Review | An Idiom in Itself: Ugly Duckling Presse 2020 Pamphlet Series by Sam Buchan-Watts

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Sam Buchan-Watts 


An Idiom in Itself

2020 Pamphlet Series, Ugly Duckling Presse 

Ugly Duckling Presse (or UDP) have over the past two decades fostered a rich and influential poetics culture. Their delectable print publications hark back simultaneously to the historical precedent of the pamphlet as fugitive political-poetical discourse associated with samizdat printing and the Presse’s own roots as a tiny-edition book and zine maker passed around a committed group of readers in the nineties. UDP foreground the beautiful ‘labour’ associated with bookmaking: the material conditions of poetry writing are something they engage with variously in their recent spate of pamphlets.  

The sheer scale of UDP’s output sees its distinctive experimentalism cohere across its – over 400 and counting – publications and projects. Its values and aesthetics correspond through excavations of lost literatures, their commitment to decolonising poetry in English and their implicit desire to dismantle generic categories between scholarly and creative writing, between what’s cool and what’s critical. There is clearly a collective openness and flexibility that is key to the health of this culture. I know from experience that a non-profit like this begins to feel sustainable when it takes on the qualities of a cooperative: non-hierarchical relations come into play between author, writer/translator and reader.

In 2015 I set up a conversation for a journal I edited at the time between the NYC-based UDP and London’s Enitharmon that never quite made it into print. The latter were newly – and, unusually, for an ‘established’ UK press – publishing book-length collections by the Anglophone avant-garde including Lisa Robertson, Rob Halpern and Keston Sutherland. I was struck and inspired in that conversation by the fact that small press publishing was not defined in terms of its limitations in comparison to the more commercial publishers. That it, as one UDP editor said, thrives when it’s ‘disseminated via semi-clandestine channels’, and by targeting culture makers – ‘a pretty large market’, he pointed out – and surely also fostering them, given the Presse’s long-running volunteer program. This seems to be an area of poetry that puts a positive spin on the adage that poets write for a ‘writership’ rather than a ‘readership’. Implicit within this model is a challenge to narrow ideas of progress as commercial expansion. Such channels are maintained, most practically, by subscription models; they forge a direct – and often intimate – line between publisher and reader.

Many of the pamphlets-as-essay here are translations, only one of which could be said to resemble a poem. Commissioned for 2020, they reciprocate readers’ investment in the press over time in their emphasis on publishing as communal occurrence. Indeed, this is publication as close to gift-giving as I can imagine. Reading them together is nothing short of an education in poetics, in the industry of small press publishing, the politics of translation. Take artist and maker of books Simon Cutts’s The World Has Been Empty Since the Postcard, which presents a selection of the author’s works (gorgeously printed in colour on cream paper) with a matter-of-fact introduction about his Coracle Press and its modernist precedent. Postcards are often printed, we are told, ‘because there was extra space on an offset plate for another job’, balancing the need to communicate with the contingencies of production. More crucially, a postcard used as an invitation (to a gallery event, book launch, or perhaps simply to read and make) ‘at some point suggested an idiom in itself, a form in its own right’.

What we continue to see emerge across the pamphlets is an idiom of possibility, necessity and collectivism. Some of these pamphlets offer rigorous accounts of poetics, such as Aleksandr Skidan’s Golem Soveticus, translated with a razor-sharp acuity apt to the ‘logico-analytic’ sensibility of his late-Soviet subject, Dmitri Prigov, with whom he finds useful equivalences with Warhol and Brecht. Steven Zultanski’s chatty propositions set out a flexible definition of ‘voice’ in the works of Alice Notley, building from a passage in his incendiary On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless (2018) and the preternatural ease with which he glosses literary traditions. Mirene Arsanios takes a similarly mobile means of enquiry to elegise her mother tongue as biographical subject. Aditi Machado uses the cento to creatively trouble lyric epiphany, which she contextualises provocatively within the tradition of workshop critique and its cynical language of capital. Don Mee Choi’s Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode acutely reveals how conflicts aggregate in words and objects, via cornbread given as aid to South Korean children by Americans and the warship – named after of the Aegis shield – used for the 2016 US-South Korea-Japan military drill, proving ultimately that ‘interpretation is a political act’. 

These pamphlets often memorialise subjects, histories, and languages that risk being relegated to the margins. Pamphlet culture in the West may be marginal simply because it enjoys exploiting the ephemeral status of small press publishing and the freedoms that come with that, or (usually) for more urgent reasons like structural inequality. Recalling the editor’s reference to ‘semi-clandestine channels’, I am reminded of how his adjective could refer to the semi-secrecy of the culture as intimate conspiratorial play, or as necessity in times of censorship. Tinashe Mushakavanhu evokes both simultaneously in his account of how the revolutionary Dambudzo Marechera was approached in Zimbabwe by intelligence officers masquerading as amateur writers wanting advice, a time when he ‘always carried copies of his own books in a rucksack which he sold directly to readers in order to get money for booze. Once purchased, the books would circulate among readers until copies fell apart.’

Neoliberalism casts an especially large shadow across the series (‘an ideology that reduces all human relationships to market relationships’, as Magdalena Zurawski remarks with an impressive pithiness appropriate to the form). The pamphlet – note UDP’s use of ‘pamphlet’ rather than the more typical ‘chapbook’ of North America, surely to hark back to its political genealogy, never far from the frame here – emerges as inherently anti-consumerist and anti-materialist, which offers an intriguing counterpoint to the gorgeous material status of these publications. (Their tactile and perishable objecthood – sumptuous untreated coloured card in a Love Heart palette with letterpress endpapers – were a challenge to read spontaneously after applying hand sanitiser or while in the bath for fear of spoiling them.) Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s A Mano / By Hand offers an engrossing potted personal history as small press publisher in New York, Mexico, and Puerto Rico where books, readings and workshops are ‘a refuge’ offering live ‘points of encounter’. Biographies of groups and persons, written speculatively or anecdotally towards people real and imagined correspond conceptually with what Iris Cushing refers to as ‘goings-on [that] were part of the momentum-of-being […] processed through the mechanism of poetry itself’.

Suitably, then, the pamphlets also record real conversations between human beings, via email and – most memorably – a straightforward transcription of a live discussion organised by Yale between two of its alumni, critic Nadine George-Graves and dance visionary Okwui Okpokwasili. The conversation charms in its intimacy and emotion (it took place only a couple of months after the murder of George Floyd) as the two discuss radical commitment to form and to each other. It feels like a live document – it performs most immediately the intersubjective possibility of this remarkable series.

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Sam Buchan-Watts’s debut poetry collection Path Through Wood is published by Prototype in October 2021.


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