The woman who paved the way for Amsterdam's international literary scene reflects on the community she helped to create.
Firstly, I wanted to talk to you about how you got here and about why you came to Amsterdam.
The real story, the true story?
So my last year of college, I studied abroad in Glasgow, Scotland and I met a Dutch girl. And, as you do, you decide to change your whole life for each other. We decided not to go back to America. Being gay in America in ‘99, 2000—it wasn’t really safe. So we decided to try to make a go of it here. I basically moved here right after college, and I never left.
I was fresh out of college. I had very little work experience and no plan. But I had met her so I was just like, “Yeah! Going to Amsterdam!” I didn’t have any reason to think very far in the future. And we just tried it. We sort of made it work for a couple years and it was fun. But then after we broke up, I stayed. By that time—about six years later—I had a job, a good network of friends, and I didn’t want to go back to the United States. I was like, “OK, I’ve got my shit together here. I know how to do taxes.” Already by that time I had started the magazine, I had started all this stuff in the community and I wasn’t gonna leave it.
So when you came back, did you jump into starting Versal?
Pretty quickly. I was very naive—I thought that Amsterdam was on par with the stories that I heard about Paris or Berlin. That there would be this amazing international community of artists and writers from all over who I could just, like, become friends with. And that was really not the case. There was no organization in the community. So there were lots of writers here, but there were very few places where they were meeting each other. I wanted to make my own world here. So I started meeting people, and slowly but surely we gathered ourselves into kind of a workshop format where we were sharing work with each other, and from there, you know, we wanted more. And it wasn’t already happening, so we decided to do it ourselves, because that’s what you do, I think. By December of 2002, we launched the magazine and a show we did called the Open Stanza. So in the same month everything started, and it just snowballed from there, and we basically haven’t stopped since.
There have been 12 issues now—is there a particular issue or a particular piece that you’ve edited or written in conjunction with the journal that really sticks out to you, or that was particularly rewarding?
That’s like picking your favorite child! What I’ve loved about doing the journal is that even though the writers and artists that we work with are all over the world, we build a relationship with them. We treat them in a human way, and try to maintain that relationship over the distance, so that if they were to visit here or have a new book out, that they feel comfortable contacting us and saying, “Hey!” You know? So I feel kind of close to all of our contributors in this sort of weird way.
What happened for Versal was: we started here, and we started making issues, and we were getting work sent to us to review from all over the world. People really liked it, and they liked that it was in Amsterdam, so it was kind of exotic. So what happened was, the work that was sent to us became more and more and more American. By Versal 11, our issues I think were maybe 80 percent American. And when I realized that, I realized we weren’t doing what we wanted to do. Because we were basically an American literary journal with an address in Amsterdam, and that wasn’t offering anything interesting to the community. Not to the community here, and not to any other community in the United States or anywhere else for that matter.
We took about a three year break to regroup, and in that process we worked ourselves back to a core value of: we are in Amsterdam, and this is a hugely international community of people from all over—artists and writers just doing so many fantastic things—and that’s what we need to focus on. Thats where Versal’s interesting, that’s where our heart is, and sure, maybe we get some work from the United States that we think is really good, but the core is here. And so we changed the way we reviewed work. Versal 12, I think 60 or 70 percent of it, is pulled from the shows we do here. I don’t think it was worth continuing the other way. There are so many literary journals in the United States. There’s no need for us to make another one. Or to keep making another one.
Are the shows you’re referring to the Verso shows?
Yeah. So before we started publishing again, a friend of mine, Sahand Sahebdivani [of The Mezrab], gave me a call and he said, “I want you to bring your show, your old show, the Open Stanza, back to my stage.” And I told him I didn’t want to do that, but I had this other idea. I said, “I want to do a live magazine. I want to figure out a way where we can present an edited program, like a curated program, and give people this idea that they’re participating in a live magazine.” And he was like, “OK, you can try it.” So that’s Verso. The new issues from now on will always pull from the people we meet at that show. That will be the the core. So it’s sort of like we went from the print to the live back to the print. It’s a circular process now.
So are people bringing work to perform, or how does that work?
The people on my team and I act as lead curators for the show, and we ask a few people who we know to guest curate. We don’t usually go too far into what the performer will present the night itself, we kind of leave that up to them. But that allows for a lot of play as well, because we give the artists a lot of room to interact with the audience, to disrupt performance and ideas of performance—it’s pretty experimental, in that sense. Some nights are sort of off the charts, and you’re not quite sure if you’re in an art gallery or at a literary show, and some nights are more traditional, you know, with a lot of readings. So it changes, and I think the guest editing brings us in contact with a lot of other people, so it creates a snowball effect where we meet people through other people and the community keeps expanding.
That’s really cool that it’s a totally grassroots effort.
