Ugly Duckling Presse

Ugly Duckling Presse is a small, independent literary collective based in Brooklyn, headed by Matvei Yankelevich and Anna Moschovakis (along with about seven other permanent members). The press produces a small but substantial body of poetry books, chapbooks, and magazines (including the semi-regular poetry journal 6x6) most printed in part or in whole by letterpress. UDP also and sponsors readings and events throughout New York City. One of UDP's most prominent projects, the Eastern European Poets Series, publishes translations of modern and contemporary works from Russian, Slovenian, Polish, and other poets from across Eastern Europe. More information about UDP can be found at its website,

Can you explain a little bit about UDP: how it got started, what is your role in it, what do you see its role as in terms of contemporary writing/art, or in terms of the New York poetry “scene”?

Anna: I'll answer this one for Matvei because he's had to repeat the story so many times. UDP began with a xeroxed zine called “The Ugly Duckling,” which Matvei started in 1992 with his college girlfriend, Tristra Newyear, who came up with the name (there was an “Ugly Duckling” used-car rental joint around the corner from the campus). After graduating, Matvei continued to publish The Ugly Duckling despite a sequence of moves—to Moscow, New Haven, and finally New York. With each move he would find new collaborators to work with and new contributors to publish. The zine and its offshoots found their way into the public consciousness via a variety of alternative distribution techniques; sometimes it would get stuffed between the pages of free newspapers as a surprise centerfold. The Ugly Duckling grew into Ugly Duckling Presse when Matvei met a handful of artists, theater artists and writers in New York, and they all decided they wanted to start something together. Because they all shared an interest in the idea of the Book, they decided to make it a press, but since nobody wanted to limit their project to publishing, they decided to make it a pressE (the extra “e”—besides referring to K-Presse (Kafka Presse), a small German press that published Daniil Kharms in Russian in the 1970s—could stand in for “everything else.”) They named it for Matvei's zine in part to preserve the samizdat tradition that inspired The Ugly Duckling, even as they incorporated as a non-profit organization and began to become more “legitimate.”

On the one hand, UDP is part of a thriving culture of tiny-to-small presses that publish non-mainstream poetry. The connection between these presses is less about a common aesthetic than about a commitment to stay in control of the means of production and a refusal to accept conventional (profit-based, or recognition-based) assessments of success or failure. But most presses choose either to remain truly tiny (some of our favorite magazines, like New York-based swerve, and presses, like New Haven-based Phylum Press, are crystal-clear about their desire to remain wholly outside the marketplace) or to grow into more or less miniature versions of the large publishing houses (whether or not they are actually turning a profit). While our sympathies lie much more with the former than with the latter, we decided to try a third way—to jump through the official hoops that would provide greater visibility and a working structure for production and distribution, but to try to subvert the usual mechanisms by assessing value honestly and personally, not conventionally. For example, we publish several full-length books a year that look more or less like “normal” books, that sell in bookstores, that have ISBN numbers. But if you look at our catalogue, you will find that right next to one of those books is a hand-made magazine with a fuzzy cover, bound with a rubber band. The chapbooks sometimes also have ISBNs, even though there may only be 200 of them. We price our books much lower than most small presses, in part because we enjoy figuring out how to make things cheaply, preferring to donate labor and creativity rather than money. And since we know how little poetry is valued in our country, why not price things accordingly, to call attention to it?

We try to be both more than a press and less than a press—in many ways, UDP is an art project, a collaboration between about a dozen people who have been intimately involved with its inception and continued existence. Our role, then, is really just to exist and to try to continue existing, despite the difficulties that face anyone trying to make and distribute art free of commercial considerations. Since we are all volunteers, it is very easy for new people to become involved and feel like full participants. Whenever we start to get frustrated or feel like it's too much work, a new person walks in the door and says, “This is exactly what I want to be doing. I'm so glad I found you.”

A follow-up to that: do you think that one can talk about a poetry “scene” anymore, in New York or otherwise? Certainly, many of your efforts (and the efforts of others), such as New York Nights, reading series, etc., are aimed in part at developing a community of poets, writers, artists, etc. What do these terms mean to you, in America, in 2005?

