Soon After First Light: Matvei Yankelevich

Nicole Saldarriaga
October 07, 2020
Headshot of Matvei Yankelevich

Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors. 

Here, we talk with Professor Matvei Yankelevich—poet, translator, and co-founder of Ugly Duckling Presse—about busy schedules, art making, and using the mechanics of writing to inspire new ideas. 

Yankelevich is the author of Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt, Alpha Donut, Boris by the Sea, and several chapbooks, including: Writing in the MarginThe Present WorkThe Nature Poetry of Matvei Yankelevich, and Bending at the Elbow. His translations of the eccentric early 20th century writer Daniil Kharms appeared in HarpersThe New Yorker, and Open City, among others, and were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. He teaches translation and book arts at Columbia University, and has taught at the Russian Department of Hunter College and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. He is a founding member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective where he curates the Eastern European Poets Series.

You’re a poet, a translator, an editor, and the founder of a small press—can you talk a little bit about these different roles and what they look like for you?

MY: For a long time now I’ve been involved with Ugly Duckling Presse, which I helped found and help keep going—although now I’m shifting away from some of my day-to-day responsibilities at the press so that I can actually get to some translating work next year. The press is kind of all-consuming and I haven’t drawn a salary from it until maybe two years ago, when I started getting a little bit of part-time pay. The administrative or “Managing Editor” kind of work that I do is mostly related to getting the books to the printers, which involves some Indesign work and a lot of communication with all the different people who may be involved in a book project like editors, proofreaders, designers, translators, the person writing the introduction, people writing blurbs. What I’m doing is trying to finalize everything to get to the printer—it’s that kind of production management which I’ve learned how to do by just doing it. I don’t have any design background and never studied the stuff. I never worked in publishing. So I kind of created my own publishing job because it’s hard to get a job in publishing but it’s easy to make a publishing job for which you don’t get paid [laughs].

I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work on translating a Russian modernist poet, Osip Mandelstam. A friend of mine, John High, a poet, and I have been working on this translation project for about 15 years, very slowly [laughs]. It’s all about sticking with a project. I mean, even a lot of the book projects that I do for UDP take several years to develop and edit. But as a translator many of the projects I’ve worked on take forever. So John and I have been working—it used to be we would meet up in his apartment or in the back garden at his Brooklyn place and work for a few hours and make some headway on a poem and then a month later meet again and work on another poem, but now in the pandemic we’ve been working over the phone. And we’ve actually been doing it two or three times a week so that we can really make progress. Next year he has a grant too, so we can actually try to finalize this project. After 15 years of piecemeal translating we're going to be able to concentrate, which is sort of unusual.

It sounds like Ugly Duckling Press has really been a labor of love—especially considering that it started out as a zine that you made and distributed by hand when you were in college. What drew you to pour so much energy into the press and how has this work contributed to your own art?

MY: I’m increasingly itching to do things a little differently because I’ve spent 20 years trying to keep this thing afloat—but also, you know, investing a lot of time in great projects and helping get books out into the world that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I think we’ve published something like three or four hundred titles. A lot of them have involved quite a lot of labor, especially working with translators for the Eastern European Poets Series that I’ve been doing. The experience has given me a lot in terms of working with writers, working with other poets, and envisioning “what a book is,” like after it's the manuscript—because when it’s a manuscript it’s not yet a book and a lot of things change in the process.

Especially in those earlier days of working with my peers and trying to get their books out in the world, and trying to make decisions around editing with them, figuring out the different possibilities of the manuscript whether it’s line editing or just moving things around—that was extremely helpful in trying to figure out other people’s motivations. This led to thinking through my own motivations for how I would form a manuscript. I’ve gotten to work with so many different people over the years with so many different approaches, so many different sensitivities and different kinds of ears and aesthetics, and also with visual artists and so on and so forth. So the variety of projects has been extremely rewarding in terms of an education. Maybe my personal MFA was sort of helping create the books but also going to readings at Poetry Project and stuff like that—that was my MFA, and it took many years to complete it.

Let’s talk about process. What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project, whether that’s a translation or a poem?

MY: That's a really good question that I ask myself sometimes [laughs].

