A conversation between Kyra Simone and Matvei Yankelevich from Ugly Duckling Presse and Susanne Christensen originally published as part of the online event Bastard Art Book Fair May 29 to 31, 2020
Hello there, Kyra Simone and Matvei Yankelevich from Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP) over there in Brooklyn, New York. We are gonna try and do a written text instead of the stage interview that was planned in Lillehammer in late May. I hope you are all well under these strange and unexpected circumstances. I'm Susanne Christensen, a Danish-Norwegian critic and nonfiction writer. Maybe you could start by introducing yourselves and your relations to Ugly Duckling Presse? We should be sitting on a small outdoors stage together with Karen Grønneberg from the artist book distributor Nordic Art Press (NAP), but she was not able to join in this new format so we're gonna delve a bit into the history of Ugly Duckling Presse.
I probably got to know about UDP around 2005 when you published Red Shifting by Aleksandr Skidan. Aleksandr was a guest at the Audiatur poetry festival in Bergen in 2007 and 2009, but I must admit that I have not been following you closely. Your Wikipedia page give away some mysterious clues: "A micropress, the company uses distribution methods not traditionally seen in publishing, such as subscriptions, and gathered its early audience with guerrilla marketing techniques." This makes you rather sound like the Sub Pop of American small press! Could you tell me more about this? And tell us about SPD? I know that Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, is a very important distribution channel and that they called out for help recently due to the pandemic. I really do hope they were saved for the time being, and will stay in business.
I am originally from Los Angeles, but have been living in New York for the past 10 years. In addition to my involvement with UDP, I’m also a fiction writer and work as an associate editor at Zone Books, an independent publisher of nonfiction books in the humanities. I came to the small press world with a background working in alternative education, specifically in a Steiner school, where, as you may know, a large focus is given to creativity, storytelling, and hands-on learning. Instead of using textbooks for example, we made our own. This mentality very much shaped my affinity for an organization like UDP and the small press community in Brooklyn, where experimental writing that might not otherwise have a venue is championed and "thinking outside the box” or having a sense of resourcefulness is vital. I’ve been involved with UDP in some capacity since 2014, beginning as a volunteer, as many people who find their way to us do, then eventually becoming a member of the editorial collective. As an editor I’ve worked on a variety of translations and artists books and have a special interest in surrealist and hybrid texts.
UDP is collectively run and like many small presses, relies heavily on volunteer labor and community outreach. We started out as a 1990s zine and have since evolved into a full fledged publisher with many bells and whistles, including an apprenticeship program, various reading series, a periodical, and quite a busy publishing schedule. As a publisher of translations, artists books, and performance texts, as well as both emerging and “forgotten” writers, we participate in many international book fairs, conferences, artist talks, etc. Our studio in Brooklyn doubles as an office as well as a letterpress print shop and we often use the space for educational workshops. SPD is indeed our distributor. They are an amazing organization, without whom so many wonderful small publishers would not be possible. As I imagine is the case for nonprofits and publishers across the world at the moment, SPD is struggling in the wake of the pandemic, but with continued support from the community will hopefully manage to stay afloat. Their GoFundMe campaign can be found here.
One aspect of UDP which continues to be fundamental now and in the past, is that for the most part, none of us have formal training in publishing or book arts. We are something of a ragtag crew of writers, artists, and designers, autodidacts in some way, who have come together through a shared commitment to writing that pushes boundaries and building community around lesser known voices, as well as a love for printed matter and the book as art object—imperfections and all. These days, you may chance upon our “Who Needs Poetry” slogan in a subway tunnel, bar bathroom, or on the wall of a catacomb somewhere in the world.
The press indeed started in a very ragtag way. Before moving to NYC in the late 1990s and meeting the people that would become the earliest form of an Ugly Duckling Presse collective, I had been making a zine in college, which I kept doing in my travels after college in different places, collaborating with new people to make each issue. It was called Ugly Duckling, and was usually an 8 or 16-page thing, photocopied, sometimes with hand-painted elements and odd bindings, like glittery ribbon, usually no more than a hundred copies.