Anna: There is certainly a thriving poetry scene in Downtown New York City. And another in Brooklyn, and another Uptown, and another that moves around from one university auditorium to the next. We do put on a fair number of events in New York (and elsewhere), but there's a way in which all of us are wary of the whole notion of “scenes,” poetic or otherwise. For some reason—partially, no doubt, because we publish translations—our readers live all over the world. If we are building or contributing to a community, we hope it's through the things we make and send out through the U.S. mail. And through the things that show up in our mailbox. It's become a cliché to say it, but the Internet has really altered the whole concept of an artistic scene—it will never be exactly like it was in the 1950s, when the New York School of poets and painters spent all their time hanging out smoking cigarettes and talking about art at the Cedar Tavern. (Was it ever really like that? Will we ever know?) Now, a lot of younger poets commune through blogs. None of us is a blogger, but we do rely heavily on our Web site and e-mail to get in touch with poets, translators, artists, zine-makers, and other publishers all over the world. One way to think of a scene is that set of people who have read the same book (or seen the same film, etc.). This might be one of the reasons that poetry readings and limited-edition chapbooks are experiencing a revival right now. There is so much poetry being written and published out there, it is very easy to become alienated from the whole endeavor. When 50 people gather to hear a poet read, or when a person buys one of 100 copies of a book, a community is formed simply by the shared experience. What we try to do is make that shared experience even more personal, by doing a lot of the physical production ourselves, and even small things like hand-writing rejection notes to poets instead of sending computer-generated form letters. Does this even come close to answering your question?

What would you say to people looking to get involved with already-existing communities of artists, or looking to create their own community?

Don't do things the way they are supposed to be done. Listen to all your craziest ideas, except when it comes to money. Try not to get into too much debt.

Why work with letterpress? Besides the fact that it looks cool, of course.

First of all, the letterpress is expedient: we can print whatever we want, in whatever color we want, without leaving our studio. Second, it's independent: we're in total control of what we're making, and nobody is going to tell us what we can or can't print. In Soviet-era Russia, the State took control over any printing press they could find. Luckily, it hasn't gotten that bad here, and though our e-mails may be monitored, we don't think our lead type is being traced. Third, it's historical: using a letterpress—even using one fairly sloppily, as we do—connects us to printers and writers back to 15th century Europe. When offset printing and then digital publishing became the industry standards, letterpress printing seemed like it was on its way to obsolescence. It makes a strange kind of sense that now, as a new web-based, paperless publishing model is finding its footing, there is a revival of interest in letterpressing. Just as anyone with an Internet connection can publish a blog, anyone with access to a letterpress can print a book. Funnily, the aesthetic trend in letterpress printing has completely changed since the early days. Printers used to try to make a very light impression on the page; to be able to feel the impression of the type on the paper was considered vulgar. Nowadays, printers seem to be in competition for who can make the deepest impression. There is a kind of fetishization going on that is somewhat disturbing. We aren't purists. We use whatever materials make sense for a particular project—letterpress and lead, or Macintosh and laser-toner; acid-free handmade paper, or recycled paper bags.

What kind of things do you look for in deciding what to publish?

That's a hard question. There are about 8 or 9 of us currently who make editorial decisions. Sometimes we try to come to a consensus, but other times one or two of us will get excited about a project and the rest of us will just give a gentle go-ahead without really being involved. There is certainly no one aesthetic principle that governs our editorial process. We tend to like things that are odd, that go against typical mainstream or “experimental” forms. And we are often drawn to “projects”—either collaborations between writers and artists, or works that seem to have come to their size, shape and format organically, without thinking about publishing norms. (We don't have any rules about page length, form, or anything else.) We are also extremely interested in publishing important work that is in danger of becoming, or remaining, obscure—translations; books or collections that have been out of print for so long they've been forgotten; work that no other U.S. publisher will take a risk on (like the multi-lingual poems of the 20th century Czech poet, Ivan Blatny).

