Ugly Duckling Presse is a nonprofit letterpress printing and bookbinding studio with a pretty long and fascinating history, which you can read about over on their site here. In the late nineties the Presse was a zine called Ugly Duckling, and in 2000 the group started 6×6, which was put together in various living rooms and printed at a tiny Manhattan Valley letterpress shop whose primary business was making church newsletters. Since then UDP has lived in three states, four countries, the Nest Space in Dumbo, near a pier in Red Hook, and now at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus. They’ve got twelve editors and have printed over 200 beautiful handmade books, not to mention dozens of broadsheets, tons of chapbooks, and all kinds of paper ephemera. They’re beginning to explore ebooks too, and they even have a podcast!
One of the cool things about a volunteer-run press is the amount of opportunities to let the community in. If you sign up for the UDP mailing list, you’ll get invited to their headquarters every couple of months for bookbinding, hand-stitching spines, letterpressing covers, and all manner of classy, functional arts and crafts. Maximus and I went by for a visit to help bind copies of the chapbook “Mr. Z., Mrs. Z., J.Z., S.Z.” with thick twine, met some lovely interns and volunteers, got to see the antique-looking machines in action, and hung out with Matvei, the Presse’s founder.
brooklyn spaces: How did this all get started?
Matvei: When I moved to New York in the late nineties, a bunch of my writer friends started making one-of-a-kind books for each other, little artist projects, simple things. Then we started to print larger runs of things like chapbooks, hand-bound books, zines, stuff like that. We started 6×6 in 2000, and just before that, we’d started putting Ugly Duckling Presse on the spines of all our little books, even though Ugly Duckling Presse wasn’t a place, it was just our living rooms. But it stuck. We wanted to publish our peers and poets we admired. There was a lot of labor involved, hand-stamping and rubber-banding and binding, so we already had that sense of making stuff, of zine culture and collage and hand-pasting and book arts and things like that.
brooklyn spaces: When did it become more a more formalized press?
Matvei: In the early 2000s, we moved in with a bunch of other arts organizations in a large space in Dumbo called Nest Space for eighteen months. We all got to be there practically for free; all we had to do was clean it up and build some walls. It was one of the early Two Trees buildings, and of course it was part of their plan, to bring in arts people to make the neighborhood more desirable and drive up the real estate values. Now there’s a crazy expensive boutique where our little workshop was.
brooklyn spaces: That’s so depressing.
Matvei: Well, it was fun. And there were lots of other arts groups there, some of whom we’re still in touch with, like Collapsible Giraffe, NTUSA, Paul Lazar Big Dance Theatre, Brooklyn Underground Film Festival. We had a huge common space that we used for events and performances and crazy parties, which was really inspiring. It helped people to know who we were and also helped us bring a certain kind of energy to poetry. Poetry’s really versatile, you can listen to it in a library in a stiff chair or you can go to a reading in some underground place and have it performed with crazy music. It was a very vibrant scene at the time, and that really influenced the way we wanted the to press work. It wasn’t just a publishing house, it was a place for people to come together, and to learn how to make books.
brooklyn spaces: Was it hard to leave that scene?
Matvei: In Red Hook we were holed up in one of the buildings near the Coffey Street pier, and it was a little lonely. But that’s when we were really making the press into something serious, so maybe we needed that kind of focus. And then we came here and became part of the Can Factory community, which has been really great. Issue Project Room is here, Rooftop Films is here, there’s a letterpress studio upstairs, Swayspace, they do beautiful work. There’s other publishers here too, One Story, Archipelago, and Akashic. There’s great energy, it’s a wonderful environment for us.
brooklyn spaces: Do you have any favorite books, or books that were a particular pleasure to make?
Matvei: We’ve done some very labor-intensive accordion projects, like 5 Meters of Poems, which really is almost five meters long. There have been a number of projects that I’m really proud of, like The Drug of Art by Ivan Blatný. He’s a multilingual poet who wrote in a lot of languages at once. Ana and Veronica, who edited that book, they put together pretty much a critical edition, with solid editorial backing, annotations, footnotes, all of it. It’s something that even a university press isn’t necessarily going to take on these days. And then on the other hand, we just did a chapbook called “Surprised by French Fries” by Joe Dailey, which is totally irreverent and funny, it just sings in a particular, ephemeral, non-serious way.
brooklyn spaces: I also noticed one called “Get the Fuck Back Into That Burning Plane.” That’s a great title.
Matvei: Yeah, I love that one, that’s Lawrence Giffin. We’ve working with him for years. We published his work in 6×6, then we did a chapbook of his poems, and we’re going to do a full-length book of his next year. That often happens. We like to have longer relationships with writers.
brooklyn spaces: Is there any overarching artist statement that unites all of the Ugly Duckling Presse books?
Matvei: Aesthetically we’re very eclectic, but some of that has to do with the structure of the collective. Each editor really has to want to do whatever they’re going to publish, and also it’s their choice; it’s not democratic, we don’t vote on which books to do. But we all come from similar sensibilities. We all want to publish books that no one else is doing. And there’s of course the handmade aspect. We’re not luddites by any means; sure, we’re a letterpress shop, but we also have two computers and we’re doing online books, exploring things that you can’t do in a print book. We just really believe in the book as a technology that works and that hasn’t been exhausted yet, one that is still interesting and immediate, and that it’s important how you make the book, not just what’s in it. I think we’re okay with the idea that we publish things that aren’t commercially viable, but we’re still engaged in cultural activity. It’s possible that our books will be read fifty yeas from now, and it’s possible that they won’t. But it continues an idea of culture that probably isn’t part of the general American or even global notion of what culture is anymore.