A Feature by Sara Renee Marshall
By reinvigorating age-old models of art-making, Ugly Duckling Presse is, in a word, an intervention. With their unflagging commitment to collective energies, to new and less known writing and recuperation projects, to internationalism, and the artisan literary object, Ugly Duckling redefines received ideas of literary publishing. Like any sustainable endeavor, this press humbles itself to curiosity; in principle, their collective is less a business than an ongoing inquiry—one with a conscience. In a Brooklyn Rail interview, founding collective member Matvei Yankelevich describes Ugly Duckling’s approach in this way:
“It’s very important to us to keep interrogating how the actual process of making books works. How is it affected by the economy and the state budget? How can we put something out there that causes people to ask: ‘How do my books get to me?’ ‘Why these books?’ ‘How does one find books that are sustaining and not simply a commercial venture?’ And to keep the conversation more fluent about all the different ways books can be made and distributed and publicized.”
In an effort to document our moment in small press publishing, we’d like to celebrate UDP’s exemplary model by telling you more about their work.
Ugly Duckling Presse started—in embryonic form—in 1993 like so many DIY projects: with a couple of enterprising young people, Matvei Yankelevich and Tristra Newyear, and some outmoded office equipment. What was first a zine or “a couple toner-saturated sheets of legal paper folded in half” evolved into high print runs, features in local papers, and eventually, books and magazines made by a growing constellation of writers, artists, and bookmakers, including a contribution from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
By 1998, Ugly Duckling took up residence in Woodside, Queens. Continuing in an open-armed, collective tradition, the press continues to aggregate members to add to its growing skill sets and publications, among them in 2000, the first issue of 6 x 6 initiated by Greg Ford and Julien Poirier, a hand-bound magazine featuring 6 poets, each allotted 6 pages.
In an interview with Yankelevich in 2000, would-be UDP author James Hoff renders the collective’s aims, saying Ugly Duckling
“has recalled the Futurist and concrete poetry traditions and combined them with a spirit reflective of early zine and mimeograph pioneers to create literature that is both important and needed. From subversive postcard art to teabag-size magazines to zines printed on tree bark, Ugly Duckling has…served as a forum for the reinvestigation of our commonly held notions of the book.”
In a tragic apartment fire in 2002, Ugly Duckling lost a great deal of their back stock catalog and ephemera, but the press stridently persevered. In the coming years, the collective spread its wings in various letterpress and book art endeavors. Its Eastern European poet series inaugurated with The Gray Notebook by Alexander Vvedensky (a Russian poet who wrote in the 20s-30s), designed by poet and artist Anna Moschovakis, an important addition to the press’s creative and editorial collective.
The aughts wrought definitive progress for new Ugly Duckling projects. Among them the publication of Tomaz Salamun’s Poker in 2003, a series of handmade chapbooks, Jen Bervin’s Nets—erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets—in 2004, and the Lost Literature Series in 2006, which put out a single volume facsimile edition of Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci’s 0 to 9, among countless others. In 2009, they contributed a bulk of ephemera
and handmade items to the Bienecke Rare Books Library at Yale. UDP also began the EMERGENCY Playscript that year.
Ugly Duckling Presse now calls the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn their home. There, they’ve expanded and seemingly streamlined and steadied their processes.
Significantly, in its own telling of its history, Ugly Duckling Presse lists ad nauseum its fluctuating set of interns, volunteers, artists, letterpress operators, donors, and friends. This impulse is emblematic of their earnest dedication to collective momentum, to art, to less known work, and to a model spirit of volunteerism and friendship.
According to their feature in the New York Times Magazine blog, Ugly Duckling “produces lovely, cheeky books by authors you’ve probably never heard of but your grandchildren will likely read in college.” Yankelevich gives a fairer revision, saying the collective’s taste, if it can be reduced at all, springs from “many different lineages of the avant garde.” Those lineages manifest in an eclectic mix: a Modernist-rooted awareness of the object-status of language, like Arkadii Dragomoschenko’s Chinese Sun, polemics of “kaleidoscopic” thinking, as in Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry is not a Project, erasure, absurdism, surrealism, and so on.
