PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.
Ugly Duckling Presse is a publishing collective and nonprofit small press that has been producing groundbreaking poetry, performance texts, and experimental translations from their Brooklyn, NY base since 2000. We talked to editor Daniel Owen about the collective’s 2020 Pamphlet Series, featuring twenty essays on translation, performance, pedagogy, poetics, and publishing traditions. Today’s spotlight is on Don Mee Choi’s fascinating essay Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode, released in March 2020, in which the Korean-American poet and translator explores language in the context of US imperialism.
How would you describe the ethos of Ugly Duckling Presse?
UDP is in principle, in aspiration — and in practice, in many cases — a collective, although what that collectivity means exactly has different ways of being interpreted. The answer to the question of what exactly our ethos is has long been the subject of debate, partly because of the difficulty of coming to consensus in a written way. For me, I think our ethos is based in a process of working and a certain way of making things, coming out of being totally and utterly DIY, to becoming more professional in [our] way of working. A way of working together, doing things (at times perhaps anachronistically) by hand, developing relationships with authors and readers, being an advocate for non-commercial small press publishing in the US and for literature that doesn’t fit neatly into the market-oriented confines of the US book industry.
As far as our programming goes, our ethos is pretty clear: to publish and promote writing in translation, poetry, books by artists, performance texts, experimental takes on fiction and nonfiction forms. We’re particularly interested in international authors, emerging poets, and, in our Lost Literature series, “forgotten” works from prior eras, that have either been long out of print or never before published in English translation. Inviting these potentially disparate works into dialogue with one another — for example, putting Laura Riding’s unclassifiable 1930s prose writings together with Urayoán Noel’s translations of contemporary Garifuna poet Wingston González together with the Russian conceptualism of Andrei Monastyrski, as translated by Yelena Kalinsky and Brian Droitour. This kind of joining together and the possibilities it engenders for readers, writers, and literary discourse writ large is, for me at least, an important part of our ethos.
Is it an entirely volunteer-based collective?
The editing and design work, and myriad other pieces of what we do, is volunteer-based. The first staff member we had at all was in 2009 and they were not part of the collective [but rather] the paid manager of this sort of unwieldy collective. That staff position evolved into what we have now — a working collective. The working collective includes four members of our 11-member collective who comprise our staff and do the administrative work and management. They each get paid the same amount per hour — it’s a worker co-op kind of idea — and handle all of the running of the business side of things. Although the editorial work, curation, a lot of events (organizing, hosting, etc.), and myriad and sundry other things are outside of that purview.
How did Ugly Duckling Presse originate?
UDP started as a zine in the nineties by Matvei Yankelevich and some friends of his at college at [Wesleyan University in Connecticut]. From there, he moved to New York and met a bunch of different people, and there became this community of writers and artists and performers who were into making their own books and performances. That group of people basically started the collective of UDP which is the antecedent to what it is now. They were making mostly weird books for each other and friends, and then some more traditional poetry type of stuff. Performance was also a big part of the early UDP activity and it was all very DIY at that point. That’s when 6×6 Magazine, which was in some ways our flagship publication until it ended 2016, was started.
From there, the interest became more into publishing poetry books and books that we wanted to put on shelves for people to read. That happened around 2002-2003 which was both the time UDP made its first full-length paperback books with ISBNs and all and also when UDP incorporated as a nonprofit. Those things went hand in hand as far as a way of becoming an operation that could apply for grant funding or do a fundraiser in order to make, distribute, and publicize mostly poetry books, but also performance texts and artists’ books, things that don’t neatly fit into a genre category, and a lot of writing in translation. Some of the earliest books we published were in translation. We just started publishing more and more books until we got to a point that we’re doing about twenty-four titles a year, and we’re still around that, although now our goal is actually to scale back a little.
We also want to help develop the means for people to make their own small presses because part of our ethos includes this advocacy for small press and the idea that UDP is only one small press and we can only feasibly do a few things. There should be a totally rich, diverse field of small presses in an ideal literary landscape, that are not beholden to commercial interests, to profit. And so we are working to do what we can towards those ends.
