Vertigo: Behind the Scenes

Ansel Wakamatsu


More often than not, tutorials are places where talent is hidden away. There are times when clear-eyed peers shine, but mostly, it feels like classes are paralysed by apathy, or insecurity, or attention-seeking loudmouthiness, or all three, emanating from different corners of the room. Underneath, cool ideas are probably forming; but in these spaces, there is just not enough oxygen for them.


I’ve always admired the professionalism of Vertigo, and their mission to consolidate the work of tenacious individuals with something to say. It is testament to young people and their ability to produce something good, something other than middling group discussions or essays which disappear into the ether upon Turnitin submission.  Feeling the solid weight of the magazine, I imagine a future where any contributor can slam a stack of Vertigos in front of a potential employer at a job interview and say, ‘get a load of that.’


At this point, I should mention I’ve never written anything for Vertigo, which hopefully puts me in a good position to compliment it without seeming like a self-serving shill. As an outsider, Vertigo has always been both inspiring and intimidating, not only because of the quality of work but the editorial wrangling necessary to bring such a publication together. I have always been interested in the inner workings of the magazine, because it seemed like an odd transitory space between student and professional work. Vertigo existed outside the obligation-driven creative environment of tutorials and workshops; but well-crafted labours of love has its own baggage as well. Surely, the editorial team must be thrust into a world of conflicting visions, surrounded by questions of hierarchy and control as they aim to build something together.


So a while back, I sat down with Vertigo editor Lily Cameron at Sydney Writers Festival to talk about the ins-and-outs of running a student publication. So enough from me; let’s take a peek behind the curtain of Vertigo HQ.


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I remember you talking about an egalitarian model of the editorial team, whereas in previous iterations it’s definitely been hierarchical. Why did you decide to not have roles attributed to each person?


Well, lots of us have had first-hand insight into the structure of previous teams and it seems to me that an editor-in-chief position is for the person with the most experience, the person with the most qualifications, or the best abilities to manage the team. But when you’re all on an even playing field, that person doesn’t really exist, and the tension that would have been brought up by deciding who that person would be — it wasn’t worth it for us. I think there are good and bad things about that. When we have conflict, it’s harder to resolve because we don’t have one person who can be the person saying ‘you do this, you do that’, but I think it was the right decision.


In the past there has been a editor-in-chief and a managing editor, and then a socio-cultural editor, a fiction editor, a politics editor etcetera. But we all like reading, we all like writing, we all are smart, we can have thoughts about each piece of writing so it was more important to us that everyone had eyes on everything and everyone’s opinion was of equal weight.


I was looking at the 2017 issues of Vertigo when Lou [Loung] and your partner Kim [Phan] were at the helm, and it struck me that there were a lot of really big differences. The 2017 issues were very literary — there were a lot of words on the page — whereas the 2019 issues feels very visually-oriented. What’s your perspective on that considering your creative writing background?


I’m really passionate about words, but we have two incredible designers on our team and in the past couple of years they’ve only had one. At the beginning of our tenure, we sat down together and brought a bunch of magazines we really liked, and the designers — Ady and Marissa — came in with a lot of purely design magazines. Those were really beautiful, and when they talked to us about their vision, it was to have words and design together as much as possible. They do a really cool job, they put a lot of effort into reading things and we talk about what the themes are and how it relates the overarching theme of the magazine, and about how they can bring that out through the visuals. We all wanted it to be really beautiful and be really accessible to a bunch of people. Certainly in 2017, it was very literary and that’s great for people who like to read, but people who aren’t as interested  in that might find it easier to engage with the magazine through the images.


So you’ve had this period to test the waters and make some adjustments — what do you see in Volumes 4, 5, and 6?


Going from Volume 1 to Volume 2 to Volume 3 — completely different experiences. Volume 1 we were scrambling, no one knew us yet, and we hadn’t made any connections with any writers yet, so it was like 70% commissioned. We didn’t accept a lot of cold submissions, because we didn’t get a lot of cold submissions. For fiction I think they were all commissioned. Volume 2 was completely different because we got a ridiculous amount of submissions.


What was the theme?


It was a coming of age theme; it was called Flux. I think that was a lot broader and it allowed people to explore different things that we didn’t necessarily think they would, so we got a ridiculous amount of cold submissions and it was really hard to go through all of them because they were all really high quality. It was really hard to decide what we wanted to include, so I think we included too much in the second issue. I think it was too big, just because we didn’t have the skills yet to discern what was our favourites. We really liked all of them so it was hard to draw a hard line. It was really hard on the designers because it was such a huge magazine with so much work.


For Volume 3, we had a cap and we decided that we would only allow certain number of pieces into the magazines. So then we worked really hard on the pieces that we did receive and the pieces that we commissioned and I think they are of a really, really high quality this time. So moving forward, we’ve created a grading sheet and implemented certain systems. It goes from me to another person to another person and the three of us have to agree, so it’s like blind marking, essentially. I think we’ve streamlined our process — it’s funny because I’ve spoken to previous editors like Lou and Jimmy, and they both told me ‘Volume 3 is the best one’. I think you just get your legs then, and it’s hard because it’s such a steep learning curve at the beginning.


What do you think UTS would be without Vertigo?


I think Vertigo is meant to be a voice for all students. so without that, university is just a corporate machine — not that it isn’t already. But without it, students don’t have a say in anything. I want to think it’s a really safe environment for people to send their things, I personally try to send constructive feedback to everybody who submits because it’s really scary to submit.


Why should students submit to Vertigo? What space does that give them?


I’ve learnt through doing creative writing and doing Vertigo that workshopping is the most helpful thing for any writer. You can’t expect your first draft to be the best version of what it can be. If we decide to include a submission, we will workshop it with them. If we decide to not include it, we will workshop it for one stage and then hopefully give them good feedback so they can go forth, edit more, and submit again. We really want to include different forms of writing as well, and I think people from different faculties can definitely provide that. We saw an example last night at the poetry reading of one of our really talented writers, Matilda, reading a blackout poem that she had made from birth control pamphlets. We had another piece of writing in Volume 2 from an engineering student that was about mental health in the engineering faculty. It was an incredible piece of writing that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.


When is Volume 3 out?

On May 28th. I think it’s the best one yet. We’ve come into our own, we’ve matured as a group, and our abilities have blossomed.

It’s about a compromises and sacrifices; it’s about giving and taking; it’s about moments of release; about inner and outer tension; about conceptions of the self. It’s really good!


Find Volume 3 on all good magazine stands around UTS.