The literary journal is a complicated gesture. It is an archive, a necessary ephemera, of movement, aesthetic, reaction, and change, but it is also a quicksand of these things; in its fleeting multitudes, we can barely keep track. Some are, from a scattering of watchtowers, and we are grateful to them for their compulsion, because it must be a compulsion to keep the thousands of us in sight.
But whether we see them or not, literary journals are the bricks beneath our communities, beneath our readings and publishing houses. In their very gathering of us, they are our starting points and the proof of our existence as we try to make books and be invited to festivals—and maybe we never reach any of these things but at least our name appeared, our poem or story came out in print once, that once we were writers.
That literary journals are these bricks is also precisely the problem. Desperately needed footing, each and every one, literary journals are most strong and useful in their very multitude. As a writer, I don’t need one poem published in one journal. I need many poems published in many journals—accumulated evidence that I exist and should exist on the page. The most valuable copies of a single print run of a literary journal are the copies that are sent for free to the writers published in that issue, and the review copies sent for free to the very few compulsive lookouts on the watchtowers. These copies are the clay and silica that make the brick, and the remaining copies trickle slowly out to bookstores and dedicated readers, and if they don’t go in time, within three months or so, they sit in boxes and become hopeful for posterity.
I think every editor of a literary journal will tell you how splendid and necessary their work is. I also think they will tell you how hard it is to get that work beyond their hands. And to do so in an economic way, without continuous financial injections from outside. The function of a literary journal is not to be sold. It is to be the brick of communities, readings, and publishing houses. Writers need them to get their work out. Communities, readings, and publishing houses need them for their gatherings and findings, for their compass. But those of us who make them also pay for them, sometimes literally. And there’s no perfect equation for getting them sold. Somehow, you have to keep the cover price low, below €15 at most, and you have to sell them all within about three months, because its shelf-life is about equivalent to one-fourth of a year. After that, its findings and gatherings are out of date. The compass has already shifted. If sales cover the price of printing it in the first place, then the literary journal is about as successful as it can get. Never mind costs like shipping, marketing, advertising, or staff.
Some of you may have followed my work to puzzle out the literary economy and the literary journal’s economy in particular. I started this work hoping that I could find a remedy for Versal’s lopsided resources. What I uncovered is that without outside funding, the way we want to do a literary journal (hell, the fact that we’re actually a literary & arts journal), will continue to be and inevitably remain an uphill project. We will never reach as many people as we want to, because we do not have the means to distribute it that far and shipping out of the Netherlands is extortionate. We have a substantial and deeply supportive local community, but we cannot lean on you for every penny and every sale.
Over the course of all of this research and many, many talks on our team, it became clear that what we are doing with VERSO / is precisely what we have always wanted to do with Versal. VERSO /, our “live” literary edition, goes right to the heart of where we want to be: here, with you, our community in Amsterdam and the Netherlands wider. In coming here to Mezrab since 2014, it has dawned on us, we have gone deeper into our work than the unsold pages of Versal could ever take us, bound as it was by money and distance.
The tongue-bone, or hyoid bone, is a horseshoe-shaped bone at the front of our throats. It is not directly connected to any other bone, but is anchored on all sides by muscle, and it is also what anchors our tongues. Its name, the hyoid, comes from the Greek for things that are shaped like “u”, the 20th letter in the Greek alphabet, the upsilon. It was originally just called the “hy”. We get our Y from it.
We humans are not the only animals to have a hyoid, but its position in our bodies between the tongue, larynx, and pharynx is what gives us the range of sounds we make. It is our speech maker, the anchor for our sound. I realize the parallel immediately. Versal, and its offshoot VERSO /, have been my tongue-bone since I fumbled together the first makings of this thing in 2002. Over the 17 years since its founding, Versal and all of our work with it and around it has become my way to speak to the world, with the world, and it has become that for so many others, now and over the years before us––an anchor for speech-acts, a thing that can magnify what we’re whispering, if only or if even a little bit more than what our own mouths and tongues are capable.
The larger outreaches of the hyoid become bone-bone at the end of fetal development. By the second year of childhood, about the age my daughter is now, the smaller reaches also ossify, and the hyoid becomes more or less fully formed.* All of our sounds become possible.
Somewhere over the last year, it occurred to us at Versal that our work here had also shifted, you could say ossified, and that indeed Versal was no longer just or only or even a literary & arts journal. That what we were making and what we wanted to make was the pages of the journal expanded out, widened, into whole spines of themselves. That is why tonight, I am announcing that the literary & arts journal Versal is making way for the new Versal Editions, Amsterdam’s international small press publisher. Limited edition books of literature and art and the in-between. Just like it was once time for this city, this country, to have an international literary & arts journal, it is now time for it to have an international small press.
While we are leaving the literary & arts journal Versal behind, we are very much standing on the legacy of our past. As ever, the heart of this work is you, our community. That is why I am also excited to announce that the first title of Versal Editions will be the winner of the new Amsterdam Open Book Prize, which is open for entries as of now.
At the finale of this season of VERSO / next June, we plan to launch the new and first book of Versal Editions. Terra lingua couldn’t come at a more apropos moment. This season we will dig deep into the soil of speech, speech-making, sign, how we get from one person to another, how we go from loneliness to commune, how we find ways to say what we say, how we choose to say it and why, how we can change things with our acts, how far our sound can go.
Please join me in celebrating the range of our speaking, in celebrating the new Versal Editions.
*With apologies to scientists and doctors for any and all misinterpretation of the facts.