Why are you trying to scale back?
Too much volunteer-labour and it’s a huge burden on our staff. We’re also moving toward focusing more on education and providing access to small press publishing practices and traditions that we identify with, and so are spending more time and energy on educational programming. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of seminars because we can host them online. Most of them have been pay what you will and there are only [a dozen] spots, so they fill up really quickly. We also want to help develop the means for people to make their own small presses because part of our ethos [includes] this advocacy for small press and the idea that UDP is only one small press and we can only feasibly do a few things. There should be a totally rich, diverse field of small presses in an ideal literary landscape, that are not beholden to commercial interests, to profit. And so we are working to do what we can towards those ends.
How do all of you eleven members of the UDP collective know each other?
Matvei Yankelevich and Yelena Gluzman, are the only two original founding members of the collective who are still around, and Anna Moschovakis, who came in a little bit later. I started with UDP in 2012, around the same time as a few others who have since become collective members, namely Michael Newton and Rebekah Smith. We came in as interns or volunteers and we wanted to keep working on it and to make books and work together in this way. We started working on various aspects of administration and making things and were invited into the collective in a more formalized way. Since then, Kyra Simone, Chuck Kuan, Silvina López Medin, Lee Norton, and Sarah Lawson have joined the collective after doing internships and/or apprenticeships. So at this point, most of us know each other because we were attracted to work on this thing together and have gotten to know each other and deepened our friendships and collaborations from there.
Are all the UDP publications made at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, New York City?
At the Old American Can Factory we have an administrative office with computers and stuff and then there’s a print shop. We have a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress — we’ve had all kinds of letterpress machines over the years, we even have a Risograph now. We do mainly covers or elements of some of the covers in-house, and we do letterpress broadsides and prints and tote bags, all done in-house. Almost all of the design is done in-house but almost all of our books are printed at McNaughton & Gunn which is an offset printing business in Michigan, and we also print some covers at Prestige Printing in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
As a nonprofit, where does the majority of your funding come from?
60% or so of our funding comes from book sales. The rest of it is a mixture of public funding and private donations, both from foundations and individual donors. Until very recently, we haven’t had much private foundation support. We’re a poet/artist-run operation so our connections largely don’t include philanthropists. We have historically gotten state and federal funding and they are an enormous help for our survival. Recently, we’ve been very fortunate to receive funding for our apprenticeship. That’s been awesome and, hopefully, there will be more things like that in the future, which is largely the result of the amazing work of our development manager, Lee Norton, and the apprentices themselves.
What about subscription models?
The subscription is very helpful, it’s a significant part of it. I really love that it presents a different sort of relationship with the reader for the press as a whole. That’s really exciting. Someone who’s interested in Russian avant-garde poetry who subscribes is also going to get all this contemporary US poetry and translations from Latin America or Japan, and a whole variety of different kinds of things. To expose people to things outside of what they think they’re interested in or what they consider their wheelhouse is a really exciting possibility for the subscription. Also, having a real, direct relationship with those who both support us financially and are also our dedicated readers. That kind of direct relationship is really important to us and I think it’s part of our ethos, too.
How did the 2020 Pamphlet Series start?
The pamphlet series started as a far-fetched idea several years ago when 2020 still seemed a long way away. I was personally feeling that we couldn’t stop this perpetual motion of progress as a publisher and cranking out these poetry books, and we wanted to do something that had room for more spontaneity but also was reflective of what we had been doing and why, and would reflect back on where things are at in larger contexts of cultural production. Also, [it was] kind of a way of re-establishing our own excitement for what we were doing, at least for me. Not that it had waned that much but, in a way, the pamphlet series has helped to short circuit this kind of thinking that was becoming too automatic, too rote, about what we do and how and why we do it.
