Make It A Big Deal: An Interview with Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Ugly Duckling Presse, which he started in the late 1990’s with a group of friends. He designs and edits books for UDP, curates the Eastern European Poets Series (since 2002), and co-edits 6×6 magazine (since 2000). He shares duties as UDP’s Co-Executive Director with Anna Moschovakis. His most recent publication of poetry is Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His writing has appeared in A Perimeter, ActionYes, BOMB MagazineBoston ReviewThe Brooklyn RailFence, and others. His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, and his translations have appeared in The New Yorker and other places. His co-translation of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB) with Eugene Ostashevsky received the National Translation Award in 2014.

Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich reading his poetry in the Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center at the University of Connecticut (Photo/Asiya Haouchine)

Carleton Whaley: So, a simple—well, I guess it’s a simple question, but it might not end up being one—Why did you start Ugly Duckling Presse?

Matvei Yankelevich: That’s a very good question. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. You know, I don’t know why. I was doing the zine, traveling with it, doing it in different places, collaborating with people, just doing this very small 8 or 16-page thing. I started to think about what kind of writing I liked, how it was hard to find, and what it felt like to present work to other people that they didn’t know about. New work, old work, whatever. I did a book of my own poems when I was in college, and put this Ugly Duckling Presse thing on it, and I didn’t know what it would be. I thought it would just be my own little Xerox thing. But then when I met friends in New York, you know: poets, a theater director, artists; we were all making little one of a kind books for each other, or collaborating on little things that weren’t really meant to be published. On the one hand they were fun, but we were talking a lot about what would it be like to produce more than one copy, or more than ten copies. And the form of the chapbook, which was then not much of a word that people knew, seemed the most accessible and the easiest to produce, so we were sometimes making little chapbook runs and just producing them for each other, and just putting Ugly Duckling Presse on them, even though we didn’t really have a publishing house then. And when we started getting serious about what kind of organization we could become, the name stuck. So when I first started doing something under this name, there was no vision at all. It was just sort of happenstance that it became something. It was mostly the accidental connection I had with other people. But why is a really good question, because I don’t think it was clear to us why, except that we wanted to put work out into the world that wasn’t getting attention. When we started the magazine there were people that I corresponded with that sent me stuff for the zine, and just by accident the zine got sent to other people that did zines, would get listed somewhere, sent back to me. So I would get stuff in the mail that said, “Hey, I heard you do this zine, do you want to publish these poems?” And then again, when we started 6×6 in 2000, I contacted some of those people, so there was some continuity there. Something about publishing work, making literature public, it was really energizing to all of us. To me in particular. I don’t know how to precisely explain that feeling, but I’m sure some of you guys probably have that bug, that “We’re gonna make this happen” bug. You feel like you’re doing something bigger than yourself, you’re participating in the world in a way that is meaningful, and you’re also in some ways drawing the outlines of how you think one should engage with the world.  For Ugly Duckling it was like we wanted to do things in a way that was different from the way literature was presented. We wanted to make it accessible. Which meant cheap, partly, but which also meant not daunting, because we were dealing with a lot of contemporary, experimental poetry, so we wanted people to say “I’ll pick this up, it’s five bucks.” You know, like, “I’ll take a chance.” The first issues were two dollars each, so we were actually running at a loss.  There was a lot of hand labor involved, especially early on with collating and all that, which we don’t for these [6×6], because we do the interiors where we get our books bound. But before we used to have to collate by hand, and before we had a big cutter we’d have to cut these ten at a time, and that’s a lot when you’re doing a thousand. There was something about that engagement, too: putting all this free labor into something that, in the end, was not profitable. Something about the absurdity of that was exciting, in that it suggests the kind of model or thinking around literature that didn’t put monetary value around it. It underscored the fat that literature wasn’t very well-funded here, and it’s also something that most people don’t engage with seriously, especially difficult or contemporary work, and especially poetry. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll say, “I love poetry,” but they’re not necessarily engaged with it in the same way that they are with the movies or with TV. It’s no longer a popular literature, and it’s probably ok to not be sad about it. But at the same time, we wanted it to be accessible, especially to younger people. We thought it would be good to have events for younger people where there was music and poetry, where poetry can remain complicated and experimental and contemporary, and doesn’t have to exist in a cloistered space, its own ivory tower or something. So that the experience of poetry can be like the experience of music: listening to a band that’s somewhat experimental is similar to listening to a poet. We wanted young people to be able to afford these things, so we had some chapbooks that were sold for 25 cents. They were really cool looking too. So yeah, I still have no idea. For me the real excitement around writing is sharing writing that you’re excited about with other people. That’s more interesting to me than just sitting alone at home and going “I love this book.” I want to be out and sharing that with other people. More recently, I think the why changes a lot over time. More and more, I think about—when I started the Eastern European Poets Series I really thought, how do people in the US think about what Eastern European poetry is? Why are the names always sort of the same? Wasn’t there other stuff going on? So I wanted to highlight people who weren’t big prize-winners, who weren’t up for the Nobel or anything. I wanted to bring a sense of the plurality of Eastern European poetry to the American reader. That worked to some degree, actually. A lot of it had to do with remapping history, showing that history wasn’t so black and white, or so uncomplicated. We’re doing a lot of Latin American poets right now, and a lot of Uruguayan poets that have never been published in English.