When doing the zine, I wasn’t really aware of a larger small press community or experimental writing scene, but I was thinking about what kind of writing I liked and how it was hard to find. Word got around about the zine through exchanges with other zines and journals publishing unusual work—publications I stumbled on in different bookstores and would get in touch with—and so some people who published in those publications started to send me work, and it was no longer just my few friends in college assembling whatever they’d written or drawn, it started getting wider. It felt good to present the writing I liked to other people, to share this work—new work from people I’d meet or correspond with, old work I might copy out of a book, and translations I would do and add to the zine.
In my last year of college (1995) I did a book of my own poems and since I was doing the zine, I put this Ugly Duckling Presse name on it. Of course, there was no “Presse” with or without an extra “e” —something I took on a whim from the German spelling, because I liked a small press called Kafka Presse or K-Presse that had, in the 1970s, published the Russian texts (unavailable then in Russia) of Daniil Kharms, the early Soviet writer I was translating. I had no idea that the Presse would do any other publications; I thought at most I would publish another chapbook of my poems, or collect some writings I liked from old books and type them up on a manual typewriter and photocopy as a kind of “unpublished” underground anthology, just to give to friends. I had no idea the name would stick—that it would be used by our group of friends would become a publishing house, nor that it would consume my life as it has these last twenty years.
One thing perhaps of interest to our discussion is the differentiation we as a press make between “artists books” (which used to be called artists’ books, with an apostrophe) and “books by artists.” I think in the early days we made a lot more of what I’d be fine to call “artists books”—small editions, really produced by the artists themselves, even if we stamped or wrote Ugly Duckling Presse on them. Many of the art-related books we’ve published in more recent times are really more like “books by artists”—we work with an artist to determine the scope of the project and the look of the book, we design it and publish it. There’s sometimes a few hand-elements, some hand-added drawing or marking, and choices about the way the book works that point back to the artists book tradition – a sort of logic of how the book will be experienced, how it will convey information visually and sequentially through the layout and rhythmic structure, but in essence these are books published by a publisher and the print runs hover around a thousand, and some are even higher. However, with books that are going out into the “trade” through more-or-less conventional distribution channels, we’ve always tried to play with what a trade book can be, what it can look and feel like. Like some artists books, our “regular” books push the boundaries of what a book in a bookstore is expected to be. If the content is going to be different from mass-market books, then the look of it should tell you something about that difference, perhaps even nod toward the small press context in which it had been produced, and the history of this kind of publishing. We like the idea that people will touch this book, will have an experience with the material aspects of the text. This might slow you down, so you can experience the poems as they were meant to be read and seen. It’s not like the computer screen (though that too can be a kind of materiality, if played with). Like the artists book, a UDP book—even if it is mostly “text”—tries to engage you in an experience. It is not purely “information,” whatever that is—perhaps it’s a myth that there can be pure information to begin with, as if information is downloaded into your brain without a media to mediate that interaction.
Of course the structure of the organization has changed as it has grown. For the last eight years or so we have had, in various configurations, a part-time staff handling the administrative, publicity, and much of the production work of the press, though this has not reduced the need for, and reliance on, volunteer labor. All of the editors work on book projects on a volunteer basis. This means that each project at UDP is a labor of love, taken on by one or two or sometimes three editors who believe in the project enough to give freely of their time. Without the volunteer editorial collective we wouldn’t be able to work as closely as we do with authors and translators; moreover, we wouldn’t be able to read the hundreds of submissions, solicit manuscripts, and choose the books for our program. The collective is always changing, and also often engaged in re-assessing its own structures, We also continue to engage volunteers in our open-house-style “Presse Days” to help with binding chapbooks, assembling editions, adding hand-made elements to some of the books, and even printing or sorting metal type in the print shop. Volunteers frequently help staff our events and lend their help at book fairs. It’s a very large community, ever-evolving, that makes a press like UDP last, inevitably changing over time. I’d say that, though it’s often a contentious subject in the art world, this unpaid labor (what we do with our “free time”) is what makes possible a kind of publishing that would not otherwise exist, and therefore books are in the world that wouldn’t be there, and are—in the capitalist system—not really meant to be there: they aren’t there for profit or commerce, so the books themselves challenge marketplace values by their very existence. Without volunteer labor, these books would not mean what they mean. Of course, if we weren’t publishing this kind of book or this kind of content, perhaps there’d be no need for volunteerism. I think this is a really important aspect of small press publishing that is often swept under the rug, in part because it is unseemly to think about the lack of remuneration in an increasingly professionalized art and literary world which has to adapt to market-driven ideologies under neoliberalism.
