Visual Verse is a new online anthology of art and words. Each month, we post a striking image by a contemporary artist, and writers of all stripes respond. The only proviso is that you have to write between 50-500 words, and it must be done within the space of an hour.
The project began life in Berlin when Kristen Harrison, who runs the London and Berlin based publishing company, The Curved House, and Preti Taneja, a Cambridge based writer and editor got talking about how really looking at the world was one of the most important things that makes writing fresh. As well as being a publisher, Kristen also runs web surgeries for authors via the Society of Authors, and Preti teaches creative writing, postcolonial literature and literary criticism at Cambridge University and Royal Holloway in London. Both of them wanted to create something beautiful, immediate and inspiring that would encourage looking and writing, help with creative blocks, inspire access to ideas and lead to new opportunities. Designed by the wonderful Mr Pete Lewis, who has worked for high profile clients including Nokia, Orange and BBC Blast, Visual Verse was born.
The site’s patrons are Andrew Motion, Ali Smith and Bernadine Evaristo, and artists Mark Gary and Marc Schlossman. Each month we commission a lead and three or four support pieces that are published before the site goes live for the public. Andrew Motion wrote our launch feature – and for this month we are thrilled to have a piece by Booker prize nominated writer Adam Foulds whose new book, In the Woolf’s Mouth, was recently published by Jonathan Cape.
His striking piece is a thought experiment in response to our stark April image, by photographer Marcus Bastel. It reads as a poetic panic – someone frantically, yet lyrically trying to think up excuses for not doing a horrific deed. The serenity of the picture contrasts with the urgency of the piece, and the two together set the tone for the month. When Preti commissions supporting pieces, she looks for writers with different styles, who come from various writing backgrounds, journalism to biography, poetry and fiction – trying to support new talent and raise profiles of writers whose work should be reaching a wider audience.
The most important part of the site though comes through submissions. These are what make Visual Verse so exciting. Because the site is publicised through twitter and facebook, pieces come from writers all over the world. Some are published, some have never been; all of them make our day with their commitment. Groups of friends have begun to write together; it’s a perfect exercise for a writing class or workshop. On twitter we have almost 600 followers including agents, publishers, writers, literary magazines – all people who love writing and the freedom the site offers. March was our most successful month to date – lead by Comma Press short story writer Adam Marek with a beautiful line drawing by New York Times illustrator Denise Nestor, we received 80 submission in the month. On twitter, writers read and compliment each others’ work and the artists themselves are fascinated by the responses their images provoke.
They even get inspired by the writing to do new projects. Mark Gary wants to use the December pieces written in response to his sculpted paper flowers in a new music piece he is currently developing. Next month, Berlin based literary magazine SAND has selected four poems from chapter four of Visual Verse, the February issue, for publication in the journal. Two are by writers we commissioned, and two are by writers who submitted their work through the Visual Verse website. We are thrilled to be collaborating with SAND to bring their work to new readers.
We have lots of plans for the site. Audio – for spoken word poetry, perhaps? We are always looking to publish new writing that takes risks, that really looks at the pictures and finds fresh ways to express them. Visual Verse comes with a warning though – writers who submit get hooked – some even describe it as a monthly fix! We welcome writers at all stages – just set aside the time and let the picture into your process. The image is the starting point, the text is up to you.