I don't actually know. I was describing this 15-year-long translation project, you know, it's sort of improvised—Oh, let's meet up and do a poem. With books for the press, there's some kind of timeline, you know; but with my own writing, it is something that I kind of do in between and here and there. I've had a couple of residencies, which I did find very helpful in terms of finding a way to get into the zone—that zone of having three or four days to just sit with the work. Actually, editing my own work is always in some ways the most exciting part of the writing process for me. It’s where I'm understanding something about the intentions that happened in the scribbling process or in the early composition process, and then actually getting to a place where I'm sort of shaping things, or honing or, you know, somehow understanding the work and what it can do. It's really hard for me to find that time actually, because the press does take a lot of those days; but there’s sometimes a few days where that can happen.

Publishing is mostly correspondence, and that kind of writing can get in the way of my writing. I don't mind it. I'll let a manuscript sit for six months and then I'll revisit it. Totally change it. Or, you know, re-edit. The last book I published was a while ago now, but it took five years to write. It's very short—45 poems that are connected—but it took me like five years to get to the point where it had the shape I wanted and I felt I was done with it.

It sounds like that longer gestational period is very much a part of your process. Can you speak to the connection between that process and the work itself? How do they feed off each other?

MY: My work deals a lot with the passage of time, with memory and experience. Perhaps experience in even a Blakean sense. So the time that it takes is sort of inscribed in the work in some way. I'll publish an early version of a poem in a magazine, but I might totally change it by the time it's in a book. I like that experience because it helps me understand the poems to see them in print and see what I don't like about them [laughs]—to kind of step back and say, Okay, well, that's not quite finished.

I've always fantasized about a novel I can write in a weekend, you know, like if I could pull an all-nighter I could write this novella and it would be like Kerouac or something, but it’s just not me. I don't think I work that way. I’m not usually happy with the results of an all-nighter except for a few lines. I also don't have the routine of like a Hemingway early morning—the sunrise to breakfast kind of routine—which some people do. I tend to be up late unwinding after a long day at work when something starts to spin in my mind around a line, around an image, or around an experience. Then I'll just stay up late scribbling for a little while. It’s quiet and no one needs me to answer an email. For me, it's important to find those moments in different places, either late at night or on a trip or something.

When you do have a larger chunk of time—a weekend or a trip, let’s say—how do you get yourself back into “the zone,” especially if it’s been a little while? Do you ever have trouble getting back into the work?

MY: Sometimes it's like two days of doing nothing, I think [laughs]. And I'm okay with that. I learned that I can't really push it. What really gets me into it is if I can sit down with the stack of papers or the notebooks and just start typing, even if I'm just typing up something I scribbled. Then the composition gears start turning. I can turn that into something or decide that only this little part of it is useful and add something from somewhere else—you know, tinker. Once I'm in the tinkering mode, it's almost like printing, which I've learned how to do through tinkering with the letterpress. I’ll tinker and think Oh, this little thing isn't quite rightHow do I make this work better? You get involved in the tinkering as you're doing it. That's usually the engine that gets me going and then I can generate new writing. Once I'm in that space—really inside the words, inside the lines—then I can start composing or making more or reducing things to what they need to be. 

Let’s talk about Boris by the Sea. I’ve seen two iterations of Boris, now—I have the novella version published by Octopus Books, but I also saw that the project started out as an art book published through UDP. Can you talk me through the process, from conceiving the idea to the version I’m holding now?

MY: It was also one of those long processes. I think the book came out in 2009 or something—but I wrote most of it in the late nineties. So before it became a book it had a lot of lives.

I was writing these little bits and pieces with this one protagonist that would show up. While the work was still kind of in process, I did a lot of collaborating with a friend of mine, artist Ellie Ga. We were working in the late nineties on little collaborations with art and text, and we were using these stories to make little pieces, tiny books, tiny postcards, and different kinds of Xerox art. And then when Ellie had a residency at Women's Studio Workshop in upstate New York, they had a little letter-press room and I came up to visit and we played around. It was the first time I had played around with letterpress and she started making this artist's book called Borises by the Sea. It was just 50 copies, and we put UDP on it, but it wasn't really published. Some friends bought it and it was maybe in a show or something. It was just an interesting sort of trial run that helped me consider, How do these pieces work together? Can one make a collection out of this? What is the work? I had to understand what the book was—all of those iterations of it, like the artist’s book, were really material-based iterations. That actually helped me make the text into “a thing”—because I feel like one is always asking with writing and especially with poetry, How do I make this text into “a thing”?—in the sense of the text becoming an object. You can talk about “the book” and not just “the text.” The artist’s book gave me a chance to kind of think about what a book of Boris would be. It took a while to find its final form and then it was like, okay, well, that's done, it's out there.