CW:  Yeah, I actually grabbed the copy of Sor Juana’s Enigmas last night from the pile of UDP books.

MY: Even though that particular Sor Juana work is well-known, we did that book because we wanted to pair it with a chapbook of this contemporary poet who’s kind of based on Sor Juana, or in dialogue with her, in kind of a fun way. So apart from a couple of things where the name is familiar, we’ve done a lot of stuff where the author or poet hasn’t been translated before. We’re trying to reimagine “What is Latin American poetry to us in the states?” It’s an important question. Is it just Octavio Paz, or Sor Juana? What is it and what kind of expressions have we overlooked?

CW: So, that was not a simple question then.


CW: So, can you think of some of the first hurdles you had to go over in starting—well, I guess the zine itself, since you mentioned you started that in college.

MY: There weren’t many hurdles for the zine. It’s sort of a very small version of what happens later, when you start to look for funding from the NEA. Like, we just needed to become a student club and get access to the photocopier. That was pretty much it, so once we did we had a couple hundred dollars, and we printed the magazine and did the whole student club thing. There was hardly any question of funding. So in a way there were many fewer hurdles doing a zine, and when I was traveling around, working in New York, I would just use the office photocopier. The only thing needed was time to do the collages, and hang out with a friend to go through the different submissions. So not many hurdles. It was a game, it was kinda fun. And UDP still has its fun moments, for sure, but the zine was definitely its own thing. Sometimes I would distribute it by hiding it in other journals, or the Village Voice, the college newspaper, the newspaper boxes on the street. You know where you can get a free newspaper? I would just stick them in, and they would just go out into the world. Someone would get it by surprise, and that surprise was always interesting. What happens when you find something like that? What is this doing in my Village Voice? And my college newspaper, what does it mean? I always thought that element of surprise, of mystery, was an important part of the experience of art, because it would take people out of their daily experience. To me it was interesting that you could do that in print, because it worked in multiples. Each book wasn’t a precious work of art, you could give it away, or tie it to a tree and see who found it. But the hurdles certainly happen quickly when you start to produce a thousand copies instead of a hundred. Then you’re like, “How do we distribute this?” So there was a lot of talking to bookstores, and silly little receipts written out by hand, figuring out how to consign different books in bookstores, talking to distributors and getting them to take you seriously. We had to get the Council of the Arts to take us seriously, like “We’re gonna do this Eastern European Poets Series, but all we have to show you right now is this flimsy little magazine.” But somehow, we managed to convince them and other people that we were serious. And it’s still a struggle to convince people, even last night, that guy who asked the question like, “These are just pamphlets, aren’t they cheap to produce?” and I’m just like, “You don’t actually understand anything about what it takes to edit and produce a book of poetry.” It was probably because that guy had not encountered these kind of books before, because they’re not in most bookstores, they’re not in the college bookstores, because those are usually a Barnes and Noble subsidiary, even though people teach our books, so they’ll sometimes be there, but it’s not something that people necessarily know. A small press book, and the history of small press books, isn’t everybody’s bread and butter. So it’s not surprising that that attitude exists out there. And it’s very hard to get people to understand that on one hand there’s letterpress on this cover, but that doesn’t mean we’re a boutique publisher. We actually have distribution, our books are all over North America, and some in Central and South America, Europe and Japan, they’re everywhere, but only in niche spaces where you have to look. It’s not going to be at the biggest book store in Buenos Aires. It’ll be at the little poetry book shop. So, the hurdles have to do with that way that people think that if it’s not Penguin or Random House, what is it? Can books look like this? We’ve always tried to play with that, to push those boundaries, to push against people’s expectations. If the content is going to be different, or announce itself somehow as being different from your mass-market book, then the look of it should tell you something about that difference. We like the idea that people will touch this, that it’s not about the screen, it’s not purely about information, it’s about experience.

