A Poetics of the Press: An Interview with Ugly Duckling Presse

Kyle Schlesinger in Conversation with Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich

Ugly Duckling Presse is the publisher of the book you are holding, and hundreds of others. No two books are designed alike (aside from those that are part of a series), form following content, as we see in the works of The Jargon Society, Coracle, and so many other legendary small presses. All books are made in collaboration by UDP’s volunteer editorial collective. Its studio and printshop has been located in the Old American Can Factory in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York since 2007. A nonprofit organization, UDP fosters education in the art of printing, design, editing, translation, and literature from all over the world through events, publications, and public outreach.

Founded in 1993 as a zine before expanding to other genres and formats in 1995 and taking shape as a collective in the late 1990s, UDP focuses on younger and lesser-known authors and has revitalized works of the past swept into the dustbins of history. Because their books are not designed or printed by one individual or partners, which is common in small press publishing, nor constrained by industry standards, the aesthetic of UDP’s books are too eclectic to describe: there are few approaches to publishing that they have not explored, other than the most banal and conventional.

Though focused on poetry, UDP has published experimental nonfiction (see their Dossier series), performance texts and documentation, and books by artists. Their list includes Dodie Bellamy, Aase Berg, Jen Bervin, Anne Boyer, Simon Cutts, Constance de Jong, Mónica de la Torre, Christian Hawkey, Tatsumi Hijikata, Pablo Katchadjian, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Tammy Nguyen, Cecilia Vicuña, Lewis Warsh, Simone White, and hundreds of others, not to mention those who contributed to UDP’s magazine 6×6 (2000–2017).

Their 40-odd titles in the Eastern European Poets Series include Elena Fanailova, Mariana Marin, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, and Tomaž Šalamun. Their Lost Literature Series has brought back into print some noteworthy avant-garde projects (e.g. Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s magazine 0 to 9), overlooked US writers (Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laura Riding), and many 20th-century works appearing for the first time in English translation, including many from Latin America like Carlos Oquendo de Amat, Amanda Berenguer, Marosa di Giorgio, Alejandra Pizarnik, and so on.

I once had a dream that UDP partnered with the local farmers’ market, where people could pick up produce and books together. We are what we eat, and we are what we read. UDP’s emphasis on direct distribution is similar to the community-supported agriculture model, bringing readers the freshest, most organic books direct from the publisher to the reader.

I conducted this interview with two of the collective members at the Can Factory in 2008, just a few years after the press had expanded from its chapbook-and-zine endeavors into trade books and more ambitious editorial projects.

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Kyle Schlesinger: Are the qualities that make bad printing good the same as the qualities that make good printing bad?

Anna Moschovakis: I had a great film professor at Berkeley in 1989, just as domestic video cameras were becoming more popular, who said every bad movie is good.

Matvei Yankelevich: Are you asking if something like a smudge could be desirable?

KS: In other words, there’s nothing precious about UDP books. They’re quite beautiful, but I wouldn’t hesitate to read one on the subway—they’re portable, utilitarian, legible. The “beautiful book” is usually associated with the private press tradition, something very different from what I think you’re doing, and yet you’re making books that are very much aware of their bookishness.

AM: We are not interested in making those types of books, it’s true. It opens up the question of craft versus art. It seems to me as if the well-crafted object is often more important than the content in those “beautiful books”—as if the words simply served the form or the visual art. They seem to have been constructed from the idea of the beautiful object backward, where we, generally, begin by designing a book based on the text’s requirements.

Speaking as an amateur printer, I can appreciate the work that goes into a fine letterpress edition, so it’s sad to see so much time and energy go into producing a perfectly printed book where the writing seems to be an afterthought. I rarely see books where the writer, artist, and artisan seem to be engaged in an exciting conversation.

MY: That’s part of it, but for us it’s also about summation, expedience, economy of means, and the fact that we have very limited resources. The decision to use commercial, rather than handmade papers for example, is one part of our aesthetic, but that’s dictated by finances. That said, I don’t think that if we had a lot of money to throw at each book we would necessarily do anything different. Limitations have shaped our thinking from the very beginning, so we’ve become accustomed to doing things with whatever scraps of paper we can get. This was especially true in the beginning when we were going to paper companies that had discontinued items, trying to determine if there was enough to print an edition.

AM: That’s another way of designing backwards.

MY: But it’s a better way of putting the cart before the horse.

