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March 26, 2010

Damon Krukowski (Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500) Interviews Poet Matvei Yankelevich

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Deluxe remastered editions of the three Galaxie 500 studio albums are released in the U.S. next week, each complete with bonus CD.

Drowned in Sound wrote of the remastered Galaxie 500 albums:

"In the late Eighties auto tune was a pop producer’s fantasy, still ten years away from inception. Back then, when people used the term ‘indie’, it represented a jangly guitar, lo-fi, no frills, grounded production technique. This trilogy of albums represents far more than Domino doing a dirty flirt with their recently acquired back catalogue baggage. These albums are, in fact, symbolic cultural artifacts that remind us how far independent music has (d)evolved. The music captured here is earthy, warm and full of unpredictable imperfections, rewarding for the most diligent of listeners and soothing for those who like music as wallpaper."

Damon Krukowski is a founding member of the bands Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. He is also the editor/publisher of Exact Change, an independent publishing house.

Matvei Yankelevich is a poet, translator, and publisher, and teaches at Hunter College and Columbia University School of the Arts. His most recent book is the poetry collection Boris by the Sea. He is a founder of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse.

Musician Damon Krukowski interviews poet Matvei Yankelevich:

Damon: Are you interested in the iPad, or any other electronic delivery for books?

Matvei: Sorry to be blunt: I hate iPads and all that junk, because I'm not a gadget person. I mean I don't "hate" the things themselves, I hate the implication that we're all (especially all in publishing) supposed to be thinking about them. I think gadgets are distracting everyone from content, from the work... After all it's just another way to do the same thing. I've already got a way. In fact, I can't see how these things can accommodate form -- a gadget is not a new form. We need new forms, Treplev says in The Seagull, not new gadgets. Alexei Kruchenykh did not say "New gadgets create new content" -- he said, "New forms create new content." And he was right. I reserve the right not to think about how I'm going to work my work into something manageable for a new gadget, a new standardization, a new consumerism. I don't think Ugly Duckling Presse is going to succumb to the pressures of the new gadgetry, because we make books, though if a project comes along that would have something to do with the new gadgetry, I imagine it would be fun to explore ways of subverting it, playing around in that standardized format, or some kind of horsing around with the distribution system involved. For now though, I don't see the iPad (tm), and others, as either a problem or a solution. Our poetry books, artists books, etc., don't need to reach millions of people through that medium, and I don't think it would increase readership significantly, so why bother. Well, that's my pessimistic view. I hope I don't offend, but I wonder why you ask...?

And I also want to know -- have wanted to know for some time -- how you happened upon the idea of publishing books to begin with; why a small press; why "Exact Change"?... Is that a question you want to go into here? Should I narrow it?

Damon: I asked because of your interest in mixing forms -- in your own writing, like in Boris by the Sea -- and at Ugly Duckling, which has published work that sometimes even seems to resist being contained in a "book." But your point about a delivery device like iPad not being connected to form is a good explanation for why you wouldn't find it interesting. On the other hand, how we read does seem connected to what we write, if not also to why. And in music -- this is the other reason I started with this -- everyone has been consumed with this issue for years, as the mp3 and iPod changed not only the way music is sold (or not), but how it's listened to. The album turned out to be a short-lived form. But I really do think the album is a form, not just a format. Did you see that Pink Floyd has won a lawsuit against EMI for selling their songs individually, rather than as the albums they intended?

As for how we started publishing books, that's connected to music too -- we saw friends starting record labels, and we thought why not books? We had older publishing models on our shelves that we looked to for inspiration, like Something Else, and Grove, and New Directions. But what we were looking at around us were labels like Shimmy Disc, Sub Pop, and K. We didn't actually know anyone else making books. And the name "Exact Change" -- we took it from the signs on buses in New York, where we grew up. You needed exact change to get on the bus.

How did you start publishing? Did you have a conscious model you were following?

Matvei: That's a great point you bring up. Yes, challenging the form of the book -- and using the album as a larger unit of composition. It makes sense to me. I've always liked writing books, rather than poems. The relationship of the parts -- the pages, the tracks, and the gaps -- that's what gets me going. Is it really short-lived? I don't know, it's completely internal to me. And, for me, that relates back to materials: I remember doing little booklets on tree-bark or found scraps, working with my close friend, the artist Ellie Ga, on various book-objects of that sort, and crazy distribution projects, like altering the postcards in those public postcard dispensers, etc. Back in the early- or mid-nineties, I used to stick the Ugly Duckling zine in the middle of random periodicals (college newspapers, etc.), so they could act as parasites and get to people who didn't expect to find them. Later, doing the Emergency Gazette (of "theater matters") with Yelena Gluzman, I recall opening up those boxes for free newspapers around NYC and sticking our broadsheet in the little window, or betwixt the damp pages of the Village Voice or New York Press. Distribution's always been interesting to me, and to Anna Moschovakis, and other members of this gang that we call an "editorial collective." And also the form of the book... like what makes a book a book, after all. So many things could be called a book. We even had (and have) a "Paperless Books" department, inactive for a while it's now getting off the ground again, thanks to Yelena Gluzman who sees it as a way of expanding and questioning notions of distribution, and I think it's also a way for us to bring performance back into the equation. Making one-of-a-kind books was a practice all of the earliest "founders" of the press engaged in, making books as gifts (whether just one copy or inexpensive xerox pamphlets to hand out at the Anti-Reading events James Hoff and Ryan Haley organized back then). At the beginning we didn't have a model -- none of the people involved with starting the press had worked in publishing, some weren't even writers -- we had no idea what we were doing, I think. Except that we wanted to do it "our way" whatever that was. Zines and futurist books came first for me, as I wasn't really aware of small presses like Something Else and Burning Deck till a little later, but they were also very influential, or at least some of us idolized them (at least I did, and do).

