CC2: UGLY in Ugly Duckling Presse

In CC1, I criticized myself for being unable to make my accordion book — as I called it — aesthetically ugly. Turns out I’m not the only one who has this idea of an appealing form of ugly.

Ugly Duckling Presse uses the idea of aesthetically ugly in both their content and their visuals.

“The eclecticism and oddness makes it easy to make mistakes that don’t look like mistakes,” says Matvei Yankelevich, a founder of the press (Schlesinger, 302).

“Happens all the time,” adds Anna Moschovakis, worker at the press. “But I should clarify and say that Ugly Duckling is not committed to making ugly books, but we do want to mae books that are different. Isn’t that the supposed moral of the story?” (Schlesinger, 302).

One way they do this may seem like an obvious avenue to take: forming how a book looks through the content of the book. Of course, this is very much a mainstream way of producing commercial books, but if one were to see a book from Ugly Duckling, they’ll see trademarks only the press would produce.

While I’ve only seen two or three of their books, they make it clear that it all started with the letterpress and printmaking. On the cover of A Poetics of the Press, one will see layered designs, possibly linocuts or simply blocks of ink that would only appear from a letterpress. They also have a line dedicated to a’s and o’s, the former written in a solid black sans serif font while the latter is printed red in a serif font.

In their other book I have on me, I Remember Nightfall, it once again has that reminder of where commercial books came from. With a grey, silkscreen-inspired cover and shapes drawn in a maroon and white ink with what seems like a calligraphy pen. Of course, it wasn’t actually put through this process, but it really looks like a section of a mixed modernist and impressionist painting that is based off nightfall.

Another way the press focuses on being ugly is through writing. By this, they basically mean they’re looking for works that would be traditionally rejected by other publications, as they’re more include to reject big-time writers.

As Moschovakis put it: “We want people who aren’t very accomplished” (Schlesinger, 304).

Reading a few pages from Marosa di Giorgio’s I Remember Nightfall is a prime example. Being that it’s translated from its original language is Spanish, it’s already not accomplished, but the content of the writing is even more intriguing.

I should mention, too, that one thing Ugly Duckling does that’s not often seen in other books is that they include translations in the original language and the translation next to it.

The poems in this book, I feel, would be greatly criticized by the general public as well. Readers seemed to have gotten used to wanting the answer right in front of them rather than look for subtle connections; in other words, put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Di Giorgio uses repeated images and the narrator’s imagination to bring the reader on a journey with her through these distractions she’s seeing that help show the reality of the world around her.

As Moschovakis said in the interview, “Now that’s ugly!” (Schlesinger, 306).

As it’s part of the creative response, here’s a poem I wrote in, hopefully, the spirit of Ugly Duckling:

Mom laughed at me when I said I want my relationship to be like a goose’s.

Two were standing near the pond, tearing grass from the earth with black razored beaks,

And when one waddled too far away from the other, it would honk, panicked,

Then run back to the other, wings flapping–

Out of fear of being forgotten, or simply to cover more ground?

The other helped shorten the distance by meeting the panicked one,

Reaching its neck out to form a cartoonish hug.

Now, I hear them flap against creamsicle skies, honking directions at each other,

But I fall back asleep, wondering how my mother couldn’t see how

These odd birds understand what it means to be a flock.

I personally love it when people use images that are fake or delusional or even memories to get a message across. While mine is probably more directly than that of di Giorgio’s, I wanted a good portion of it to be image based, like her’s. One thing I have incorporated into other works of mine that she does is stating fiction as reality, even if there’s hints of it not actually being the case.

Poem four in the section “Magnolia,” it begins with, “When it rains a lot, the angels line up in the garden like tiny druids…” (di Giorgio, 87).

Perhaps these angels are stone ones people set in gardens, and the narrator is imagining them lining up. She ends the poem with her chasing the angels when they fly into the house and presenting her captive to her teacher.

While I haven’t’ had a chance to read the whole book, angels and gardens are two of the recurring themes in her book. I didn’t state it in my poem, but, if this makes any sense, geese are a recurring feature in my life, which is probably why I chose them. My high school was frequented by a nearby flock, every vacation spot had geese, and they recently came back into my life as I hear them in the morning and evenings on campus.

I don’t plan on it presently, but perhaps I’ll make a collection of ugly poems that surround geese, which many agree are some of the less desirable birds in the world. Though Ugly Duckling Presse is named after the bird that nobody wanted, and that habit or that want to be embroiled in the seemingly ugly things of society is what’s needed.

Works Cited:

di Giorgio, Marosa. I Remember Nightfall. Translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017.

Schlesinger, Kyle, et al. “Anna Moschovakis & Matvei Yankelevich.” A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, Cuneiform Press, Austin, TX, 2021, pp. 290-309.

4 thoughts on “CC2: UGLY in Ugly Duckling Presse”

  1. I loved your poem and the way you incorporated the idea of “stating fiction as reality.” I never thought of fiction as ugly before… But I can see that dreams, fantasies, etc. could create distractions which would complicate reality; is that the ugliness Moschovakis refers to?
    The choice of geese as a topic for your poem was brilliant. They are kind of awkward, ornery, obnoxious, (ugly) birds, but your poem draws out an appreciation for them, in the same way that Ugly Duckling fosters an appreciation for less accomplished poets and “ugly” poetry.


  2. Your poem is perfectly Ugly Duckling!! I agree with Oli, the choice of geese for your poem is absolutely inspired; I couldn’t think of another animal better suited for an Ugly Duckling-style poem. Geese in their own nature are just giant ugly ducklings, they’re like swans…but not as graceful or aesthetically pretty. But as you so thoroughly explained, there is “beauty” in “ugly”. I put both those adjectives in quotes because those qualities are very subjective to the viewer and can change based off their viewpoint, which I think is why Ugly Duckling Press is so successful. The press makes beauty from the imperfections in their poetry, in their pages, in their books, and in every aspect they do when publishing books.


  3. Your poem is very fitting for a work inspired by Ugly Duckling Press! I absolutely love it, especially so because I think geese are great. Just as Maddy and Oli said, I think the geese are a very fitting subject matter. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read a lot of poems written about geese. It’s more common for me to come across nature poems written about more traditionally beautiful subjects such as flowers, trees, sunsets, the ocean, etc… The imagery of the geese you create in your poem is beautiful though, which is why it fits so well with Ugly Duckling style work– most things have some form of beauty when viewed through the right lens.


  4. Your post gets me thinking about the meaning of the sign (which came with some UDP book or other and is hung on my corkboard) “Keep Poetry Ugly.” Actually, you’ve gotten me thinking about the dangers, doldrums of “pretty” poetry? The dangers of conforming to an “acceptable” and “likeable” aesthetic instead of, say, being something different. The dangers of staying the same (a duck) vs. changing (into a swan). Keep poetry weird, unpredictable, nonconformist? I think the focus is more, in their case, about the aesthetic risk, than, say, about publishing “un-accomplished” writers. It just so happens pretty poetry gets published by pretty big presses a lot tho, so maybe the difference is moot. Your poem reminds me a bit of Marosa DiGiorgio–a poet from Uruguay whom UDP brought into English.


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