AM: Using found and available materials to nurture the design makes more sense to me than seeking out exotic materials—gold leaf and vellum, for example. The concept of value has always been important to us as a collective, because what we value and find valuable is inherently more diverse than that of the private press operated by an individual or couple. What we do is entirely informed by the thinking of all the people involved.

MY: When UDP started, most of us, Ellie Ga, Julien Poirier, Anna, were just getting interested in books and looking at very different things. Julien, for instance, was inspired by things from the 60s like the East Village Other—he found that acid newsprint really alluring. For me, it was Russian Futurist books printed on found, non-archival materials. What could be further from the livre d’artiste tradition? There was no distinction between an artists book and a book for the Futurists, and collaboration was almost a given—very rarely was it the work of one author, which is something that continues to influence me in terms of my thinking about UDP as a collective project. That doesn’t mean that I only want to make collaborative books, but in a sense, all books are.

AM: They’re all collaborative.

MY: Collaborative, yes, but not always collaborations, like painter and poet collaborations. We’re asked to speak at small press and artists book conferences from time to time, which is great, but I was once on an artists book panel at MoMA and felt really out of place.

We were also invited to Yale to speak about book arts at the Beinecke. The association is still sort of unclear to us, but people tend to think of our books as somehow fitting into the tradition of the democratic multiple, but our books aren’t really about being books—they’re a way to distribute poetry. The appearance of a book is important because it says something about the content, but the appearance isn’t the content.

That said, when it comes to distribution and editorial decisions, some of our ideas coincide with Fluxus, and the publishers and bookmakers that came out of that particular period. Many of the poetry books from endowed academic presses are expensive; they bore the hands and eyes because they don’t have the luxury of using discontinued or recycled paper. In that sense, the fact that our editions are relatively small essentially alleviates us from the problem of aesthetic homogeneity.

I rarely see books where the writer, artist, and artisan seem to be engaged in an exciting conversation.

AM: In other words, a sleight of hand.

MY: Exactly. What’s the difference between a book object and a fetish object? We’re starting to see that our affordable little books, like John Surowiecki’s Further Adventures of My Nose (2008), are being sold for ridiculous prices by rare book dealers. The book has some color plates that we tipped in by hand, but there’s nothing special about it in terms of materials.

AM: The guts were printed on our laser printer.

MY: And a pretty sloppy cover printed on our letterpress. It was bound by hand, so I can see why it could catch on as a rare book selling for 50 dollars, but it strikes me as ironic that they were originally only five dollars—and that was just a few years ago.

AM: James Hoff’s book was literally just a quick Kinko’s thing that we did about ten years ago and it is now selling for 25 to 35 dollars by rare book dealers on the internet.

KS: It isn’t uncommon—think of Semina or Zephyrus Image. These people were interested in making books that were strictly noncommercial, and now cost a pretty penny, at least in part, because of their fugitive nature.

MY: Yes, but what happens to a book when it becomes a fetish object?

KS: Well, that’s one of the reasons UDP’s Lost Literature Series is so compelling. For example, Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s 0-9 was an extremely scarce magazine until your facsimile appeared.

AM: That’s ironic, given that there’s only so much we can do to keep our own books in print. We publish about 30 books a year, and we do keep the paperback books in print for the most part, but keeping all of the chapbooks in print would be impossible.

MY: And there’s something important about allowing ephemera to remain ephemeral. Now that everything exists in an always-available digital condition, ephemera has come to mean something else.

AM: And many presses are using print-on-demand technologies to keep everything in print, so the edition doesn’t really exist to begin with—the book exists in a state of eternal youth.

MY: They’re thin, like chapbooks, but they’re perfect-bound with glossy covers, ISBN numbers, bar codes, etc. I don’t think that approach respects the idea of the chapbook at all. The wonderful thing about ephemera is that it’s made for a particular occasion, or it becomes an occasion. The artists and writers have a thing that they can trade or give away.

KS: So the ephemeral, handmade chapbook is always in danger of becoming a fetish object, while the clean, print-on-demand, commercially produced and distributed book faces different dangers?

AM: Fetish objects are funny because they get out of hand—but only because they are, to some degree, handmade. We have always tried to not just keep prices low, but to sometimes keep them ridiculously low. Because we wanted UDP to have a future, our books are now priced kind of normal. We had a joke in the beginning that the books should cost either one dollar or one million dollars, just to insist that the value of the literature, poetry, and translation that we publish isn’t really determined by market forces.

