Amsterdam’s Versal is a thoughtful collection of sophisticated, inventive writing and art. For the celebration of their first ten years, the editors included a mixed media art piece titled “750 Circles” that is a blank page with a balloon taped to it. Each of these pages is signed by the editors. The piece, they say, is to honor the many people who have made the last ten years possible. Small flourishes of creativity like this appear throughout the journal, making it not only a collection of great writing, but a united reading experience.
While an annual volume of this scope can’t be thematically characterized, debt and loss, a reverence for nature, and a young narrative voice are frequent players in this issue.
Andrew Michael Roberts exposes us to stories somewhere between prose and poetry. “The Week Before Ted Downing Disappeared for Good” starts at a small town meeting with two people admitting to having been kidnapped and “probed” in the town’s woods. These two voices are quickly overshadowed by general complaints about neighborhood squabbles, and the meeting dissolves. The piece ends with mention of the meeting’s refreshments of “spiced cider and cinnamon sticks.” The narrator’s matter of fact tone highlights Roberts’s much larger concerns with group mentality. Roberts’s piece “Assembly” shows a young boy in the wake of his brother’s death. The boy drifts through life, unable to synthesize the shock of death with his continuing daily routines. His writing is succinct and thematically ambitious.
Christopher Patton’s “Dumuzi” (the God of vegetation) and Eric Magrane’s sonnet “The sky: untitled cloud vessel” are steeped in a respect for nature. Magrane’s sonnet reads as an ode to untamed nature and ends with the following final couplet: “…on no other day / did the sun warm the grass as on that day” (28)
One of my favorite pieces is Roxane Gay’s “Who We Are Beneath the Glass.” In a series of paragraphs started with anaphoric phrases like “my mother,” “my father,” or “my parents,” the young narrator introduces readers to her family dynamic through anecdote. Her writing is sharp and her insights poignant. The piece is tiring to get through, almost as tiring as being part of her family would be. And I mean that as a compliment (to her writing). I’ve read very few contemporary stories where the form so seamlessly and intensely enhances the author’s thematic goals. In the issue’s main interview, Michael Martone says, “everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original.” It seems to me this is exactly what Gay is getting at.
Martone’s interview is another gem of the collection. It is fresh, original, and wildly entertaining. The literary community recognizes Martone as a prankster, whose stunts (like publishing a novel then adding line breaks and trying to publish it again as a poetry collection) have gotten several of his literary memberships revoked. He tells stories about his string of five pathological liar roommates, his ghost writing neologisms for Merriam-Webster, and his creative (albeit irreverent) future plans.
The final piece in this collection to which I want to draw attention is “Ideas Green Sleep Colorless Furiously: Accidental Gap” By Daniel Takeshi Kruase Like many pieces in this issue, I can say I’ve never read anything like this before. “Ideas Green” is arguably organized by font. Five separate font types run through this piece, each of which carrying its own narrative thread. One font is a series of quotes about language acquisition, another is a person moving about a party, another holds a long monologue about words: “Sometimes the words are the way your mouth feels, more specifically how your lips curl and your tongue presses, intersected by the row of your teeth, and the cinching of your throat or the lifting of the soft palate.”
The five narratives harmonize beautifully to the credit of Krause’s design and smooth writing. In less capable hands, this piece could have easily been derailed into a chaotic, disjointed reading experience.
Versal has achieved the highest form of success that a literary journal can achieve: not only is it filled with unique, inspired writings, but the editors have assembled them with care. Reading Versal was truly a pleasure.