The idea was also that we would invite writers and artists of various kinds whose works we were interested in: most of them were people who we hadn’t worked with before but admired or were inspired by in different ways or felt an affinity with but hadn’t worked with, and a few others who we thought would be good for this based on projects we were were aware of them already working on. The essay [form] is a way to present a more discursive kind of writing about what people are thinking about and doing.
More specifically, why was it important for you to put Don Mee Choi’s pamphlet, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode, out?
I’d known Don Mee for a little while and I’d admired her for a long time. I became aware of this particular piece of writing, which was originally written as the keynote address at the ALTA conference in 2016 which I wasn’t at. But I received a copy of a PDF that I think someone who was teaching translation sent me when I was trying to read more translation theory. And it struck me as being something really perfect for this series, particularly in its attitude and approach toward thinking about and practicing translation.
What makes this piece of writing particularly interesting to me is that it brings up a number of very profound and sharp ways of thinking about translation in the context of US imperialism, in the sense that almost all language, both as a “source language” and in its translation into English is enmeshed in US neocolonial coercion.
I kept wanting to edit this at the time for the argument she was making to develop in a more typically US kind of way, actually. I was focused on the idea that we have to develop these arguments in the way that you learn to develop arguments in a US university setting. I was totally guilty of doing that when editing this piece but then Don Mee said no, I don’t want to do that, I think we’re just gonna leave some of those things “untied together”. I was like, OK, cool. Reading it now, it’s like, of course — how could I not see this before? Its rhetorical mode is deeply involved with the argument that it’s making. It’s making this argument in ways that are not succumbing to the homogenization of neocolonial US monoculture, but rather opening up vital and necessary spaces of possibility in the English essay form.
That was part of the point of the essays series as a whole, too: to have really different ways of approaching the essay form, different points of view. This essay, of course, focuses on Don Mee’s experiences as a South Korean immigrant to the US translating contemporary feminist Korean poetry into English — she’s particularly known for her translations of Kim Hyesoon (the ones in the US have mostly been published by Action Books, along with The Autobiography of Death, which was published in 2018 by New Directions) — though it moves through a variety of considerations.
It starts by taking Walter Benjamin’s notion of “Translation as a mode” and “deforming it” in a sense — which is the phrasing that Don Mee uses, adopted from Joyelle McSweeney’s writing on “the deformation zone,” [when] questioning and problematizing the idea of “the faithful translation.” In the essay, Don Mee also thinks a lot about metaphors for translation in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Silence and addresses the immense violence of US global military domination, both abroad and within the US, which is important to keep in mind during these conversations as it participates in structuring, well, basically everything.
Several of the translation texts that Don Mee references were originally published by UDP. Being involved with experimental translation, discourse around experimental translation, and questioning the commonplaces and inherited orthodoxy of translation theory is a great passion of several of us at UDP and has become a significant part of what we do.
What’s next in the UDP pamphlets?
I can tell you about [one] which I am editing: The End by Aditi Machato, who is a poet and translator and educator and critic. This essay in particular is sort of analyzing and taking issue with the last lines of poems [and] also has this political dimension. It’s taking issue with the standardized US-institutional way to write a poem, with this sort of ‘payoff’ at the end which you see particularly in the kind of poetry and the kind of thinking about poetry that comes out of the MFA programs in the US, largely following the conservative edicts of what they call New Criticism. The pamphlet has some really interesting sections on the idea of money in poetry, “a formal money of the mind” as Marc Shell articulates it, especially with these metaphors, like you have to “earn” the ability to experiment as a poet. The essay uses some really careful and thoughtful close reading of texts by Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Lyn Hejinian and some others to think through its arguments.
Daniel Owen is a poet, translator and member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial and working collective — all views expressed in this interview are his own. The rest of the UDP editorial collective is comprised of members Yelena Gluzman, Chuck Kuan, Sarah Lawson, Silvina López Medin, Anna Mochovakis, Michael Newton, Lee Norton, Kyra Simone, Rebekah Smith, and Matvei Yankelevich.
Interview by Salwa Benaissa