Visual Verse is an online anthology of art, poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction. Each month, the team at Visual Verse post an image online and invite writers to compose a piece of 50 to 500 words, inspired by the image. The catch is that the text must be written in one hour.
AWM recently spoke to Kristen Harrison, Publisher and Curator of Visual Verse, and Preti Taneja, writer, academic, and Editor of Visual Verse. Co-founded in 2013 with designer Peter Lewis, and based in offices in Berlin, Germany, and Cambridge, UK, Visual Verse has helped establish a thriving, and global, community of writers. Kristen and Preti shared some advice with AWM about writing to the Visual Verse challenge and managing the time limit.
Visit Visual Verse’s website to read from their latest issue, launched on 1 June 2016.
Visual Verse is a rather different literary journal. It posts a carefully selected image each month and invites writers to compose text inspired by that image in one hour. How did you come up with this concept?
Kristen: Visual Verse is very much inspired by the artists’ books by artists like Joan Miro and his surrealist pals. The surrealists were producing a lot of books in France in the 30s and 40s and they had such a raw, instinctive quality. They also celebrated unrestrained collaborations between artists and writers. We wanted to find a way to re-create this in digital form and give writers and artists a space to collaborate without thinking too much about it.
Preti: I love reading submissions that get under the surface of the image, and I want to read things that have a fresh way with language. I’m drawn to pieces that don’t necessarily just tell the story of the image that we can see, but that find a way to imagine new worlds from the picture. On a practical note, even though we only give an hour, we expect the pieces to be clean and edited. We generally don’t publish work that is obviously unedited as we don’t have time to line-edit every piece for spelling and grammar.
The task of writing something polished in one hour is one many writers might find daunting. What advice about preparation and timing can you offer to writers who would like to submit to Visual Verse?
Preti: Some writers like to set themselves a challenge to write something as quickly as possible, as soon as the image is launched on the first of every month. Other writers will spend some time looking at the image, then put it away for a few days and maybe write down some ideas, then they’ll come back and sit down for the hour to write a final piece. You have to have fun with it, experiment and use it as a way of working out your process — that’s what Visual Verse is all about.
Kristen: Preti’s right that Visual Verse is meant to be about honing your craft and discovering new things about your own writing. We have many writers who submit pieces that they then go on to edit or re-work into other things, and publish elsewhere, and that’s great. We don’t publish exclusively and the copyright remains with writers, so if the images inspire new ideas and writing beyond the Visual Verse website we are very happy.
Who are some of your favourite writers and poets that you’ve featured in Visual Verse, and what makes them so appealing to you as a reader?
Preti: Oh gosh, where to start? I’m always just so delighted to read all of the submissions. The motivation and commitment that our writers show to the project motivates me to continue challenging myself in my own writing, and to work hard to find writers from all over the world and bring those people to new audiences. We’ve had so many good writers: Ivan Vladislavić, Ali Smith, Nikesh Shukla, Deborah Levy, Mahesh Rao, Edan Lepucki, Susana Moreira Marques, Andrew Motion and many many more. The global aspect is something we’re very passionate about as we don’t want it to be just a closed network of writers from the UK. We welcome guest editors too, if they feel they can bring fresh writers to the site.
Kristen: I also love to see the work of writers who submit regularly as we can really see the quality of their writing improving and evolving each month. On the whole, I don’t have favourites but there are a few pieces that have stayed swimming around in my subconscious: Andrew Motion’s Lines is just perfectly formed against the image by Marc Schlossman; Adam Marek’s Factory Explosion is a brilliant piece of writing and there’s something about Chloe Stopa-Hunt’s The Milk Room that sits in my psyche. But, like Preti, I soak up everything that comes in and just love the range that we get each month.
You accept and publish submissions from both published and unpublished writers. How has Visual Verse helped to set some previously unpublished writers on paths to personal or commercial success?
Preti: We’ve commissioned a lot of up-and-coming writers who have gone on to bigger and better things. Eley Williams has her first short story collection (Influx Press) coming out in November. Sarah Howe won the T S Eliot prize for best poetry collection and Declan Ryan (one of our first contributors) won the Faber New Poets award, to name a few. We can’t take the credit, of course, but we do know that publishers and agents are coming to Visual Verse to find new talent and they contact us regularly to feature their existing writers.
From a personal perspective, as a direct result of the success of Visual Verse I’ve been invited to be an editor for the Poetry Archive and in the three years since launching I have had my first novella published (Kumkum Malhotra by Gatehouse press) and first novel signed to Galley Beggar Press. I attribute these successes to the Visual Verse writers who make me think differently about language every time I read their pieces, who make me happy every single day and who motivate me to be as tenacious as them about writing and submitting work.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.