The fact that our editions are relatively small essentially alleviates us from the problem of aesthetic homogeneity.

MY: How can you put a price on a poem?

AM: What price could you put on it? The authors usually aren’t getting paid anything for their work, and most small press editions are produced at a loss. We’ve never done any calculations to determine our sustainability, which is stupid and willfully so, but I remember talking to somebody who really knew the business of publishing, about how you’re supposed to calculate your sales price based on the cost of goods sold and the percentage of this and that, and how you come up with your list price, etc. I was kind of dumbfounded because we just kind of ask: what do you think this book should cost?

MY: We should just sell by the pound from now on!

AM: We’ve made chapbooks entirely out of material that’s lying around where we literally haven’t paid a cent for anything and we’ll sell that for five dollars, then there will be another book that’s way over budget and that will sell for five dollars as well. I guess it kind of…

MY: It kind of evens out. We sometimes price them at 14 or 15 dollars, which I think is still a little cheaper than a lot of editions coming out. If someone orders directly from us, we can give a discount to make the price cheaper—ten dollars or so. A book should be affordable if you look in the right places. We under-price amazon.com because we don’t charge shipping and I think that’s good because we want to discourage people from thinking that amazon.com is the best place to shop.

Pricing is part of the value of these things, and value has been part of our experiment from the outset—an attempt to prove the lack of value that culture attaches to the kind of poetry that we publish. I like saying “poetry,” but I’m not talking about a genre, rather something to do with where it exists in the culture.

AM: Or just outside of mainstream culture.

MY: Right. I think poetry is sort of a nice term to identify something that is noncommercial. It is invaluable in a sense, and I find it ironic that nobody wants bookstores to shut down their poetry sections and so forth, and yet it’s the least profitable section. We went on the poetry bus with the Wave Books people, and stopped at McDonald’s where we were doing this very problematic thing where one of the poets would read a poem to some sort of “regular guy” and solicit a response.

AM: At a gas station on the highway.

MY: Of course everybody says, “Uh, I kinda don’t get that but I love poetry,” or “I liked that, I love poetry.” Everyone loves poetry because it’s supposed to be self-expressive, people admire the idea of its purity.

AM: It’s the human soul.

MY: Exactly. It’s priceless because people don’t want to buy it because it’s the deepest form of spiritual expression. It’s a strange conundrum. I wasn’t necessarily interested in poetry solely or primarily when starting this press though it has become more central as we went along because I met more poets and read more poetry, but in the beginning I thought we would do it sort of as an experiment in publishing noncommercial work, which means you have to fail in a commercial model first, but since we couldn’t do that we just keep failing at the same level!

I’m still trying to get back to your question. We obviously like aesthetically pleasing things, and we like the smudges and the imperfections and so forth, and that’s why we never trained as letterpress printers. We have these dumb questions that you answer for us sometimes, like the time you noticed that an important part of our printing press was missing!

AM: Pretty much everybody at the press is interested in doing everything, so none of us are specialists. There’s not one master printer and one master bookbinder and one master of publicity. I think everybody is fascinated with the organization of it all and we all have different amounts of time to donate at different periods in our lives. We’re all interested in the conceptual development of the press as much as the physical creation of the books, so we don’t have time to become really good printers or really good at anything. It’s fairly non-compartmentalized.

MY: It’s like being in a band where nobody really knows how to play their instruments.

AM: It’s a punk band where we switch instruments a lot too.

KS: But the books always look good.

MY: Always?

AM: I’m not so sure.

MY: We’ve just gotten good at hiding our mistakes.

AM: I think the overall effect is really more than the sum of its parts—if you took any one of our books and scrutinized it you’ll find a mess. Every one of them has at least one major flaw or typo.

MY: I think Anna meant “flaw” in terms of the conception of the design or the execution of the design.

The eclecticism of our editorial taste is reflected in the eclecticism of design.

AM: I could look at any one and say “I wish I had done this differently” but whenever we have the opportunity to bring them all out together at a book fair or something, that’s when people start to say, “You make beautiful books.” I hear that more often than, “Oh, this is a beautiful book.” So there’s something about nonconformity of the whole that’s beautiful, none of the books resemble one another.

MY: The eclecticism of our editorial taste is reflected in the eclecticism of design.