What kinds of things do you abhor?

We aren't too fond of insincere poetry submitted by insincere people beneath insincere cover letters on fancy paper.

How did the Eastern European Poetry Series get started? Do you think there is a fundamental difference (or various, not fundamental but perhaps significant) differences between, say, American poetry and poetry from Eastern Europe? If so, what? What could American poetry learn from Eastern European poetry (in general) and vice versa?

Matvei: A Russian émigré poet, Ilya Bernstein, put together a book of poems a few years ago and we wanted to publish it, both because he was a friend of ours and because they were good and so very different from the “experimental” poetry scene that UDP was becoming associated with. But we didn't know how we would raise the money. I had also wanted to publish Vvedensky and Kharms, whom I translate, and we had published Russian poets from the Moscow Conceptualism movement—Prigov and Rubinstein—in our poetry magazine, 6x6. And there were other poets around, mostly Russian emigres, like Genya Turovskaya whom we published in 6x6, too. But there was no Eastern European Poets Series, nor even an idea of it back then.

The idea came when I was writing our first grant proposal. And it clicked: We wanted to do a bunch of these sorts of books anyway, so why not—I thought—make it a series. It worked. We got a small grant and we did Ilya's book. While we were working on that, Genya came to us with a chapbook that she wanted to publish and there was a show that would exhibit the book if we made it. So we did that as part of the series. We innaugurated the series with a very limited edition of Vvedensky's Gray Notebook—simply because I had recently finished the translation and I was involved in an event that featured translations of Vvedensky and Kharms and the whole Oberiu group of 1920s and 30s Leningrad. Then people started getting in touch about manuscripts. Phil Metres was first: out of the blue he sent me his Rubinstein translation and it was clear that it was the perfect match. We got in touch with Cris Mattison about doing a book of all of Prigov's “50 Drops Of Blood” which we had excerpted in 6x6. Then Joshua Beckman talked to me about the full manuscript of Tomaz Salamun's Poker—we had published a poem of Salamun's in Joshua's translation in 6x6, and Greg—one of our editors—is crazy about Salamun.

Then came Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (who we'd also had in 6x6). I had met and befriended him in Petersburg. His book, Chinese Sun, was declined by New Directions, and I promised him we'd do it—and we will, this spring. New projects are coming up, many of them proposed to us by colleagues and poets. Genya Turovskaya is now on board as Associate Editor of the series. Veronika Tuckerova, whom Anna and I met in graduate school, introduced us to Ivan Blatny's poems, and now she is the guest editor for a large “selected poems” of Blatny.

All these Eastern European projects just fell into place. And though the grant from New York State Council on the Arts is still coming in every year, the grant hardly covers publication costs for two books, so we are trying to find other sources of aid.

What interests me as far as émigré poetry goes is the bilingual aspect of writing English language poetry while feeding also off Eastern European languages and all those other traditions. Bernstein and Turovskaya are radically different. And both are very different from Eugene Ostashevsky, whom we will publish this spring. But their different approaches to English in many ways stem from their relationship to Russian poetry and the sound of that language. I like inter-linguistic poetry, or poetry that doesn't discuss the émigré's situation outright, but has that duality in the seed of its speech patterns.

I don't think there is a specific difference between Eastern European poetry (aside from some topical differences in subject matter) and American poetry, though Eastern European poets still write more often in classical forms than the Americans do. The difference is a lot like that with any other language—the particular musicality, the resonances, the cultural and literary references of the poetry of any language informs, or has the possibility of refreshing English literature.

You're both poets in your own rights. How are you influenced by the poetic community in which you are active? Is there a guiding idea to your writing of poetry, and if so, how has it changed over the years?

