Ugly Duckling Presse – a profile — Ben Bollig

I heard about Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse from Silvina López Medín, an Argentine poet resident in New York who’s collaborated with this independent, not-for-profit publisher of poetry and experimental fiction. Silvina and I share an interest in writing in translation, and UDP’s showcasing of surprising, novel, and difficult works in foreign languages struck me as a daring and thoroughly worthwhile act in today’s book market.

One of UDP’s most successful works, reprinted eight times, is Jen Bervin’s Nets, a collection based on interventions into Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Bervin reproduces a selection of the bard’s poems, but printed in light grey-scale. A few words are picked out in black, minimalist, zen-like phrases discovered within the original verse. The practice itself is not original: Tom Phillips intervened an obscure Victorian novel to create a funny, quirky, and often very rude pop-art collages in A Humument. Some of Bervin’s Nets are saucy (20, dedicated to the “master-mistress of my / shifting”), funny (135, which repeats “Will” 13 times) or self-referential (63: “I am / vanishing or vanished / in these black lines”). Others are urgently political, such as the condemnation of “sluttish / wasteful war” in number 55, or the depiction of “towers down-razed” (64). Their cumulative effect is a mixture of familiarity and surprise. Rare or unfamiliar words like “foison” and “rondure” move centre stage, and force the reader to reconsider what she knows and doesn’t know.

Other well-known names on their catalogue include Marina Tsvetaeva and Alejandra Pizarnik. By the latter, Yvette Siegert has translated La tierra más ajena, the Argentine’s first collection, self-published when she was only nineteen, and not featured in Cecilia Rossi’s generous bilingual Selected Poems (Waterloo Press, 2010). UDP has also published Marosa do Giorgio, one of Uruguay’s most respected poets, though hardly known outside Latin America. I Remember Nightfall is Jeanine Marie Pitas’ rendering of five long poems from the middle period of the author’s career.

More contemporary, relatively unknown writers on the roster include Argentina’s Florencia Castellano, whose Monitored Properties, translated by Alexis Almeida, is an example of minimalist realism, sparsely written yet filled with understated wit and irony. Pablo Katchadjian, also from Argentina, is perhaps best known as the unfortunate victim of a lawsuit from the estate of Jorge Luis Borges over his extended or “remixed” version of the short story “The Aleph.” Such experiments with national classics feature prominently in his oeuvre; his Martín Fierro in Alphabetical Order puts the words of the gaucho epic in, precisely, alphabetical order. But Katchadjian is also a well-regarded novelist and poet in his own right. UDP has published the rou of alch, a long poem marked by cuts, repetitions, and surprising combinations, creating what César Aira described as a “tremor of play and incoherence.”

UDP also publishes chapbooks, and in the Señal series includes bilingual Spanish-English pamphlets. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a seventeenth-century Mexican nun whose poetry and theatre earnt her the sobriquet of “The Tenth Muse.” Her Enigmas were written in the last years of her life when, after suffering the censure of Church authorities, she had withdrawn from the public eye. Published posthumously, but not widely known, the Enigmas are twenty rhymed, four-line poems that ask questions on moral and philosophical questions. They circulated in monasteries and nunneries, and many have conjectured as to their answers: “What is that slayer-strife / that piously naughty / when living slaughters / and dies upon granting life?” Possible answers include passion and hope. Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal maintains the rhyme and shape of the original in her translations, which appear, conveniently, under the originals.

Inspired by the work of Sor Juana, the Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre’s Sor Juana y otros monstrous (Sor Juana & Other Monsters) is, in his words, “An Academic Paper in Verse.” This irreverent and funny long poem is in large part a satire of Sor Juana’s reception and exploitation in the support of all manner of theories and theses – all of which, as Fabre notes, coincide in describing the religieuse as a monster. It is followed by three “mash-up” poems, reworking Sor Juana’s writing and confronting it with contemporary language and concepts. Sor Juana, whose writings on gender politics, to give just one example, conserve their relevance today, is brought fully into the contemporary era in Fabre’s experiments.

Intervenir/Intervene is a collaborative work by two Mexican poets, Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez. Dorantes, from Ciudad Juárez, lives effectively in exile in the US; Flores Sánchez is based in Mexico City. The two exchanged notes and drafts, mostly via email, of their own works and their reworkings of texts by others, including such luminaries as the great Cuban poet José Martí. The resulting volume was then translated by Jen Hofer, and represents one of UDP’s most weighty bilingual Spanish-English publications – in every sense of the word. Traced in Mallarmean shapes across the page, Intervenir is a multi-voiced collection about desire, language and violence. Prefacing sections with quotations from the great Argentine poet Héctor Viel Temperley, the collection includes repetitive snippets and phrases, often addressed to an unidentified second person singular. Some sections have an incantatory feel, like Neruda’s “Heights of Macchu Picchu.”  Others occupy a big, even column, like the poems of the Uruguayan neobaroque poet Eduardo Espina. In others, words are cut or otherwise deformed, as if the violence of the theme played out in the text. It is almost impossible not to read this forceful, emotive work against the backdrop of contemporary Mexico, and the horrors of the death-work committed by narco- and state power. This is foregrounded in the translator’s note, itself a work of formally daring bilingual poetry.

In conversation with a number of Spanish-language writers based in New York, I was told about the separation that exists between Spanish and Anglophone literary and publishing circles there. Some spaces exist to counteract that, such as the SoHo independent bookshop MacNally Jackson, which hosts readings in Spanish. In her talk at the Latin American Studies Association Congress, hosted in New York in late May, the Berkeley Comparative Literature scholar Francine Masiello spoke of the importance of North-South translation, and praised the work of writers and translators such as Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, an Argentine resident in New York. Ugly Duckling Presse, too, deserves praise for crossing linguistic and geographical divides.


Ben Bollig teaches Spanish at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. His translation of Cristian Aliaga’s The Foreign Passion is published by Influx Press (London). He is completing a book about contemporary poetry from Argentina. @benbollig

Image: Plates, Tom GarnettCreative Commons.