Contemporary Journals

On Versal

Report by Elyse Herrera

Beginning in 2002, Versal has played a significant role in the literary culture of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and many nations and peoples beyond it. With significant talent in editorship, a call for diverse work and local societal engagement, the magazine stands today as an important vessel for new voices, progressive thought, and beautiful style.

There is great significance in the placement of Versal geographically. Amsterdam is well-known, and can be clearly seen as a Mecca for art and history. This capitol city houses the Van Gogh Museum (the world's largest collection of Van Gogh's work) along with the Anne Frank Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and many more artistic centers. With all of these sights and incredible artistic institutions in one city, it is no wonder that this buzzing city's literature scene has in the past been relegated to the background. However, thanks to magazines like Versal, The Amsterdam Quarterly, and Expanded Field, as well as growing literature and creative writing programs in universities, Amsterdam has transformed over the last couple of decades into a hub not only for visual arts, but for writers and the literary community as well.

A great place to begin looking at Versal's important role in their Amsterdam community is to look first at its founding editor, Megan Garr. Garr is an American poet who moved to Amsterdam in 2001, and "finding a vacuum of expressive platforms for non-Dutch-speaking writers," she launched a non-profit Amsterdam-based literary collective called "wordsinhere" and Versal being its annual journal (Literary Globe). In Versal's fifth issue, Garr wrote in the introduction that they have made it to the fifth installment not because of anything great Versal has done specifically or individually, but because of the pattern their magazine played into. As Garr described, "Each 'new' generation responds to the world it inherits with the tools of its predecessors and modified or rejects them. Each time the margins shift, are drawn in, broken, open, opened up." Garr, as an editor, is very aware of the narrative of poetry and patterns of literature, both good and bad. Another quote from Versal's introduction in the fifth volume speaks to the magazine's literary awareness: "Versal will not bring about world peace. It will not change the way you vote. It will not end poverty. It won't cure any diseases. But it is part of something that can do these things." This passion and awareness of purpose for their work in playing a role in literary evolution is one thing the magazine does very well. It reaches into and beyond the community for the most interesting, diverse and high-quality work.

One example of Versal's focus on its own community is found in their web presence. The Versal website houses information on local events and, most impressively, a "Literary Guide to Amsterdam," in which they list details and information on resources in the community such as writing groups and meetups, bookstores, writing workshops, and classes that are accessible to any community member. More than their awareness of community events and creating ways for their viewers and readers to participate, Versal has a counterpart, VERSO/VERSO/ is Versal's bimonthly, live translation. It is a series of live performances by writers and artists from all over Europe. Their most recent VERSO/ event took place on April 14, called VERSO/mass: Formulate. Their Facebook post about the event reads:

"Welcome back to VERSO/'s 5th season "mass" on Sunday, April 14th, guest edited by novelist Karen Kao and featuring works by poet Megin Jiménez, astronomer Daniel Michalik, change agent Kirk Wornum, novelist Caoilinn Hughes, and dancer Lily Kiara. We live in a world of formulae. Birth rates, earning power, life expectancy. The power load that the electricity network must sustain long enough for you to read this message. And mass: a formula for quantifying inertia. VERSO/ is the live incarnation of Versal, Amsterdam's literary & arts journal. Every two months on the Mezrab stage, VERSO/ presents local & visiting poets, writers, artists, filmmakers, researchers, and more around a central theme. We are excited to welcome Karen Kao, author of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, as guest editor of our April edition." 

VERSO/ operates like a form of performance art with its mixture of poets, novelists, and artists of other professions. There can be song, dance, and almost any other type of performance chosen for VERSO/ events.

Versal is known for loving "Hybrid, boundary-pushing work," and the Versal team has taken significant steps in demonstrating this to their readers and writers both locally and internationally (Literary Globe). Versal's idelogical clarity may have practical effects on the magazine's success. In Jane Friedman's essay, "The Future of the Gatekeepers" in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, Friedman argues that "People may or may not consume print journals in the future, they may or may not have time to read their content. But a person is likely to be continually invested in the deeper philosophy or driving force behind the journal's brand" (212).

In 2013, the Versal team took a three year "hiatus" from publishing and accepting work but reemerged four years later with Versal twelve. This issue, after the magazine had taken a moment to re-center, called for international work under the theme of "Migration." An article from the Literary Globe reported that this "Limited edition features provocative voices from Amsterdam, Berlin, Dubai, Manchester, San Francisco and Seoul that aim to shift cultural tectonics in literal and metaphoric ways" (Literary Globe). Very much in conversation (though unknowingly) with Friedman's philosophy, Versal's focus on hybridity, diversity, and experimental work is what Garr says has kept them afloat all this time and will continue to make Versal and its local community thrive.

In a short YouTube video, Megan Garr describes Versal in just a few sentences. One of her chosen descriptors is "We make poetry and stories and art look really f*cking good." Part of how Versal does exactly this is through their beautiful design and organization of their work. One of the best design features is the context-specific "title, author" typography. For example, if the poem on the page is only 4 lines long, then the author's name and the title of the poem might be huge in comparison, depending on the work that follows or precedes it. In addition to the text on the page, Versal's artwork is incredibly designed and integrated. It is an important part of their magazine in that the art helps tie the text together, while also putting a clear and valuable emphasis on the art itself. The art is not just a means to an end for a beautiful magazine, but rather one of the main characteristics of Versal. One of the ways Versal includes and integrates their art is simply the way they credit the work. They not only include titles and artists' names on the page with the art, but give specific information about the piece itself and how it was made, as would be found on museum placards. Though seemingly such a small detail, the inclusion of information about the artwork like this brings the pieces to life in and of themselves, and assists the readers in understanding the artwork both within the narrative of the literature (because the artwork is intentionally placed next to work) and on its own.

Versal's success comes from its humility and outward focus. Its obsession is not with its editor or even simply with good features. Rather, it is singularly concentrated on the community it finds itself in, representing those near to them, and bringing the work, wisdom, and perspective of those people to their loyal, local readers.