Although the collective’s aesthetic resists nominal reduction, Ugly Duckling remains dedicated to beautiful bookmaking.
UDP runs a fairly big, and historically affordable, tiered subscription to their annual titles. This is one reimbursement source for them. In addition, UDP gets funding from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, a partner of the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Art Works, The Brooklyn Rail, Dandelion Wine, Schoolhouse Kitchen, Material for the Arts, Will Rahilly/Medium Okay, as well as a long list of private donors. This funding model, especially for projects that speak to community or cultural enrichment, is an important hint in how to run successful ongoing projects. In other words, they bother with the drudge work of city and state arts funding bureaucracies. Also, they accept donations online and at events. Tax-exempt donations are also part and parcel of higher tiers of subscription membership.
Lost Lit: an effort to reinvigorate or spotlight 20th century literature deserving a second wind.
Dossier: a series chosen by Anna Moschovakis that takes on a variety of forms—chapbooks, non-fiction, prose, and poetry.
EMERGENCY Playscripts: a play manuscript series.
Eastern European Poets: both Eastern European poets living abroad and émigrés to the U.S., some of which are in translation, others originally written in English. In both cases, the series aims to shed light on outstanding, less read poets.
6×6: handmade letterpress poetry magazine now released three times a year, open for submissions year-round.
Paperless Book Department: A 2010 project entitled Phone Books by Julien Poirier and Amy Fusselman resolved to transmit writing aloud via telephone. “Readers” were given appointments and the telephone number of the author in order to receive the book. Once they received it, they too became transmitters of the book.
In total, UDP annually publishes around 25 titles in various forms, including poetry, translation, experimental prose, and artist books, some of which are hand-bound, letterpress chapbooks. They print fairly typical print runs of full-length collections for a small press—500 to 1000—and about 450-600 for chapbooks.
In addition to the Eastern European Poet Series, UDP has taken on several other translations in their annual output. Of this, UDP author Eugene Ostashevky says, “Translation recently has become fashionable among young poets, and some of the credit must lie with UDP’s internationalism. I don’t just mean their Eastern European Poetry Series, but also translations from other languages.”
ADDITIONAL PUBLISHING CATEGORIES
Special Editions of books in their catalog
Ephemera (like handmade broadsides, postcards, and posters)
In their Brooklyn workshop, Ugly Duckling hosts a variety of readings and performances by those affiliated with their collective and beyond. Those events include readings, performance art, literary or intellectual panels, release parties, and workshops.
UDP partners with upwards of 30 small bookstores across the country, including our local jewel, Counterpath Press, in Denver. In a less traditional sense, they partner fiercely with their authors and artists as well, tirelessly promoting and advertising their many events, readings, reviews of their books, panel discussions, bookstore appearances, reading tours, and endeavors with other presses.
In their typical posture toward camaraderie, UDP also maintains alliances, and occasionally collaborates, with other New York local presses including Litmus, Belladonna, x-ing, and Futurepoem.
“Unlike larger presses or university presses, UDP is entirely non-commercial. Obviously they are not in it for the money—no one is. But they are also not in it for prizes or recognition: they have a devotion to literature and to experimentation; they are entirely uninterested in whether their author is a brand name poet or not. There are lots of things they might have done over the past decade to become much larger than they actually are, and to sell more books, but each of these things would have required compromising their focus on publishing experimental poetry. They did none of them.”
“I had the great good fortune to work with Michael Kasper in translating the Pomerand, and we are very grateful to Ugly Duckling for publishing it with loving care. Thank you so much for supporting this small press, which continues to help works like ours not only survive but flourish.”
In my own conversation with Matvei Yankelevich, a founding member of Ugly Duckling, he talked about his various involvements with Ugly Duckling—translation, editing, bookmaking, etc—as integral to the way he’s made a life for himself. This attitudinal stance toward work—work that exists at a remove from a profit economy—defines Ugly Duckling Presse’s commitment to bookmaking and literature.