Kyra, you mention "thinking outside the box” and it seems that often it is only in the smaller formats that you can really attend to all the details to make the whole publication into a personal expression as opposed to books that are mass produced. In that sense the chapbook and artist book circuits are probably a bit different from the alternative record labels that was part of punk rock, although they put emphasis on having their hands on the product all the way through to the final finished album. Alternative music, at least in the 80s and 90s, also wanted to cross over and did so with for instance Sub Pop (though by then Nirvana had moved on to Geffen. The reason for this obsession with Sub Pop is that the last culture event I attended before the COVID-19 pandemic was a talk by Bruce Pavitt from Sub Pop in Oslo in February at the music business seminar by:Larm. The small press also seem related to the eco farmer in that sense that it’s small sustainable hands-on production. Sub Pop started out as the fanzine Subterranean Pop by Pavitt, and in Oslo he explained that he thought about what is sub popular in that way that it is soon-to-be popular. They worked very cheekily with branding (he called it “sarcastic marketing”) and the sub pop did actually take over the world, for better or worse. I’m just wondering about the level of ambition, it’s not Sub Pop style world domination, but a more sustainable production, like a gourmet style of book consumption that is going on and the emphasis is on the pleasure of collaborating closely, and in that way fighting the alienation of mass production. I'm still wondering about the guerrilla marketing techniques, how did you get the word out about UDP in the early beginning?
As Torpedo Press says in the interview with NAP: “A major and challenging part of the work involved in publishing a book is the work that starts after publication.” This is definitely true for us at UDP, even though most of the books we publish are not “art books,” “artists books,” or “books by artists”—since we publish mostly literature, with a focus on poetry and “experimental” or “hybrid” prose works, in English and in translation into English. Distribution is one aspect of finding an audience. No doubt, Sub Pop and other indie labels had to forge their own distribution. They seem to have used the model of zine distribution—a subculture related intimately with punk scenes—to begin with. UDP’s modes of distribution are quite varied. There are different ways to reach the intended audience. The author’s circle is not hard to reach, and usually smaller poetry publishers rely on that close circle of the author, or their local community, for most of the sales of the book. But a publisher, in order to truly make the work public, and to serve the author and the honor the work itself must also try to find new audiences for the author. Of course this is not the mass audience that big publishing houses like Random House aims for. It is more like a probable audience, people with adjacent interests, people who might take a chance on something new. This new audience can be reached through reviews in the periodicals and online platforms that they read, through events in spaces/venues that overlap with their interests, through independent bookstores where they might be browsing, and so forth.
In the early days of UDP, since we didn’t have formal distribution and we weren’t making editions that would’ve been easy to distribute through commercial channels, we focused on what might be called experimental distribution. We hosted parties with music and performance and short readings from the poets we published in 6x6 magazine. Various circles of friends, various communities, would overlap at these parties. The $5 or whatever we charged at the door gave not only entry to the event but also a copy of the magazine, so we were sure to get the magazine into people’s hands right at the door. It seems people read the magazine because they already had a copy from the party anyway—they didn’t have to decide whether they wanted to buy a copy or not. Additionally, we went to local bookstores in person, or wrote to bookstores far away, and got the magazine into smaller independent stores, and sometimes the unusual shape and look of the magazine and the very cheap price meant that it would be face-out on a zine shelf, or at the counter. This would rarely happen with more commercially distributed magazines which would be shelved with the others, with their thicker spines out to display the titles. We did the same with some of the chapbooks. We also made free things like the Emergency Gazette, and we would put that in the free newspaper boxes for the Village Voice and other such publications around New York. We sometimes slipped them inside the local newspapers too, so that someone would have a surprise when they opened them. And we left free stacks of the Gazette in theaters and in bookstores, and sent them to a few theaters outside of NYC as well. The same goes for the free newspaper New York Nights.
