The Elusive Golden Eggs: Ugly Duckling Presse


reviewed by Richard Scheiwe

Ugly Duckling Press (or, UDP) is a reflection of the time and effort spent in contributing to the world of letters. In a market of mass production and deadlines (the clichés of American culture) UDP stands out as a surviving publishing studio that emphasizes the qualities of design in the creation of books. According to their website, Ugly Duckling Presse is a “not-for-profit and publishing collective…[favoring] emerging, international, and ‘forgotten' writers with well-defined formal or conceptual projects that are difficult to place at other presses.” They produce projects which vary from perfect-bound, full-length books to newspaper-type collections and broadsides; the emphasis of which to focus strictly on a long-forgotten tool of book production: the handmade element.

Upon browsing through UDP's selections, one may easily see the influence of more guerilla production elements from the early-to-mid twentieth century in the forms of the mimeograph and the printing press. One more creative production is a collection of perforated “postcards”, numbering 51, each with a poem in relation to one of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Also, there are the “paperless books”, to which Ugly Duckling Presse lays claim (and also subsequently renounces the copywrite): “Paperless books do not need to be published, just pushed out of mind into actions…A paperless book on Americans: go to the desert in Arizona. Find differences in the desert and start naming things. Conjure language and watch it evaporate.”1

Ugly Duckling Presse's history is wide and varied.2 At the moment UDP has quite a large number of authors and artists in their catalog. But, of course, this cannot always be the case. For the first few years, UDP was a handmade ‘zine of Xeroxed production, more in line with a mimeograph one imagines. One of the first two editors, Matvei Yankelevichhad, had the vision early on to make something of letters focused on a more international scene, specifically Europe, Western and Eastern; the influence can still be found today in their selections. Upon the publication of the first book under the imprint of Ugly Duckling Presse in 1995, those involved found their home base to be more fleeting and nomadic than permanent; UDP became something of the peripatetic press (Boston, Moscow, Dublin) between the years of 1995 and, roughly, 2002, when they settled for a spill in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Throughout these years of passage the press published a series of ‘zines and collaborative works, and they first published something of a flagship work: 6×6. (In every issue of 6×6, six poets are given six pages of space to display their talents.) After 2003, and through what seems to be many months of guerilla marketing and PR, something of an avalanche of press and publication occurs. The influential industry magazine Poets & Writers notes UDP to be “a press to watch out for”; UDP takes a road trip through the Midwest and spreads the word; they gain tax-exempt status and subsequently the support of CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) and various other grant organizations; and they inaugurate their successful and influential Eastern European Poets Series, giving voice to those authors whom, as their mission statement affirms, might be ignored or forgotten.

The Series stands as a culmination for the press. It is a perfect combination of design, substance, and direction that epitomizes the beginning motions through which the press was going upon its founding. Currently, Ugly Duckling Presse resides in Gowanus, Brooklyn at the Old American Can Factory.

Richard Scheiwe