away from civilization, in silence. You could not leave an online journal on a bench, as you left Versal Seven that day, to “see what happens.” You can’t pick up an online journal, you can’t open it with your hands.

That doesn’t mean that we ignore what’s happening, of course. We just don’t have the resources at this time to engage the question effectively. Our website is still in frames (smile). But I do see a future where our online space is in a conversation with the printed journal, something we’ve started, in a very quiet way, on our blog.

Zhicheng-Mingdé: I’ve finally emptied out my book bag, and finally let go ofVersal Seven. I’m now enjoying Brian Barker’s The Animal Gospels by Tupelo Press and Jay Wright’s Music’s Mask and Measure by Flood Editions. I feel the loss, the kind of melodrama of the nestling, its unfurling wings. Yet another moment, another one of many feelings that Versal has thawed in me. I feel like something between the twin pages where you placed Alex Kanevsky’s two paintings—of the Satin-Weave Man in “Hotel” and the Sibylline Woman, bent over in “Annunciation.” So, please if you could, address again for this interview’s readers the question you begin your preface with: “One question people often ask me is if I plan to return one day. What would happen to Versal. Could it survive the move.” Give us some reassurance, or some comfort, or something to hold onto even with the bridges—built and building and burgeoning—that transcend where we find ourselves in.

Garr: I think you’ve called me out a bit here. Indeed I was also asking myself whether or not I would survive the move. Do any of us survive? Or is relocation, whatever form it takes, a re-embodiment, a re-puzzling of our parts to fit or slide through the cracks enough to make it through? Or is it so destructive as that?

The fact is, the bridges do hold us. And that’s the point; binary assurances are not necessary. Art is being made here, in this in-between. Maybe it’s always been made here.