CW: From your reading last night, you seemed like a jack-of-all-trades in the literary world. You do translation, you write poetry, you do critical work, you’re an editor, you teach—so basically, do you find that difficult to manage, or does it come naturally?

MY: It is difficult to manage, but it comes naturally to me to say yes to a lot of things. So I become over-obligated often, which is good and bad. At some point I’ll have to take a break, organize this mess that I’ve created for myself, and I don’t know when I’ll get to do that. It is kind of a mad life, but at the same time I’m really happy about it, in the sense that I get to follow all of these interests. I don’t like the idea of “I’m a novelist,” or “I’m a poet.” I don’t feel comfortable just staying in one place. But once you’re working in literature, I think it’s weird that—well, when you think about Kafka, or Dostoevsky who’s also writing very journalistic work as well as novels, and doing a lot of polemical work—literary production has never been that separated into disciplines. And I think that’s partly the university system. More and more in the US university system, instead of making things interdisciplinary, it’s about creating these separate disciplines. There are programs that are interdisciplinary, but they run into problems. It’s easier when you can define everything, when the university can say “this is that kind of thing.” Where I teach at Columbia for their MFA, and I understand their limited resources, if you’re a poet it’s very hard for you to get into a fiction workshop. And likewise if you’re a fiction writer it’s very hard to get into a poetry workshop, or nonfiction. So it’s like “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we as writers be familiar with all of these ways of working?” Some of my favorite novels are written by poets. The same goes for novelists who also have polemical work, or translation, which some of them have done either to supplement their income, because that is actually one of the ways that writers who may be doing work that’s not easily sellable can actually make somewhat of a living. In America it’s harder, but translating in other languages is a way to get published and get a job. My most visible publications are my translations, more so than my own work. And I don’t feel weird about that, because these were writers whom I admire, who were formative for me, who were historical. I know they already have a place in history, as writers, whereas my work, if people like it that’s great, but I’m not expecting it to be in history books or something. As far as criticism, it’s interesting to engage in all those different ways. I don’t really write book reviews anymore because I feel weird about it. I publish books, and I don’t want to review the books of other small presses. It just feels uncomfortable. I’ve been writing longer critical pieces about more general things in poetry, or sometimes about specific writers. Writing critical work is so hard, just trying to make everything clear, to clear you own head and clarify your writing so that you really believe in it. You’re no longer in the fictional world of poetry where you can write outrageous things and not really believe in it. All these different ways of interacting with the written word, with the literary world, seem so complementary to me, seem so tied up in one another that it would be hard for me to sort them out. Teaching, for me, is really great in that context. I get to talk to younger writers who are just starting, and I get a lot of energy from that. I feel really lucky, but it is a lot of juggling and a lot of different work all at the same time. Even the correspondence, which is luckily, or I guess not luckily, my email—it’s worse because it’s email and people can write back really fast. Correspondence is a really important part of the writer’s life, and of course the editing life. All of these things merge, and it’s hard for me to imagine just writing poetry.  Especially because it doesn’t pay.

CW: There is that. One last quick question—or not, I should stop saying that—anyway, do you have any advice for people looking to start their own zine or little magazine?

MY: Before I answer that, could you tell me a little bit more about that magazine you guys are doing?

CW: Oh. So, well, ours is—well, we’re on issue—well, here’s the most recent edition, actually.

MY: So a faculty member works with you guys, and this is kind of a longstanding journal, but the people who work on it change every year?

CW: Usually, but sometimes we’ll have the same professor for a few years. Ellen has done it before.

