When I was in college, I had a crush on Ugly Duckling Presse the way 17 year-olds in 1958 had a crush on Jack Kerouac. Now, this isn’t to compare the two groups (shrewd letterpress publishers and the Beats), just to convey my juvenile affection for UDP. In 2005, Jen Bervin’s Nets blew my mind, and I began following the Presse. I considered applying for an internship there during my last semester at school, imagined myself getting off the F train and walking to the Old Can Factory with my bulky red-plaid backpack. Instead, I graduated early and followed my boyfriend to San Francisco.
In addition to books of poetry, UDP publishes projects that focus on more specific threads of interest. Alongside the Lost Literature Series and the Eastern European Poets Series, the Dossier Series publishes works “in the investigative mode, regardless of genre or format.” This week I’ve enjoyed two recent titles from this series: Notes on Conceptualisms and Ten Walks/Two Talks, which share very little in the way of central interest or form. As a faithful admirer, I also follow the works of UDP’s editors and recently ran across Matvei Yankelevich’s new book of poems, Boris by the Sea.
Co-authored by Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place, Notes on Conceptualisms is a compact exploration of conceptual writing, as it differs from and is related to conceptual art. I am not enamored with conceptual writing as such, though I find some work, like Bervin’s and Dan Farrell’s, compelling. Whether or not conceptual writing interests you, this slim volume is logical and smart.
In the Foreward, Fitterman explains that the book was born from “a conversation about the poetics of erasure techniques.” Following this exchange, Anna Moschovakis, an editor at UDP, suggested that Place and Fitterman “write something about conceptual writing for publication.” (I’m a sucker for backstory.) He continues, this book “is far from a definitive text and much closer to a primer.” What unfolds over the following sixty or so small pages are a series of aphorisms, axioms and notes. Axiom 1: “Conceptual writing is allegorical writing… the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion.” Maybe that is obvious, but, to me, it clarified a great expanse of reading that I had no way to define, from Félix Fénéon to Charles Bernstein. Fitterman and Place also point out that “Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.”
To be sure, Notes on Conceptualisms also confused me. I have no idea what to do with: “Radical mimesis is original sin.” Do you know what that means?
In Ten Walks/Two Talks, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch revive Baudelaire’s flaneur, and Basho’s travel diaries, and Thoreau’s notebooks. The project began with sixty sixty-minute walks that Fitch took around Manhattan and Brooklyn on sixty consecutive mornings. Each “walk” is comprised of a sixty-sentence reflection. (They were also published by Editions Eclipse.) As Alissa Nutting at HTMLGIANT put it, “I hate exercise and I hate conversation, but I love Ten Walks/Two Talks.”
These detailed walks encapsulate the physical reality of our urban hiker: “My neck and back muscles wouldn’t bend… My thighs began chaffing against my jeans.” All the while, our author is a part of the city. He recognizes that a young man taking pictures on the Lower East Side resembles himself, he looks into the eyes of other passers-by. Through his walks, he communes with the busy, impenetrable city. My favorite reflection: “[I]n New York to hesitate is to cause others problems.”
The talks offer more meaty observations on the lives these writers have carved for themselves in New York—an eighty year-old Haitian roommate, dinner at a natural foods store called “W.F.,” spontaneous encounters with drivers. With Cotner, the dialogue blooms. They conclude with a discussion of Plato, an observation that calls into question this entire project of recording and disseminating their talks and walks: “[A]n implicit anxiety throughout Plato’s work is that, for the first time ap appears the potential for discourse to be preserved—to pick up new interpretations the author couldn’t anticipate, interpretation justified by textual proof.[sic]”
Like Notes on Conceptualisms, Ten Walks/Two Talks is in the Dossier Series of “investigative” literature. In a way, Fitch investigates the city around him, and the talks offers tidbits of intellectual inquiry, like a passing mention of Wittgenstein. Perhaps observations collapse into investigation.
Is it cheating to include a book not on UDP? On Octopus Books, Boris by the Sea is the first full-length book of poems by Matvei Yankelevich, a founding editor of UDP. He is best known for his translation of Daniil Kharms, the eccentric Russian poet of the early 20th century. At The New York Times, George Saunders loved it. Like Kharms, our author plays with narrative expectations and their disruptions. Boris by the Sea airs only fragments of Boris’s mundane, introspective life: non-linear vignettes that are left untied. Boris is by the sea, on a stage, in a diner, or bound up in self-reflection.
Throughout, Boris and the Author have crises of creation. The Author struggles with what to write and what meaning the characters hold to him. Boris, an invented character, is writing a book of his own, a book without words. Boris spins us with his reasoning: “[T]he world that he was writing was an independent world but was just as real as this real world which was just as make-believe as the world he was writing.”
In this neurotic world the Author (Yankelevich?) reveals his anxieties about authorship. “In the Author’s Kitchen” exhibits his cynicism through the refrain “how egocentric is the author.” More honestly, he admits that Boris helps him constitute himself: “Who am I alone. Missing my role… I hope that Boris will help me in this respect.” In one unnamed, unusually grounded poem, Yankelevich does not refer to “the Author.” He observes that many topics have “already been written about” and lists all these topics that he cannot write about. The poem ends in hesitation: “And maybe the author will not think, perhaps he won’t think at all, and perhaps he will not write either, not at all.” Just as he creates multiple worlds within the book, Yankelevich creates the non-world, the possibility that it doesn’t exist at all.
Rather than getting bogged down in the ontology of fictional characters, Yankelevich’s poetry remains light and playful, delighting in the abilities of language to challenge our expectations. He mixes theater and prose to create a unique poetry—poetry that relies not on truncated lines but on the sounds of language and ideas that spring up between words. At one point, literal and figurative merge: “At this point, the story comes to a point, and that point is too narrow for the story to pass through.”
There is a Russian-ness to the book that cannot be ignored—not Russian like Dostoevsky or even Gogol, but undeniably still Russian. Obviously Boris is Russian (though not accompanied by Natasha), and the Author is described as a “Chekhovian gentleman.” There may be nothing to conclude about these general Russian allusions, or this book of poems could be a quiet foil to bleak, Russian tomes. Certainly, it is about death (Boris dies at one point), and about the loneliness of existence; but Boris by the Sea lacks the dizzying patronymics and heft of most familiar Russian work. Again the obvious comparison is to Kharms, who revels in the frailty of narrative, concluding multiple stories with, “And that’s it, more or less.”