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Universal verse

Megan M. Garr on pioneering the kind of literary journal you want to sleep with

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The people who attend Journal Porn are the kind of geeks who love a good font—Minion or Electra or Fournier. They want to feel the texture of extraordinary paper at their fingertips, whether it be light and gauzy or heavy and grainy. They want to see a literary magazine with more than just a photograph plopped down next to a poem that's printed in boring Times New Roman—they want design, perhaps even featuring swoon-worthy colors. Journal Porn is a gathering started by University of Montana graduate Megan M. Garr, the founder of Amsterdam-based lit mag Versal. It's an offsite event that runs in conjunction with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, and Garr's gathering is only in its second year. The first time it occurred was when AWP was in Washington, D.C., two years ago and Garr invited editors from innovative journals such as Ugly Duckling, The Lumberyard and 1913 to hang out and talk about the importance of—and their love for—journal aesthetics. Then Journal Porn fell to the wayside until this year's upcoming conference in Seattle, where it is set to re-emerge under the titillating subtitle "Lit Mags You'd Sleep With."

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Despite Journal Porn's newness and its spotty start, it's been an anticipated event, no doubt because of Garr's involvement. She's a bit of a rock star, if the literary journal scene includes such a thing. Poets & Writers Magazine has listed Versal has one of the genre's top innovators, and Garr is considered to be at the forefront of the international literary scene—not least because she has, over the last 12 years, vitalized the Amsterdam arts community.

How Garr got to where she is now has everything to do with embracing her own international identity. In her poem "Carried Away," Garr turns the theme of leaving into a dreamlike expedition. "What we leave, when we leave," she writes, "a planet somewhere. Its aluminum seas. Look now how the city let fall the land a whole country." The fluid way she moves from one unpacked image to another speaks to the experience of generations that leave home and hop from place to place without ever putting down roots. It's like how, in 1997, Garr left her hometown of Nashville for Missoula to study in UM's creative writing program. She spent three years working on degrees in poetry, literature and women's studies, but her last year she took off to study and finish school in Scotland. There, she met a Dutch woman—also far from home. They fell in love and moved together to Amsterdam.

Garr recalls that at first she romanticized Amsterdam as a poet's paradise. "I had this impression it would be like Paris," she says, laughing. "I expected it to be vibrant and full of people from all over the world but [instead] people were inward and protectionist—for all good reasons. But there wasn't really a place for me."

Then she found one open mic venue where she could read her work. She hung up fliers around town to get people to come to readings. She looked on forums and discussion boards. And she started approaching writers whenever she saw the chance. It turned out there was tons of local talent, but it was fractured. "I met a lot of writers looking for a community," Garr says. "And so we started to build one."

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Versal is a collection of writers and visual artists from all over the world—South Korea, Spain, Argentina—and across the U.S., including some who live or have lived in Missoula, like artist Kerri Rosenstein and poets Matt Sadler, Brandon Shimoda and UM professor Joanna Klink. That diversity is the most obvious example of the publication's approach. Still, Versal's flavor isn't just due to a melting pot of voices from different countries. Like Garr and her fellow world travelers, many of the artists published don't embrace just one place.

"People literally take up residence in different cultures," Garr says. "But being translocal is not just where you live, it's a mentality. I have two localities. I don't feel completely at home in either. There's a constant foreignness around you. With translocal people you get to see that in their art."

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Since its first issue, Versal has published annually and each issue looks distinct. The journal is created with offset printing and full-color art with a range of covers in different mediums, including an arty photograph of a freshwater fish, a surreal illustration of birds and the backside of a naked woman. It's full of curling fonts that sometimes give it a feeling of 3D and movement.

There was a time in the literary world when such attention to aesthetic detail was rare—journals were just a means to get writing out to readers rather than a piece of art itself. But Garr and others on the literary forefront have changed that.

"I wanted to make a beautiful journal—something that would stay on your table for a while," Garr says. "In 2001, [the year Versal first came out] a lot of journals were choosing to do black and white and not giving art or the work room to breathe. Today there are so many gorgeous journals out there, and I think it's a relief as a writer that your work is going to be taken care of. Versal was riding the right wave early—and we're right on time."

Megan M. Garr reads at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., March 4, at 7 PM. Free.

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