Megan M. Garr (USA/NL): On activism and writing

Megan M. Garr is a poet and editor who crossed borders. She is an American living in the Netherlands who is engaged in activism in the literary world fighting for more diversity. An Interview.

(Julia Schiefer/JS) In 2003 you founded Versal, a literary journal that is published somewhat irregular, but roughly on a yearly basis. What brought you to publish a literary journal in Amsterdam? What has happened since then? And where is the issue for 2014 and 2015?

(Megan M. Garr/MGM): Versal was founded at the end of 2002 as part of a larger project to build the international literary community here in Amsterdam. When I first got here, it was hard to meet other writers. There was no gathering place or group or community. After about a year, a small handful of us decided that to pull the community together, we needed a literary night and a journal. So that’s how things got started.

We published an issue every spring until 2013. Once we hit the 11th edition we wanted to take a step back and look around. The literary world had changed a lot in the decade we’d been working, and we’d also grown older and our own lives were very different (I was 22 when we started). So in 2013 we took a kind of sabbatical, and this year began talking about how to begin again.

I respect the literary magazines that have managed to keep going, without interruption, for decades on end. But for small and unfunded projects like ours, I think it’s good to keep things exciting and unexpected. No one seems super phased that we took a break—people know we’re still around and that this break is an active one. And the break has allowed us to really hone in on what is important to us, and what we can contribute to our greater literary community, both here in Amsterdam and elsewhere.

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(JS:) At the live event and second volume of VERSO / LIVE JOUR- NAL called “PURE ARGILLACEOUS” it says that there will be live-form poems, stories, essays and other written forms. It also says that „Volume 2 turns its symbolic lens to ‘terra firma’ through pre-18th century alchemical symbols.“ What does that mean? What can one expect from that?

(MGM:) VERSO / is a “live journal”, a literary series we run here in Amsterdam. Each volume (so, each season) has a theme. With “terra firma” we wanted to address the Earth in various ways. We wanted to talk about the planet’s destruction, bear witness to its beauty.

Each VERSO / opens with the editor’s editorial, and includes a reading from a poet or writer, an artist, and presentations of essays, interviews or reviews, in sound, music, film, words. The forms and genres you might find in the TOC of a lit mag. The lineup for this season includes Éireann Lorsung, Babs Gons, Donna Stonecipher, Lily Huong and Laura Mullen—an exciting group.

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(JS:) What is your aesthetic approach to poetry and to essays that you write?

(MGM:) Poetry and essays are very different spaces for me. My essays and articles tend to address issues faced in the literary community or by literary journals: lack of diversity, the exclusion of women from the historical record or from a current movement, and most recently how the literary community’s financial problems perpetuate those same exclusions, of women, of people of color, of basically anyone who is not a white cis male.

My aesthetic approach to poetry is basically to cut it down to its most important parts. I am a slow writer, and I’m horribly unprolific. It will take me years to finish a chapbook, so I haven’t made it to a full collection yet. Editing, revision, cutting back, cutting down—I work backwards, almost against myself and the poems.

(JS:) What do you need to write good texts?

(MGM:) Landscape.

(JS:) You wrote an open letter to the „Poetry International Rotterdam Festival“ addressing their choice of authors and participants as being too much focused on men. What did happen afterwards?

(MGM:) Nothing. It was a failed open letter. We received no reply from the festival. I spoke to many people in the community who supported our message, but who felt they could not share that support publically, for one reason or another. So we ultimately just let it go. We put it out there, hopefully some folks heard our message, hopefully it started some good dialogue in some places.

But it was definitely a successful experience for our team. We learned how we work together in a more directly political space. Most of us are activists, whether through our contributions in the literary community or by marching for change on the streets, and one of the things we want to do more explicitly is to bring that activism into our journal. Our team actually grew closer, and some important issues came up, like the fact that while we publish a wide range of writers and artists from many cultures and backgrounds, our team itself is mostly white. It’s really female and queer, but it’s largely white. We are working to change that.

(JS:) You are an American located in Amsterdam. How would that influence your work, style and perspective?

(MGM:) At some stage living abroad the tourist lens you start out with falls away. You leave the canals and bridges and tulips behind, the surface poems of observation, of exotic recitation. You fall into an inbetween space, what I used to call a translocal space. This is where really interesting things start to happen in the syntax, at the level of the line.

Second languages are part of this. When I could finally, really speak Dutch I found that I had to let its vocabulary in. In my more recent work, my two languages are struggling with each other, there’s an audible wrestle between the lyrical English and the enjambed Dutch.

(JS:) What do you have in mind when you hear „literary activist“?

(MGM:) I must confess I’m not totally clear on CROWD’s use of the term. I was raised by social justice activists and I also consider myself one, and so for me literary activism is political, it is direct engagement with the injustices in our world. I also believe it to be a crucial undertaking in our local and wider literary community.

My earliest writing teachers were men and women who marched with King through the Deep South, who joined sit-ins and protested nuclear energy and police brutality and the death penalty. And my parents, who led the early calls in the South for universal healthcare—way before Obama, I’m talking the 80s, during Reagan and after and today even still. So this is where and how I grew up. I have never distinguished between myself as a writer and myself as an activist. For me, they are the same.

By no means am I trying to say that “literary activism” is only one thing and one thing only. In fact, I think it’s a wide term that opens up an exciting vocabulary for how we can talk about our engagement in our communities, as writers and as people who want to help make the world a better place. Amy King’s piece on literary activism last August, where she gathered others’ thoughts on it, is a good place to start, and also maybe a good place to end my answer:

Megan M. Garr is a poet and the editor of the literary & arts journal Versal. She is the author of Terrane (MIEL Books, 2015) and The Preservationist Documents (Pilot Books, 2012).

After moving to Amsterdam in 2001, Megan founded the literary community organization “wordsinhere” and its flagship Versal. Her poetry and writings on translocality have been published widely, and her poetry collection The Preservationist Documents was a finalist in several prizes, winning the Pilot Books Meddling Kids Series in 2010.

For over a decade, Megan has also developed numerous literary programs in the Netherlands and the USA, including The Open Stanza (Amsterdam, 2002-2007), Journal Porn (Washington D.C. 2011, Chicago 2012, Seattle 2014), and most recently VERSO / (Amsterdam, 2014-present).

Megan grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and studied writing at the University of Montana. She has lived in Amsterdam, the Netherlands since 2001.

Photo credit: Anna Melnykova

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