The CIA Bought Me This Nifty Headband: Ugly Ducking Presse Stands Accused

Posted by @ 1:17 pm on March 29th, 2009

In some dizzying crinkle of web logic, I’d like to share not only a post on another blog but the comment stream of that post, which features an interesting discussion of small press successes, funding, avant-garde tendencies, dissonance/dissent, and the CIA.

The post in question is Shonni Enelow’s spotlight of Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse, which publishes strange and exciting poetry, including lots of work-in-translation, and all in editions of carefully made book objects that preserve bookmaking as an art unto itself. They’ve published great books by Eugene Ostashevsky, Tomas Salamun, and Laura Solomon. They published Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manfesto, which is terrific, and Aram Saryon’s Complete Minimal Poems, which won the William Carlos William Award in 2008.  That’s not the controversy. Controversy after the jump!

What  the comment stream features is a lot of attacking and defending UDP for reasons you can find by reading. Here are two exciting and out-of-context excerpts, the first from poet Bill Knot:

And yet somehow during the Cold War years there always seemed to be plenty of financial support for the translation and publication of “Dissident” poets and writers—as long as, that is, they were writers from socialist countries . . .

The extent of the U.S. Government’s secret clandestine support of cultural apparati during the last 6 decades will probably never be fully known, but they reportedly right from the start favored and fostered

the avantgarde, namely the New York School of Painters
(and its literary arm, the New York School of Poets: something you might think about the next time you’re goofing on the incredulities of K. Koch) . . .

Whether such covert funding has continued since 1989 is a question nobody seems to want to ask . . .

But if the CIA were still funneling cash into literary organizations and endeavors,

as it did during the Cold War,

and as everybody knows most government programs and projects once they get going are notoriously hard to abolish,

if Langley never closed its Cultural Affairs Office and the latter is still operating fullbore with the same black-ops budget,

wouldn’t they be supporting their traditional beneficiaries, ie the Avantgarde?

Yikes. And the second from UDP founder Matvei Yankelevich:

Without romanticizing the situation, I would say that most of our authors are not “mainstream” poets; many of the already dead authors we publish never received much recognition in their lifetimes, and probably many of the contemporary poets we publish don’t have connections to anything one might call a “cultural elite” and won’t be read “widely” in a hundred years, or even ten years — but what poets are read widely now? Yet there are experimental readers just as there are experimental writers. What one might call “boutique” another might call “local.” If reading literature is bourgeois, then I guess we stand accused. Some say that the avant-garde is inextricably bound to bourgeois culture, comes out of it, fights it, and is often subsumed by it. So be it. We’ll leave it up to our authors to be good writers and thinkers — meanwhile we’re concerned with getting their work out to a wider audience than they could tackle on their own: That’s what publishing is. And we’d like to do it in a way that isn’t ridden with gimmicks and marketing. We choose our books based on how they speak to us in the present moment, not on “platforms” and “publishability.” If one out of every 100 books we make gets reviewed in the Times, or if none do, that’s fine with us. We aren’t going to conform to anyone’s view of success — but if we don’t do our best with publicity, fundraising, and grant-seeking, then we won’t be able to serve well either the authors we publish or the reading public.

(Incidentally, why is it that everyone thinks you’re “selling out” if you succeed in getting a small NEA grant or some tiny nod on a blog, of all things…? After all, the avant garde didn’t just sit on its ass; it got in the media’s face as much as it could; Duchamp didn’t keep his pissoir to himself. So when did being avant-garde get equated with hiding out? Contemporary poetry is already marginalized enough, and will stay marginalized enough to suit our proclivity for assigning elite status to fields of culture that are the least important or commercially viable. Staying true to one’s poetics is easy enough in a narrow circle where one can commiserate with the chosen few about not being understood by the public; but it gets more interesting if you take the debate out into the world, where most people have no clue that anyone could find something like poetics important enough to build a life around. Furthermore, if we don’t want the media and entertainment biz to treat us as idiot consumers, why keep our content hidden from their profane gaze. In other words, is it so bad that a few more people now know that a small press is trying to publish some non-Barnes&Noble stuff on a shoestring budget? Is it to be condemned if a few of the “uninitiated masses” might purchase and even open a new book of poetry from another country or an oppositional esthetic?)

I’m not posting these together to collapse the discussion or suggest they’re equal in rhetorical value but merely to spark you into checking out the post here. UDP again is here.

Personally, I think Yankelevich’s comment makes an eloquent and logical anti-obscurity stance, and I think it would be really funny if the CIA were spending slices of the defense budget on tiny poetry presses.

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