AM: It’s probably got something to do with the mind’s appreciation of variety, the variety of colors and textures. In turn, I love to look at series of books that have a really distinct design like Futurepoem Books or Melville House—but that uniformity is satisfying in a different way. Uniformity with variations in color creates a certain sense of happiness.

MY: Could we call it an Apollonian versus Dionysian aesthetic experience?

AM: We somehow decided to be odd and irregular.

KS: Is that why you named the press after the ugly duckling?

MY: I think the name came out of a zine that I edited. It had an ugly Dadaesque aesthetic. I saw a Dada exhibit recently and there was this one magazine that Ryan Haley and I loved. It’s just called “stupid” with an exclamation mark upside down or something. My zine was distributed by sticking it into other people’s publications or just giving it to people who looked like they would either be outraged by or enjoy the content.

Ellie Ga started working on the zine with me when we met in 1998. She helped me make a few of the last issues and brought in more visual complexity, but it was still interesting for me to make something so ugly that it looks really great. I guess that is one answer to your question, but it also raises the question of boundaries—Dada’s ugly, and then there’s ugly.

KS: So what’s the difference between ugly and ugly-ugly?

MY: Right.

KS: You said Dada is ugly, but you mean beautiful, right?

MY: Which one is which?

KS: That’s what I want to know.

MY: What does ugly-ugly mean?

AM: Print-on-demand books with horrible covers are ugly-ugly.

MY: Gross.

AM: Painful.

MY: Disgusting. But sometimes we would use the word “disgusting” to describe something that we like.

AM: Right.

MY: As if to say, “That’s so disgusting, it’s… ”

AM: “…it’s beautiful!”

MY: The cover Filip Marinovich drew for his Zero Readership I really loved because it was just this black and white thing where I asked him to draw a notebook and he just smudged it so much that it looks like it’s going to come off on your hands. I think he used Cray-Pas and I thought it was beautiful and kind of disgusting, that black smudginess that maybe otherwise, on its own, without this sort of placement in the book context, would not be anything remarkable.

Ugly Duckling is not committed to making ugly books, but we do want to make books that are different.

AM: We’re not making any statements about aesthetics—we’re really talking about nonconformity. We don’t make anything that we really think is ugly.

MY: Or ugly-ugly? There are a few things that some of the other people have made that I think are pretty ugly.

AM: Between ourselves, we may disagree. We want to make mistakes, even deliberate mistakes, in a useful way. If expedience was all that really mattered, we would make everything look identical.

MY: I think you were right when you said it’s actually a big cover-up.

AM: It’s a big cover-up.

MY: The eclecticism and oddness makes it easy to make mistakes that don’t look like mistakes.

AM: Happens all the time. But I should clarify and say that Ugly Duckling is not committed to making ugly books, but we do want to make books that are different. Isn’t that the supposed moral of the children’s story?

MY: The other moral of the story is that it doesn’t want to grow up, and that’s what we’re trying not to do too. Not that there’s been many conflicts within the collective, but it is difficult for any organization to sustain itself while avoiding the limitations that often come with maturity.

AM: When you’re in your twenties and early thirties you have one kind of energy and you can’t always sustain that forever, and that brings up the question of growth.

MY: In the late 90s I met a bunch of the people that started the press and they were interested in the idea of a “junior artist.” That infantile, unprofessional approach to the books was there from the very beginning, and it seemed it would be fine to try to continue being junior artists or Ugly Ducklings or whatever prevailing metaphor worked in order to keep ourselves from becoming stagnant. I think that has to do with the question you asked, at least about the difference between fine printing and what we’re doing.

AM: If we get the idea to do something new, we have to feel like we can just do it, and if we don’t do it perfectly it’s okay, we can still put the book out.

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a poetics of the press

Excerpted from A Poetics of the Press. Used with the permission of the publisher, Cuneiform Press & Ugly Duckling Presse. Copyright © 2021 by Kyle Schlesinger, Anna Moschovakis & Matvei Yankelevich.

Kyle Schlesinger
Kyle Schlesinger
Kyle Schlesinger is a poet, printer, and professor. He is the author of A New Kind of CountryVast Acid West (with Crane Giamo), Swish Void (with Grant Cross), Sydney Omarr’s Wild Children (with Flynn Maria Bergann), Keep the Change (with Deborah Poe), Parts of SpeechCommonplace, and other books. Scholarly works include Threads Talks (with Steve Clay) and Poems & Pictures. He is the proprietor of Cuneiform Press and Director of the Graduate Publishing Program at UHV.





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