MY: Yeah, and she has experience with Salt.

CW: Yeah, she worked on Salt Hill at Syracuse. And Penelope Pelizzon did it for the last few years, and Sean Forbes is going to be leading it next year. So now they’re getting more into a rotating schedule.

MY: But the students change every year?

CW: Sometimes you’ll have individual students who get in earlier in their college careers and are there for a few years. But most of the time they tend to prefer juniors and seniors.

MY: How long have you been doing it?

CW: This is my first time.

MY: And you’re a junior? Senior?

CW: Senior, yeah.

MY: So first and last time.

CW: Yeah, and it’s been a great experience. I’m the Nonfiction Editor.

MY: Excellent. And can you tell me how much in the journal is actually student work?

CW: We only accept student work, actually. We accept graduate and undergraduate, and there’s really no preference between the two.

MY: This is beautiful! It’s crazy looking—really odd. I love it. So what is your role in the magazine now?

CW: Well, I’m the Creative Nonfiction Editor. I had to lead a panel, and we reviewed all the nonfiction submissions and, as expected, we had the fewest. I think by the end we went through about forty different pieces.

MY: That’s significant, for nonfiction.

CW: Yeah—it was exciting, just kind of managing everyone’s tastes, trying to figure out what an essay is supposed to do. I’m really lucky in that in my first class with Ellen, we went over creative nonfiction, and I got a really great exposure to it there. I actually got published in the last issue, so it’s kind of surreal to be working with the same magazine now. I was thinking about this the other day, because I had to send out the acceptance letters along with some rejection ones.

MY: Cool. So you work with the Design Center, and that’s here at the college?

CW: Yeah. I think it’s led right now by Edvin Yager, he’s their faculty member, but they do a lot of really great work.

MY: So your question is more along the terms of actually starting…something.

CW: Yeah, like—anything, really. Myself, I’m interested in starting a zine this summer, but we’ve talked a lot in class about online magazines, which seem to be getting more prevalent.

MY: So in the class are you talking about doing something different from the LRR?

CW: No, the class hasn’t been talking about it, this is more a question for anyone, really. We’ve been looking at online things because Ellen’s trying to get us exposed to the whole world of little magazines, which is daunting. And I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in there, and I’m sure the more people start to learn about these things—well, they get that bug, like you were saying.