It has to be. You’re not gonna get a lot of funding in the Netherlands if you’re not completely spotlighting Dutch writers. And there’s nothing wrong with Dutch writers, but there are so many things happening for Dutch writers. They have a very well-oiled infrastructure. Some nights we’ll have a Dutch writer and it’ll be half in Dutch and half in English, but because we’re offering an international platform and we’re not going to say, “Every night we’re gonna have three Dutch writers,” we can’t get funding. Obviously, like, for good reason, or for understandable reasons, the Dutch funding infrastructures, they want to promote Dutch language literature. We can’t do that—we don’t want to do that.
Have you noticed since starting Versal that there has been more of a push either towards English-speaking or just non-Dutch speaking literary organizations that have popped up?
Yeah, and that’s kind of what I wanted to see happen. This is a really silly metaphor, but you know “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner? So that phrase, “if you build it,” was in my head a lot in the first years because I thought that if we started organizing and creating places where writers could meet that things would create themselves from there as well.
A couple magazines have started—off and on, they’ll come and go sometimes. And different types of shows, especially in the last year. Again, it kind of goes like this. I’ve been here almost two decades, I’ve seen it—all of a sudden there’ll be, like, seven spoken word nights, and it’ll be really active and there’ll be lots of programs, and then it’ll die down again. We’re in another peak. Verso is kind of unique still in that it’s a very multifaceted program, and we keep it on the experimental side because there aren’t that many places, I think, where artists can really experiment and take risks, so we try to keep Verso as open to that as possible. It’s not, “everything needs to be awesome and entertaining.” Sometimes it can be uncomfortable and I think that’s important.
I wonder why that happens—what makes it come about at certain times and not at others.
I remember when the financial crisis hit that things felt like they came to a standstill. And that was more on the international side of things, because not as many people were coming here to work, and people were moving away. But that’s very expatriate-centric and that’s not the best way to look at a literary scene, of course. I don’t know—I’ve also thought about why that is. There have been lots of spoken word initiatives for years in Amsterdam that have just always been around, but their popularity has surged again recently—why that happens in waves I don’t know.
Maybe just trends—if you start to not have something for a while, you want it back. Like, I don’t know—flared jeans?
Yes! Bell-bottoms, yes! Yeah, I think it’s very much about trends. The trick I think for us, for organizers, is like, how do you sustain yourself regardless of what you’re doing is a popular thing. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard sometimes to get funding. Because if you’re on the margins of an art form or if you’re doing things more on an experimental level, and you don’t necessarily attract a large audience, then funders don’t see your value. And that’s sad because there has to be space for experimentation, because it’s through experimenting that things become mainstream. They usually start on the experimental side and move into the mainstream and then become popular. It’s really interesting that it’s more difficult to get funding or support or even audience numbers for things that are at the beginning, so to speak. It would be a really good place to put money.
Yeah, like, the most important place.
I think so. If you’re in that space you have to work really hard. It’s not just limited to experimental spaces, it’s also the people I know who are trying to run workshops. Like, it’s popular right now to want to be a writer maybe, but there might be points in time where that’s less interesting and it’s harder to find students.
It incentivizes doing more things to keep it in people’s consciousness I would think.
And everyone has to be supportive of each other.
I think so. I mean, we’re too small to have a healthy, critical conversation about each other.
What do you mean?
Well, it’s a very small community, in the sense that like, basically once you’re in it you kind of know all the players. And I think our best way forward is to continue supporting each other whether or not we wholeheartedly support the aesthetic or the goal of the others, because it’s just so small. But if you have a larger community, like in New York City, there’s breathing room between you and everyone else. So there’s space for criticism. I’m supportive of healthy criticism. I’m not really supportive of fighting and the kind of stupid drama that happens in the literary world. But I do think that being able to be open about, like, aesthetic criticism and talking about that is important for a community to grow, if it’s big enough, and Amsterdam is just not big enough. It would be stupid if I came out in a critical way against one of the other organizations—if I were to critique it on any level, I would just basically be ostracized. And that’s not helpful. It happens in the Dutch world but I don’t think in the international world it would be very smart.
And the Dutch world can do it because there’s more of an infrastructure?
There’s a lot of them. And they have a very long history, whereas the “international scene,” so to speak, is just smaller. It just doesn’t help to break each other down on any level. It’s better if we just all support each other and help each other make things better, I think.
That just sounds healthier, period.
Yeah, I think it is. And when things do happen that are less nice, they usually get swept under the table pretty quickly. It’s almost like a family! Like, everyone still comes together for Thanksgiving and nobody talks about that thing. And that’s okay—I think that’s okay the way it is.
It seems to be working, at least.
Sixteen years so far, at least from my perspective.
This interview has been edited and condensed.