In the latest of our Meet The Editors series we talk to Kristen Harrison and Preti Taneja of
Visual Verse. Each month Visual Verse posts a compelling image and invites writers – published or unpublished – to submit a piece in response. Submissions must be written within one hour and be between 50 and 500 words. The results are often beautiful and surprising.
Litro: How did Visual Verse come about?
Kristen: I have always loved artists’ books and old manuscripts for the way they bring together text and visual imagery. I wondered how we could create some kind of digital artists’ book and the idea emerged from there. Using visual prompts is not a new idea of course, but what we have done is combine it with a platform for writers to have their work published and presented in digital form.
Litro: You count Ali Smith amongst an impressive list of patrons. How did they come to be involved with Visual Verse?
Kristen: We could not have built what we have built without Andrew Motion and Marc Schlossman in particular, our two founding patrons who have been extremely supportive and generous from the beginning.
Preti: I sent Marc’s image of the shell to Andrew Motion and he was so intrigued by it. He agreed to be a patron and write our first lead piece. That gave us a really great start. Ali and Andrew are so supportive of the site and that brings a real boost to our efforts.
Litro: The contributions to each monthly image are always diverse. What has surprised you most about the submissions you receive?
Preti: What I love the most is when we get submissions that really take risks with form. There was the writer who began a series of ‘postcards home’ written in character; there are the writers who understand the power of humour in dark subject matter. Most of all I am surprised by how one image can spring so many styles and responses.
Kristen: I hope some day we can do a translation project with Visual Verse, where writers submit work in their native language and we work with translators to do an English version. There are not nearly enough texts translated into English and us readers are all the poorer for it.
Litro: The images are also very thought provoking – for example Sally Fear’s photo from Volume 1 Chapter 11. How do you select the monthly images? Do you have a favourite image?
Kristen: Sally Fear! Yes, what a wonderful photographer. I select the images by seeking out work that I think tells a story. I look for images that are rich in substance so writers can draw out their own stories
Preti: My favourite image is Marc Schlossman’s ‘Lines’ – it just is so beautiful, so epic. Andrew Motion wrote the lead piece for that chapter and Beatrice Garland nailed that image for me.
Litro: Submitters are given an hour to write their poems or stories. Why did you decide to have a time limit and in what way do you think having an image prompt helps with this?
Preti: An hour means there is no excuse for not having a go. Focusing the time unlocks a fierce concentration and that can have surprising results.
Kristen: The time limit forces people to write instinctively. From a visual literacy perspective, I’m always fascinated by what people see in an image in those first few minutes. Do they see the physical qualities like colour, shape, texture; do they see the story around the scene; or do they project something of themselves onto the image? There are so many ways to see and the time limit opens writers up to that.
Litro: Each month you kick off with a piece by an established writer, what do you think draws them to the one hour challenge?
Preti: We are so grateful to all of them for taking the hour to do it. They tend to be intrigued when I first send the request, and excited to complete the challenge! Sometimes we commission leads to coincide with a less well known or debut writer having a new book out, and I think they appreciate snippet of new work being published that introduces them to a wider audience.
Litro: Having writers submit on a regular basis is a good thing. Ben Sixsmith’s entries for example are always a good read.‘Said The Rock’ Did you expect such a committed response when you started Visual Verse?
Preti: One of the greatest pleasures for me with the site is seeing how our regular contributors have started a dialogue with each other. Some respond to an idea in another person’s work. There’s a group who critique each other on twitter. I don’t know if they write together, or if they’ve ever even met each other in person. But there is a conversation going on outside the site and that’s so wonderful. I do notice month by month when regular writers get more confident, get better. Two of my favourite regulars are Rishi Dastidar and Myrto Petsota – their takes on our image always surprise and delight me.
Litro: Which entries have stood out for you so far?
Kristen: I have many favourites but one that always comes straight to mind is the Milk Room by Chloe Stopa-Hunt I don’t know why I like it so much. Maybe because it’s striking and simple – just like the images I choose. Perhaps aesthetic taste and literary taste are not so far apart.
Preti: There are so many! Hedley Twiddle was one of our first commissions – I think he’s a wonderful writer. Kristen Kreider’s piece ‘4 Forms Cast in the Same Mold (?) & a Whiff of Tobacco’ has a controlled chaos in its rhythm that I envy. ‘The Lie of the Land’ by Maya Dawson. In every month there is a standout piece for me. We commissioned and published Vidyan Ravinthiran before he was nominated for the 2014 Forward Prize for best first collection; Declan Ryan before he was named a Faber New Poet – a lot of great up and coming writers find their first home with us and that feels good.
Litro: Finally, is there a story online which you have read recently which you would like to share with our readers?
Preti: I go online to read literature from outside the UK that is hard to find in print here. Sites I like are Words Without Borders and The Postcolonialist. I read a lot of Indian writing in English and in translation online – especially Sadaat Hassan Manto – one of the best of them is a story published in the Drawbridge Magazine: Her Body beyond Pain
If you would like to submit to Visual Verse the submission form can be found here.