These free publications may have gotten some people curious about our publishing house in general or our events—so, along with 6x6 magazine, the free broadsheets and newspapers helped to develop what might be called an audience for the press itself, people who began to follow what we were putting out. At the time, in the early 1990s and early 2000s it was just these periodicals and a handful of chapbooks. The first few books started coming out 2002-2003, and these barely had any distribution, other than the network of small bookstores we’d established through the earlier publications. I think it was only 2003 or 2004 that we were accepted by Small Press Distribution, which would make the books available to libraries, online sellers, and bookstores more widely. Slogans like "cheap for freaks" ran alongside the laughable price tags on our productions, when they weren't given away for free. Around the year 2000, you could buy a UDP chapbook (Julien Poirier's Flying over the Fence with Amadou Diallo) at St. Marks Book Shop for twenty-five cents, or 6x6 #1 for $2. In this respect, you could say we also had “sarcastic” publicity, like Sub Pop. You can see similar tactics going way back into the 1960s with Something Else Press, “America’s Quality Avant-Garde Publisher.”
The Anti-Readings (circa 2000-2003) were collaborative literary circuses organized by Loudmouth Collective (James Hoff and Ryan Haley, who later became UDP editors) with the participation of the UDP collective. The irony of poetry’s worth was perhaps best expressed by James Hoff's dollar-bill-poetry performance. James and others hand-stamped poems by his friends on dollar bills, taped them to a wall, and sold them for seventy-five cents—a profoundly social experience of the "negative economy" (to use Roof Books publisher James Sherry’s term) in a market-oriented society.
It was free to go into an Anti-Reading, and you usually came out with free stuff—we made free chapbooks and artists books and stacked them for people to take. I don’t think we ever sold books there. So it was not a guerilla publicity effort—it really was a Happening. There were participatory poetry games, exhibitions of one-of-a-kind and small edition artists books, and nevera a central event or a reading: we piled the usual chairs in the center of the venue, since there was no specific viewing direction. The audience were participants, and so were we. The UDP folks and the Loudmouth Collective all had a taste for decentralized activity, process over product, instigation of play, and an anarchic politics at the margins. We were antagonistic to the institutionalized art and poetry worlds with which we were only tangentially in contact. I’ve written before that the Anti-Readings were a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone (Hakim Bey’s term) in a quickly gentrifying city; it was a bohemian space of play where human connections promised no "access" to professional advancement, and nothing was for sale, except the dollar bill poems, which were sold at a loss, of course.
At that time, UDP was making a little money back on some of its books, which helped pay the rent or the printers, but members of the Presse often contributed out of pocket to pay for new book projects and to subsidize the rent. The grants we could get back then were quite small, often as low as $1,500 and rarely approaching $10,000. Strangely, though we are able to get larger sums, grant-support still make up about the same percent of our budget as back then. The art granting system in the US is geared toward the larger organizations in a way that’s quite deleterious to the culture. The bigger you are, the more money you get, and so small and scrappy initiatives that could actually do a lot more with a grant get stuck or frustrated or close quickly. I’ve written quite a bit about this and shown some numbers and charts in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.
I want to say that delving into the history of UDP or other small presses or art-related publishers isn’t the point in itself. It’s useful if you are looking to understand something about the present situation, or to ask questions about what could be a politics of small press publishing now. Susanne brings up eco farmers, and in the US some have made the analogy between small presses and boutique farming and such things, but often this is rather consumer-oriented, like the slow food movement, or other such things. Personally, I find a rather large difference here in that poetry and artists books aren’t really consumable—we don’t “need” it to survive, though as William Carlos Williams said “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The distribution of books is not solely local (nor should it be) in the way that a “responsible” food-distribution network would be. Poetry and artists books have very little to do with bourgeois “foodie” culture, in my experience. Poets often can’t afford the local produce; the system is so broken due to global labor inequity that the only garlic I can buy at my local supermarket is from China, and at the weekend open-air market, it’s three times the price, or more. Sadly, buying healthy, local food in the US is mostly for the well-healed. The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, a member organization we belong to, tried an annual event in Hudson, NY, which paired small local farmers and “craft” food people with small publishers and little magazines. The result was quite saddening: people bought fancy organic cocktail mixes and expensive ice cream and then walked around the book tables without much real interest, and rarely bought anything unless they felt guilty. I came away thinking that the rubric of the “local” as it’s understood for food culture was a demeaning way to think about publishing and literature in particular.
I’ll just chime in again a bit more in response to your thoughts about “thinking outside the box.” I’m sadly no authority on Sub Pop—despite my appreciation for it, it was a bit before my time! But I hear what you’re saying and can definitely see the correlation. I think you’re right about the “gourmet” quality of small presses. If we are not in it for the pleasure of collaboration and to create something together, I don’t know what we’re doing it for. No one becomes a writer or musician or artist of any kind, expecting an easy ride to a cool million, poets least of all—or if we do, we are quickly met with a rude awakening. In my case, as a writer involved in small press poetry, it’s been interesting to also have one foot in the fiction world, where at times, if one is lucky, there is perhaps a greater opportunity for books to actually “make money” or for authors to garner substantial “payment” for what they do though none of that is ever guaranteed or as straight forwardly beneficial to the author as it may appear. I have friends who have published books with major publishers, only to be devastated by things like having absolutely no say over what the covers of their books will be. I’ve known authors who have taken book projects away from major publishers to instead work with independent presses, where they knew they would get more individualized attention, despite much less financial gain, if any.
People often spend years working on a single book or project or album, and to not have some level of care put into bringing that creation into the world, can be heartbreaking. However, that is often the reality. The discrepancy between the mainstream and the underground or small/independent worlds feels massive. There are of course pluses and minuses to both of them. But it may be that the kind of artistry and handmade element you were perhaps describing may only be possible with something like a small press where sales are never the impetus, and everything is a labor of love. Some might say there is a certain preciousness to some of the objects we make, but by “precious” I don’t mean shiny or pristine or perfect. In many ways, we also try not to be too precious, to be spontaneous enough to make room for the beauty of messiness, immediacy, for things to be accessible to people and made without too much fuss, and to allow for rough edges.
As we know, most small presses don’t subscribe to the mass market, or rely on sales to stay afloat. They are in great part funded by grants and donations and sustained by people who are passionate enough about the work to be willing to make sacrifices to get it out there. All of that sets certain limitations, as far as things like reach and resources go, but it also allows for a certain freedom in production and creativity. Because we are small, we are able to make small things, things we strive to take the time to make beautiful in spite of commercial logic, and which can become very important to the few who really appreciate them. Many of the people working in small presses are poets or writers themselves, and this is perhaps also a reason there is a certain level of understanding around what it can mean for an author to have their work transformed from a manuscript into a book.
This isn’t to say that small presses operate within some kind of utopia, that there isn’t a lot of hard work and struggle involved or that UDP is unique in this dilemma. It’s a constant challenge and “thinking outside the box” is not just needed as an approach to the creative or editorial side of things, but also on an administrative level. The trials and minutiae of managing distribution, development, funding, publicity and so on is endless.The basic questions are continuously evolving and put before us. How can we make all of this possible? How can we afford to keep our lights on? How can we deal with the changing landscape of publishing? What is the box now? Are we part of it? I suppose what I meant most in using that phrase, is not to express a sentiment of being against any way of doing things, but rather to say that there isn’t ONE way of doing anything, and to be part of a small press is to know that one will have to proceed with a certain level of creativity, openness, and daring, however we manage to achieve whatever our goals are as a publisher.