Where do you normally find inspiration for your work? Has this changed for you after the pandemic lockdowns?

MY: [After the lockdowns] you don't overhear as much and overhearing is a big part of my process. I think maybe I've been doing more “overhearing” in books, in movies, and in the lectures that I hear online. I’ve been watching a lot of films in the last couple of months. I didn’t use to watch movies at home at all. I like the whole communal aspect of the movie theater, so I didn't really watch movies at home on my tiny laptop. But I've gotten into it recently and maybe part of it is the interest in just hearing other voices or other languages. Recently I've been really into Lucrecia Martel, an Argentinian filmmaker.

I feel like at the root, my field of inspiration hasn't changed very much because it's usually books. What inspires me is usually just other people's writing, poetry from different eras, philosophy, theory—the large history of human thought.

Music is also that way for me, where I go down rabbit holes of listening to experimental music of various kinds and trying to figure out what motivated that music, what it meant in its particular time. I've never been systematic about it, but it's something that I've constantly come back to, just because I do draw some inspiration from listening to music, particularly for thinking about form and musical structure in poetry. Boris is in a lot of ways related to music—the sections are like little improvisations on a theme.

What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?

MY: The poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko told me something like, whatever you do, write something on the first day of the year [laughs]. It was very simple advice. Take a moment on the first day of the new year and write a page. But it's sort of weird, 'cause you always hear advice like write a page every day, write three pages every day, write five pages. It's like a diet and I can’t stick to a diet anyway. Some days it's just not the day. I think it's different if you have a studio practice as an artist, but you can't do that every day, unless you really are a full-time artist. For me, that’s not possible. So I like to think, everything is part of your practice, right? Every book you're reading, every film you're watching, music, conversations, working with other people—that’s all a big part of my practice. So there's no reason to limit that space so much and just say Oh, it has to be two or three pages a day.

I am interested in writing, especially poetry, as the kind of thing that nobody needs that you don't get paid for. You make it for society and society rejects it, you know? [laughs]. For that to be the case, I think it has to be kind of anarchic. You have to do it when you want and not be bound by any rules. So I'm into the no-rules kind of thing. But Arkadii's advice about writing on the first day of the new year—it's a little bit sentimental, but there's something about making sure you at least do that. Then again you can feel guilty if you don't do it. I don't know if you need that as a writer—feeling guilty for not writing. I did a translation of Daniil Kharms that I titled Today I Wrote Nothing. In his journal in the 1930s he wrote down “today, I wrote nothing—doesn't matter,” and then he wrote the date. I think that's a really great thing—to write down when you didn't write something. It's a kind of writing, writing down what you didn't do. It’s a kind of action in itself.

What are you working on now and what’s next?

MY: Right now I'm working on the Mandelstam poems and I’m slowly working on this project called From a Winter Notebook. I'm also in the middle of helping edit a book of interviews about letterpress and poetry. I'm also editing and working with a couple of people on a book about race and media images in the Soviet Union—so like, Soviet propaganda and race, which is a really interesting book with a number of essays and reproductions of posters and such.

In From a Winter Notebook, I'm trying to investigate the lyric poem or the love poem, but also particularly the idea of the complaint in poetry. Something that I find really interesting in classical poetry is the sort of “masculine complaint,” where this whining poet is wanting pity. It's a very weak idea of masculinity and seems interesting to me, especially because the expression of white, male heterosexual desire is so complicated right now. So I'm interested in the history of poetry—the many ways that the poem expresses a very different kind of masculinity through complaint, contrition and the desire to be understood. It’s very different from our current conceptions of masculinity. The book is also about obsolescence, so I'm working with a lot of older forms of poetry because I'm interested in winter as a trope and a cliché, the idea that things are dying or becoming obsolete, or they're slowly moving into the past, like me, [laughs].

Recently published poems from Yankelevich's From a Winter Notebook series can be found in BOMB Magazine and Brooklyn Rail.