Anna: For a long time I wrote and didn't show my writing to anyone. I lived in New York for 5 years before going to a single poetry reading, and sometimes I find it odd that I'm now so comfortable within a certain segment of the poetic community: people ask me to read, I ask people to read, we all go to each other's readings, we publish each other, etc. Somehow, though, the sheer diversity of the work, even in the relatively narrow set of communities I'm familiar with, makes it difficult to assess any particular influence. I suppose the reading circuit has made me more comfortable with the idea of sharing work in progress, and as a result of that my work has become less polished than I once tried to make it, and more spontaneous. But I have also become increasingly interested in the sentence as a poetic unit, and particularly in sentences that take the form of questions and answers; that may also, come to think of it, be a result of having an audience in the form of a poetic community. And I've been unavoidably influenced by my parents, who are both mathematical logicians. This may sound old-fashioned, but for me writing is about the intersection of language and truth: sometimes it's a surface truth, sometimes a deep truth; sometimes a personal and sometimes a social or political truth. My parents are both Constructivist mathematicians, which as far as I understand it means they take mathematical objects to be constructions of the human mind (as opposed to the classical position that mathematical objects exist independently). But their agreement isn't complete; my mother's work is in Intuitionism, which could be described as an extreme Constructivist position. Of course, I'm not a mathematician and have only a very tenuous grasp of what all this means, but I suspect my interest in the truth-value of linguistic statements and the possibilities of subjective and objective truth may be genetic.

Matvei: I just finished a long poem, which I've worked on for over a year, which dealt with my fascination with certain predicaments, paradoxes, divergent histories, and open-ended questions raised or inherent in the historical European avant-garde tradition and its artistic and social ideas. In other words, it addresses Gustave Courbet, Duchamp, experimental poetry, abstract art, uturism, and utopian ideals in conflict with the political realities of the present. And so forth... I'm not sure what I'll turn to next. However, recently, I've also been enjoying more conceptual writing, like writing a lecture instead of a poem, which also includes poems in it. The lecture I've been working on a little directly addresses certain flaws I see in the poetry written in our New York poetry circles, including my own. Like Anna, and partly influenced by her, and by a long-standing and increasing interest in Laura Riding, I'm interested in truth, because I'm a little tired of word games or cleverness. I've always been more interested in writing in the margins than in creating very good poems. Professionally-minded poetry grates on me. I'm suspicious of my own inclinations to be an individual artist, so I find collaboration (like working at Ugly Duckling Presse) one way to get out of the old archetypes of artistic production.

You've also both translated works of other poets. Can you explain a little bit how you got started on these projects? What sort of things are you conscious of when you are translating someone else's work? And have these projects influenced the way you look at your own work?

Anna: I have been translating various French writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s for several years. The writer I have worked on the most intensively is Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer, political activist, and poet. Her work is very exciting to translate because it isn't really in a surrealist vein; at times it is shockingly contemporary, especially in its pronouncements about the intersections between private and public experience. She led an unconventional life and wrote unconventionally, too. But even though she'll move in a single work from poetry to prose to dialogue to aphorism, she has an unmistakable tone that withstands the formal shifts. Besides being a visual artist she was involved with printing—including political printing for the resistance during the War—and a lot of her writing is dependent on images and typography; I think she has definitely affected the way I “see” my writing on the page. She was also a prolific but sloppy writer, which makes translating her very intimate business (I get to recreate her failures as well as her successes). It also makes her a tough sell to publishers. Which makes her right up my alley.

Matvei: I've been very much influenced by Daniil Kharms, whom I've been translating since 1994 or so. And by Alexander Vvedensky. And I think, most recently, having spent a few years on and off translating Mayakovsky's Cloud in Pants, I think that poem exerted some influence over my attempt to write a long poem, though I didn't consciously follow Mayakovsky's lead. When I'm translating I like the unfamiliar English that comes out sometimes.

What's next for UDP?

Several chapbooks and first books of poetry, including some artist-poet collaborations; a series of mail-art postcards; a bunch of eastern European books (Eugene Ostashevsky, a Russian American writing in English; Mariana Marin, a Romanian poet who died rather young; Lidija Dimkovska, a Macedonian poet living in Slovenia; and Ivan Blatny, the aforementioned Czech writer), more issues of 6x6, a newspaper novel, and a few small edition artists books.