Notes from underground

Scenes from the city's DIY publishing movements.

PRESSING MATTER The Ugly Ducklingcollective uses this letter press toproduce many of their books’ covers.

PRESSING MATTER The Ugly Ducklingcollective uses this letter press toproduce many of their books’ covers.

These days, small publishers don’t draw enough attention to spark book-banning fervors à la Ulysses or Naked Lunch. They do not, like roving illegal loft parties, get raided by the police. But there’s still a rogue jolt of underground sensibility running through a handful of New York City’s independent purveyors of contemporary lit. What distinguishes them is the very thing that keeps them out of the spotlight: Run by people with uncompromising tastes, they put authorial freedom before profit and leave controversies to mainstream attention-mongers like Judith Regan.

According to Johnny Temple, who heads Akashic Press, underground publishers are defined not only by button-pushing tastes but also by their rejection of the bottom-line obsessions that currently guide corporate houses. “We’re very author-oriented—we want to help them achieve their visions,” he says from his office at Brooklyn’s Old Can Factory. “As opposed to big publishers, who will sit down with novelists and tell them what they want them to write.”

Temple started Akashic in 1997 with money he made as the bassist for Girls Against Boys, publishing his first book, Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck Up, with a handshake agreement rather than a signed contract. Though the press has formalized its process and is preparing to publish its 124th book (Nersesian’s The Swing Voter of Staten Island), it has remained loyal to its pro-writer ideals, putting out radical history books, innovative novelists like Felicia Luna Lemus and a number of writers from the Caribbean, such as Marlon James. Temple has also welcomed other curators like novelist Dennis Cooper, who runs Akashic’s Little House on the Bowery imprint, which has showcased a handful of excellent authors (Trinie Dalton, Benjamin Weissman) deemed too offbeat by mainstream presses.

Temple is a torchbearer of underground publishing, but there are other presses that make him look like HarperCollins. Ugly Duckling Presse, also based in the Old Can Factory, is a collective with roots in performance and zine making, and its staff possesses a philosophical curiosity about what makes a book a book. “When we started, we had this very romantic notion of collaboration between fields and interdisciplinary art,” says member Greg Ford. Shortly after the collective started in 2000, the group started creating high-concept works and “paperless books” such as Snow White, a performance based on the Donald Barthelme novel.

Lately, they’ve been focusing on making actual books, the covers of which are printed on a press in the Ugly Duckling office. Their long list of authors includes New York poet Lewis Warsh, as well as obscure European authors such as Lidija Dimkovska or Henry Parland (Ford says of the latter: “He has his roots in the Russian absurd, but he’s also really romantic”). Some books are almost entirely handmade, produced in numbers that range from 25 to 350; other editions, such as last year’s reprint of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s late-’60s zine 0 to 9, run up to 2,000.

One press with idiosyncratic sensibility to burn is Calamari, which puts out limited-run paperbacks such as Miranda Mellis’s dystopic fantasy The Revisionist and Robert Lopez’s nothing-is-what-it-seems psychodrama Part of the World. “These are great writers that I think should be published,” says Derek White, who designs his own covers and publicizes mostly on the Web. He’s well versed in the drawbacks of publishing without official backing. “Everyone wants to discover an unknown band, but nobody wants to read an esoteric book and then have no one to talk about it with,” he says. Calamari lost $4,800 in 2006, a sum that White had to make back at his day job (he currently works at the video website But none of this seems to slow him down: He’s genuinely happy publishing some of his favorite writers—such as Deb Olin Unferth, Peter Markus and Gary Lutz—in small books and in a zine called Sleepingfish.

There are other noteworthy presses (including Spuyten Duyvil, Void and Fugue State) and a few websites (such as Tao Lin’s Bearparade) that will introduce you to eccentric, worthwhile writers you’ve probably never heard of. But at this point in time, the word underground is becoming an increasingly elastic category, one that’s expanding to include former big-house authors. Take relative newcomer Two Dollar Radio, the Brooklyn-based “movement” started by Eric Obenauf in 2005. So far, it has done small runs—around 1,000 copies—of books like high-rise window washer Ivor Hanson’s memoir Life on the Ledge. But in early 2008, TDR will print 5,000 copies of The Drop Edge of Yonder, the new novel by old-school counterculture chronicler Rudolph Wurlitzer, who was once published by Knopf. As mainstream presses become more gentrified, yesterday’s Random House scribes could become today’s underground staples. And that’s a good thing. We should be happy that authors like Wurlitzer, Lutz and Lemus—all of whom were at one point with major publishers—have found homes for their challenging work.

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