This Saturday, the literary arts department celebrated the 25th anniversary of Ugly Duckling Presse, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit editorial collective that prides itself on publishing experimental, non-commercial literature, according to head editor and founder Matvei Yankelevich.
The all-day programming included a book display in the John Hay Library, a roundtable of distinguished small press editors and writing-inspired performances and readings by five Ugly Duckling-published writers, including University professors Cole Swensen and Monica de la Torre.
Ugly Duckling Presse began as an experimental zine haphazardly assembled by Yankelevich and his friends while they were undergraduates at Wesleyan. By the early 2000s, it had transformed into a volunteer-based, nonprofit editorial collective, publishing chapbooks, books of poetry, experimental nonfiction, performance texts and translations. Today, Ugly Duckling releases over 20 titles a year and was once lauded as the “preeminent nesting ground for swans of the avant-garde poetry scene,” by The New York Times.
Ugly Duckling is defined by its longstanding commitment to experimentation. Unlike big-name publishing houses that are all-too-concerned with commercial viability and staying “on brand,” Ugly Duckling strives to “create an experience of artwork that circumvents the utilitarian mode of consumption,” Yankelevich said.
“We’re publishing things because we love the work … because it has significance. We’re not really publishing things that will make money,” Yankelevich added.
Ugly Duckling’s mission was concertedly praised by audience-members and authors throughout the event’s many programs. “I don’t think any other press would have been as adventuresome or open to what we wanted to do,” Swensen said, prefacing excerpts from “Greensward,” a book of poetry that she and graphic artist Shari DeGraw published with Ugly Duckling in 2010.
The programming grounded itself in the Small Press Roundtable, where Ugly Duckling Presse editors Anna Moschovakis and Yankelevich discussed the current challenges facing small presses alongside Patrick Riedy ’18 MFA, Damon Krukowski, Stephen Motika and Visiting Lecturer in Literary Arts Erica Mena — all of whom are also editors of distinguished small presses, including Pressboard Press, Exact Change, Nightboat Books and Anamolous Press, respectively. The featured editors spoke gaily about a range of critical issues — from editorial education to navigating digital distribution to the uncertain fate of the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We don’t even know if the NEA will even exist next year. It’s a small but significant part of our budget when we get this grant, so it’s always frightening when our funding is in peril,”Yankelevich said.
Following the roundtable were a number of artistic performances inspired by Ugly Duckling texts, including a dance by Allissa Cardone and Sara June informed by a translation of Tatsumi Hijikata that was recently published by the Presse. Hijikata was a legendary Japanese choreographer in the mid-20th century, and “Costume En Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls,” is one of the first translations of his notebook notations ever published in English.
“(The text) is really dense, there’s such an incredibly rich array of spaces and characters. We both attacked the book and looked at the images,” Cardone said. “I’m a postmodern choreographer … so I was really interested in how to generate movement from it.”