Thursday, August 16, 2007

New Issue Review: Versal no. 5

[Review by Gregory Napp]

For those unfamiliar with Versal, it is a beautiful publication, the brainchild of an active group of poets and writers who found themselves in Amsterdam in 2002. It is Netherlands’s only international literary journal. It is an independent annual, available at select bookstores in major cities around the world, as well as online at The editorial team, led by American poet Megan M. Garr, includes Anna Arov, Prue Duggan, Kate Foley, Robert Glick, Terri Hron, Cralan Kelder, Kai Lashley, and Mirabai Lacazette de Monchy.

Versal’s latest volume, its fifth, maintains the consistently attractive design that made the previous annuals so pleasurable. Here, on page after page, work is presented so as to hit the eye directly, barely encumbered by titles and authors, which live on the outskirts of the frame, allowing us to experience the whole according to whim, so that leafing through the issue is like dining à la carte.

That would seem to suit Versal’s objective perfectly. Volume five makes accessible distinctive work by fifty writers and artists hailing from all over the planet--a little taste of a lot of things--heartening success for an international journal that, as editor Megan Garr writes in the issue’s introduction, aspires to the achievement of a “comprehensive (read: exhaustive) literary community...where aesthetic mastery and diversity can exist simultaneously and over a wide (literal/figurative) geography.”

The issue is devoted largely to poetry and includes work from some notable poets who have had limited exposure in English (which is reason enough for some of us to look for a copy) as well as a contingent of more familiar poets, including a number of American and British ones, but about a quarter of the issue is short prose--a healthy dose, even if these authors are not quite as diverse in terms of nationality. Except for Billy O’Callaghan, whose touching piece of Irish experience is, at six pages, the longest work in the issue, the prose writers are Americans.

But, of course, Versal’s geography is both literal and figurative, and the artists, writers, and poets here certainly present a range of styles and concerns of a breadth not attributable merely to nationality.

A glance through the issue reveals a number of translations, the first of which is of a list compiled by French artist Éric Watier, of destructive acts performed by artists against their own works, called “An Inventory of Destruction.” “Raoul Hébréard,” one line reads, “carefully sawed up one of his sculptures in 1997. He then made shelves out of it.”

Another translation, an interior-monologue vignette by Enes Kurtović, a poet born in Bosnia, winds its way among day-to-day concerns and intruding cultural ephemera, all subtly shaded by the speaker’s underlying concern that something in his day, somewhere, has been left undone.

“Four Henrys,” a stark, surreal piece by Tsead Bruinja, takes Henry Kissinger (or, rather, four of him) as its central figure and “our eternally burning world” as its subject, beginning: “four tight-suited henrys lie with their bellies / on a chair swimming through the air.”

And the work done in English is equally various. The contributors’ notes reveal diverse backgrounds, as well as a broad array of publication credits, confirming Versal’s commitment to bringing new voices in addition to more established ones. The work is quality, and its selection indicative of the editors’ keen desire for “work that is urgent, involved and unexpected.”

A tiny sampling reveals songs of objects to other objects, some of them just barely enigmatic; hypnosis; a field guide to lying still; disembodied heads; unaided flight; word experiments. But there is also no shortage of realism. O’Callaghan moves us with his piece on the death of an Irish grandmother, whose songs have made of her a living history; there is “Little Red Books,” a poem where the children must chant, Long live Mao!; and there are others. Fifty contributors.

Fifty contributors in only one hundred and eleven pages--it is another testament to the balance of its design that this volume feels rich but never crammed, but it is also testament to the selection of work. I have been trying not to use the word eclectic to describe the contents of the fifth issue of Versal because I do not want to conjure the idea of a hodgepodge. The issue is eclectic, but it does not feel like a hodgepodge. I have compared it to dining, and it is tasty. A different way of putting it might be to say that in this issue, as in the past, the journal’s lack of formal/aesthetic restrictions, in tandem with its innovative design, has allowed it to express an organic blend of disparate flavors.

Gregory Napp is a fiction writer and editor of the online flash fiction site 971 Menu.

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