MY: Yeah. Well, it was really helpful for me, when I started the zine, to think about how I would distribute it. It was sort of a funky zine—like a really wacky look, it was never the same and it was really messy, which I think was was exactly what it needed to be. So, giving it to people that I didn’t know, I kinda had to think “Oh, that person seems like they might not be offended if I give it to them.” You know, when handing it out to people, we made an event out of it. My friend who helped work on it would yell stuff, like “Get your free copy!” We’d make a bigger deal out of it than it was, and often I think that’s what makes history. People are always making a bigger deal out of things, like, “me and my friends are doing this thing” and as long as you’re really loud about it, it sounds like it’s important. And if you read someone talking about the Dada group, the people in it are always arguing about who started it first, or who thought of it first, all these avant-garde groups, and then you realize that they’re all just hyping themselves up. And in a sense, that’s what makes them important in history. They constantly publicized themselves as being important. It’s kind of silly, but it does work. In these different fields like teaching, I end up teaching some of our books. And they like it, it’s not like I’m pushing stuff that doesn’t have to do with the content of the course, it’s not like it has no bearing and I’m just like, “You’re assigned to read this UDP book.” So I think all the ways that I’m trying to get this work out into the world, that nexus, is really important. It’s similar to starting a zine, you need to talk about it to people, tell them you’re doing this new thing, ask them if they want to trade. When we started the zine, and later when we started 6×6, we started to trade a lot with other magazines. We’d say, “Hey, we’ll give you a subscription if you give us a subscription.” So we also got to see what was coming out in these other magazines. And then going to fairs and conventions, we’d do a lot of trading with other publishers, who might not have the money to buy your stuff. That’s a really great way to get things going. As far as starting something, Cid Corman, who ran a magazine from the sixties through the eighties, who was really important for American poetry, said something like “your magazine is only as good as its submissions.” So widening that, through correspondence, makes for a much greater pool of writers. And once you start corresponding with people, or trading with other magazines, you’re actually finding an aesthetic unity that shares some ideas. And you’re more likely to get submissions that you like that way, from people that you correspond with, or who are fans of those people, or who you might be trading things with. So yeah, I think when you’re starting a new thing, it’s really important to identify what it is, both visually and content wise, that you want people to know about it. In our case, we actually withheld things. These covers don’t say 6×6 on them, and we didn’t include contributor bios. And at first that seemed like a hurdle, you’re like “who are these people, why am I reading it,” but the real point is that it doesn’t matter who these people are, or why you’re reading it. We’re not coercing you into it. Maybe you looked at the work and you liked it, and that’s why you’re reading it. We’re not going to tell you who the contributors are, where they got an MFA or whatever, we’re not going to explain why they’re together in the journal. We’re not even going to tell you the name of the journal until you open the front cover. And I think, for us, that kind of engaged different ideas about how you could engage someone in a book. Because it has some kind of mystery, or this strange shape, or the strange binding, to us that felt like it was fun to do, just wacky, but more importantly it was a way to say “there’s something different here.” And the cheap price is a way for you to take a chance and not regret it. That posed, again, certain problems. We can’t distribute it through a normal distributor the way you could a perfect-bound magazine with a durable cover, a normal binding, a spine that tells you what the magazine is. Things like that are really important, actually, when you get into the commerce of it. So we had to think about the integrity of it, we had to ask, what is it that we want to do? Do we want to make a magazine that is very prestigious? Do we want a magazine that is very work-focused? Part of the reason we did this is so that each author would get more space. Six pages, instead of two or three, and that someone would get a sense of their work. Also this gives them visual space. A blank page before each section might seem like a waste of space, but each author felt really good about that, like “Whoa, that’s my section. I’m a writer, and that’s my space.” There’s also the idea that you could read the whole thing in a subway ride, it doesn’t take long. We were working against the intimidation factor of a big journal, where there’s a hundred names and you don’t know who to read. I found it that way, at least, especially in contemporary American poetry. I found it daunting, I couldn’t make heads or tails of a journal with hundreds of submissions. How do I read it? Do I go straight through, or pick people based on their bio? Anyway, all those minute decisions are really important. Some magazines start out right away and they get somebody famous to be on the cover. That’s one way to get readership. Think of ways to change the rhythm of how a magazine works, rather than just turning pages. How are they different form each other? Where does the art go, is it integrated or kept to its own sections? There are so many decisions to make, and they all seem to me to come back to what the mission of the work is. If one is to start something like a solo zine, there’s that question of whether you just want to do all the writing yourself. Some people do that and are really successful at it. When you think about the beginnings of the graphic novel, even, like the one, what’s her name, the funeral home? Fun Home?

CW: Allison Bechdel.

MY: Right. That kind of thing starts with a zine, often, with the artist writing and drawing about their personal life. And that’s a really interesting form, and sometimes people subscribe just because they’re interested in that one person’s views on things, critical or autobiographical. I’ve found that the easiest way, and one of the most productive, was just to ask people that I was friends with first, and just work with stuff from them, or someone I knew well enough that I could say “Hey, you’re interesting, write something for this journal, or send me a drawing,” or whatever. Just people I liked, and that way everyone was happy. I would give them copies, and nobody felt weird about it, because I didn’t have to reject anyone. We were just like “Oh, let’s cram this poem in somehow.” It started with just asking people to give us work, and then we tried to do something interesting with the way it was presented, so that they were kind of involved. They could tell people, “oh yeah, my poem was in this cool, kinda wacky thing, check it out.” They’d give it to people, and that proliferates. It’s hard to say what the first thing to do is, but it’s some combination of that kind of thinking around what the object is going to be, how it’s going to stand out, or if it needs to stand out. Sometimes the better decision is to not make it stand out. It depends on the kind of avenue you want to take, what kind of ethos you want to project to the reader, and then where are they going to encounter it. But asking people you know is a really nice way to get started, and then having events and bringing people in, and then people that those people know come to hear about the journal or zine, and then you meet the friends of friends, and those people are your readership, and once you publish them, then their friends are your readership, and then it just grows organically from there.

CW: So, a steady world domination.

MY: Until you’ve covered the whole world through this pyramid scheme.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor