Interview: Ugly Duckling Presse
Ugly Duckling Presse, like every good independent publishers, have their own creation myth. Starting out in 1993 as a cut-and-paste ‘zine the press has since grown into a fully oiled up cultural printing machine. They delve into the fringes of the written word to find the most innovative and interesting poetry, works in translation, essays and lost literature. Then they hand print and bind each limited edition and send each creation out into the world.
Not So Popular's Jade French was lucky enough to navigate New York’s subway system and locate the warehouse where UDP are situated. The smell of fresh books was pretty intoxicating and the whirr of the printing press echoed in the background but we managed to get editor Abraham Adams to take some time to talk to us…
How hard is it to be an editor?
I think the task itself of editing text is challenging and unlimited, I think it comes naturally to me personally and that the rest of being a publisher does not. Editorship has the same problems as curation in general. The decision to give an institutional platform to a piece of art predisposes observers to particular ways of reading and determines the depth of looking they project. Readers invest literature with a divinity some do the bible in particular. Tradition and reputation (and editors) exist to tell them how much and in what ways. Think about the place of major modernists in the imagination. How were these figures constructed? Diamonds are also useless and widely available, it requires an economy of controlled distribution to give them value. So, how hard is this, how good a job are we doing—I’m just saying what I think we are implicated in. I don’t need to say that the integration of art-making with the economy at large (contests, reviews, shows, academic appointments) tends to nullify art’s traditional companionship with radical politics as well as its own radical desires. It is ironic that it was someone so rich as Pound who wrote, “the dirtiest book in the language is a quite astute manual telling people how to make money by writing.” (Incidentally, I once applied for a job working for the author of a book called The Practical Writer: From Inspiration to Publication). But actual money is beside the point. “Respect is what is sold at every gossip session.” I. Bachmann. Art worlds are formalizations of the kind of arbitrary power exchange gossip represents. You’d like to think people talk about this all the time, but they actually just shit-talk the justice of different curatorial decisions. This is a mechanism of faith. In truth, people have a sacramental credulity about the economy of artistic respect. I have a friend who has a heart tattooed on her arm that reads, “¿Hugo Chávez?” (i.e., will he be a revolutionary unifier, some kind of traditional dictator, etc.). My love letter says, Ugly Duckling Presse?
I noticed that the editorial roles are defined as a ‘collective’ – do you work with a sense of collaboration when you edit?
There’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Arthur tells a peasant he is her king, and she replies, “I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.” Who was it who said that writing may be the only possible place in which to enact utopian politics…
It’s interesting that my friends in Philadelphia who run the gallery Bodega specifically write that they are “not a collective.” The idea has passed from popular currency without fully articulating the reason: we are professionally serious, we can’t have unqualified power sharing if we’re the ones who qualify artistic power. One of our directors often says that we are “not a democracy,” and it’s true that we have more formal and informal hierarchy than formalized collective process. The advantage of the word is I can speak without pretending anyone agrees with me.
Do you actively discover works to publish or do you mainly work from submissions?
You’re actively doing something whether you are researching poets you don’t know or simply publishing your friends and what shows up in the mail. I haven’t done anything especially radical in this regard, but I will say that curation on the basis of curators’ confidence in their network and expertise alone only perpetuates the makeup of that group and culture, and that most independent publishers are white, and most cultural organizations are born in confluences of trust funds. To volunteer oneself as the solution isn’t possible from such a vantage; I am reminded of something Steve Biko wrote, about race in particular: “the totality of the white power structure: the fact that though whites are our problem, it is still other whites who want to tell us how to deal with that problem.” I thought of this at the East New York OWS march I witnessed, which was intended to be led by a certain group of black politicians but had a single white “veteran protestor” guy walking backwards in front of them, calling chants. Ugly Duckling has a similar record to most other independent and mainstream publishers: 87% of the books reviewed by the New York Times last year were by white authors. Whatever you might say about how that reflects the (racism of the) publishing world, the Times was under no obligation to passively reproduce it in its reporting demographics. I went to a lecture by Dan Graham at MoMA a few months ago, at the end of which an audience member pointed out that there were only men among the many artists he had referred to. My own intellectual imagination is distinctly dominated by male writers. Look at your inevitable book collection and consider what background you appear to concern yourself most with. Engage those colleagues of yours possessing even less that this rudimentary self-examination and you will end up finding yourself giving a place for serious concealed bigotry to justify itself through reasonable argument. “Passively” failing to observe the demographics of your intellect (and those you support by writing about and publishing) is part of the active practice of white supremacist class warfare.
Do you think there is a pervading sense that print media is ‘dying out’ to be replaced with online publications? How important is it that this is not the case? Do you feel like you are working against this attitude?
That idea only pervades hypothetical conversations about publishing. More printed books are produced each year than the year before (a 2010 quotation of the director of Harvard’s library), but if they did somehow die out, I would continue reading the old ones in my hand and the new ones on a screen. As for how important it is, I don’t know. There is an inherent tension in the interaction between the hand and the codex. For example, when holding a book with my right hand, I’ve never quite known how to comfortably stabilize the left-hand pages with my pinky. It seems to be a technology with physical awkwardness built in. Flat devices aren’t. The answer has something to do with that.
How important is the physicality of making and binding each publication?
It is good to recognize and give dignified physical form to good creations and make the act of reading them enjoyable. UDP is usually not too rarified in this regard, and I am glad. “Book lovers,” those to whom a book seems such a familiar object as to merit declarations of love, who are these people? Love for books, the love for certain books, is a byproduct of commitment to reality, or if it’s not possible to say that, then the possibility of contact with reality, which is spontaneously available to everybody. Literature is not a discipline toward reality, in the sense of Iris Murdoch when she wrote (using the example of learning Russian), “my work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me.” It does not create a class of more distinctly real people. Literary culture is a culture in which expertise replaces the truth. I’m sure experts would disagree with this. Bataille said literature is “either the essential or nothing,” and I wish everyone would abandon their literary paraphernalia, physical, emotional, professional. What is conceived of as the basis of literariness among contemporary adults is just literacy.
How does a submission catch your eye? How do you see poetry evolving?
I’d like to share something Frank Stella said about abstract expressionist painters:
It has a figure in the middle composed of large black textured strokes, in the form of an H or numeral II; next to a region of overlapped (perhaps overwrought) lines echoing the constituent strokes of this shape, in the upper left-hand corner there is a tight, textureless reiteration resembling the letterform, as if to reduce the figure to a representational abstraction (an initial) of the painting itself. It appears to be positioned in the empty corner as a self-reflexive mark of the excessiveness of the canvas to the gesture.
My friend Ariela Kuh pointed out that such a formal preoccupation with corners is an amusingly myopic stand-in for a lack of imagination and real historical liberation, but it also seems to be an organic consequence of prefabricated temporal parameters. Poems are too long. This may have nothing to do with the literal length of a given poem (which would imply a true beginning and ending, and the heavily inflected posture of beginning and ending is a poetic pretense I think people can now recognize as bullshit). What I mean is, a typical poem reads to me as a narrative of an attempt to manage a poetic gesture; the material of this narrative temporalizes the poem in the same manner as a canvas.
For poetry, Wallace Stevens codified what this canvas should be when he said “the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully”: an image of sense. His statement is in the same lineage as the Yeats line about composition, “if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught,” but it carries the obligation to ‘seem thought’ through the turn toward difficult language. That this is what is annoying and problematic about modernist poetry is intuitive. What would it mean for difficult language to reach the vanishing point of resisting the intellect completely?
I suspect it is what Marianne Moore disparagingly referred to as “dragged into conscious oddity by half-poets.” This other legacy is the possibility of a poetry whose medium is sense itself, the sensual dynamics of conflict in sense. I think of this as the specific nature of poetry, though I realize not all writing that takes poetry’s traditional typographic form thinks of itself this way. It is funny that it was accidental and with such vitriol that Pound anticipated contemporary essay writing, when he said you can’t “shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.” Ugly Duckling is an advocate of such hybrids.