Personally, I was late to contemporary poetry -- while I was in college I thought nothing was really going on, I'd nearly given up on poetry till I met Filip Marinovich and Julien Poirier in the late 1990s. They just pushed open the door. And the connection of poetry presses in particular to innovative, thoughtful, exploratory as well as no-frills book-making is something that made me get into poetry. Now I probably think about presses as much as poets: how they make their books, how they distribute them, how they form an aesthetic -- this intrigues me sometimes as much as what's written there. Grove and ND (as well as Something Else and Burning Deck in different ways) seem impossible to repeat in this day and age, in terms of the scope of their impact on the culture (same goes for some of the record labels you mentioned)... I met with Barney Rossett once and I was in total awe (distribution again!). Do you think EC has a similar culture-changing project? How about your writing -- how does it relate to what you publish? How do you see its scope or its potential -- or do you accept that you'll reach more people through music? (I always wanted to be a musician, partly for the power of its ephemerality and directness.) Does publishing books effect your desire to write them?

Damon: I love the idea of a "Paperless Book" department! That's way more suggestive than "e paper," because it's not just substituting for the norm, but questioning what makes a book in the first place. But isn't it curious, that as Ugly Duckling was considering whether a physical book was needed to make a "book," engineers and entrepreneurs were cooking up "electronic ink"? The zeitgeist informs both gestures, I think -- our era of analog-to-digital anxiety. (Hmm -- maybe that's how the name "ADD" as a syndrome developed? Didn't the term become widespread around the same time those initials started cropping up on CDs, meaning "analog to digital to digital"? And now it's been changed to "ADHD" -- the high definition version!) But I think that relates to your question about the cultural impact we might hope for from publishing -- yes, not many will read the books we make, but won't they change the ones that do? And here we are in our era, working alongside those Apple engineers. Some of whom may well be on your mailing list.

I think I was first drawn to Ugly Duckling and also to your and Anna's poetry precisely because of these gestures toward the book, or the project of the book, as opposed to the poem. To me, that is also something of a gesture toward the work rather than the poet, if you know what I mean. My love of the Surrealists comes in part from that idea of making books without a writer -- through collaboration, appropriation, the unconscious -- or simply by mining the past, as Breton did, looking for what's been "written out" of the usual history. It's the general idea of "discovery" rather than "creation." My encounters with contemporary poetry have often been disappointing, too, because of what seems like the banal, ego-driven nature of so much of it, from the most mainstream to the most "radical" -- here I am, a poet, and I am reading you a poem so you can experience even more of me. I prefer John Cage's version of authorship, where the composer is also the listener. You know that anecdote Cage tells, of meeting with a psychoanalyst? The analyst tells him that with treatment, he'll be able to write more music. And he says no, that's the problem -- he already writes too much!

As for my own writing -- well, I suppose I write little enough as it is, so that wouldn't be my own line to the analyst. But yes, it's connected to our publishing in that I've always been interested in making books, whether I'm writing them or not. Although I do share the old dream of a poem that can say it all -- like a great 7" single. I bought myself the Beatles' Mono Box Set as a post-holiday present, and have been surprised to find myself listening to the compilation of singles inside it, more than any of the albums. Those singles -- there is so much ambition packed into them. I know they all hit #1, but it's not just that kind of ambition, it's the ambition to do everything you can do, everything you hope to do, in under three minutes. It's like Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire!

Do you ever have that ambition, for a poem? I also wanted to ask you about something I saw you do at a reading, which was striking to me -- you read someone else's poem alongside your own. Like putting a cover in the set.

Matvei: Damon! Cage and the Beatles, my favorite combo. I think it circumscribes an epoch. (Though Cage lasted longer, of course.) Also, these two extremes of music describe somehow the field of my listening. 'Twould be interesting to pair Cage's 4'33'' with a Lennon-McCartney chart-topper of the same length -- but are they all shorter? (That's a funny thing, no?) Rock'n'Roll and DADA [speaking of ADD] is a similar pairing. (Incidentally, I hear the genre-explorations of the Beatles in More Sad Hits -- one of my go-to records, or rather, albums -- and in your more recent music.)

To answer your question -- I rarely aim for anything in a poem; but it's true that I want to write more cumulatively, not so much poems but poetry. It may also have something to do with the reverberations of avant-garde inclinations against the institution built around the finished work, the masterpiece; and the destructive gesture of moving art into the field of life, of social fact, etc. "Discovery" (in opposition to "creation") is one of these avant-garde reverberations as well. (According to his letters, Malevich "discovered" the forms of non-objective painting; he didn't create them.) To make the poem that says it all, one has to pare it down to nothing, or almost nothing. And then, what is it saying? There's a gesture pervading your work, your work as a publisher (in collaboration with Naomi) especially, and even your music and writing, that suggests Cage-ean self-effacement -- at the same time as it also gives the impression of coherent aesthetic ideas -- and a generosity directed at the world, without the common economy of return. That's where the cover and the quotation (and the homage) play an important role, as can a reprint or new edition of something that's nearly disappeared from the shelves, i.e. the conversation. [An Aside: Isn't there something special about the Mono recordings? Digitally cleaned up, of course! But -- since we're speaking about e-readers and such -- what a difference the vinyl makes...]

I'm happy not to write too many poems. Probably that lack of the need to write "more" is what inclines both of us to the weird practice of editing and publishing. I don't know how you keep all of it going (D&N, EC, your writing, your collecting, your cooking...) and appear so calm and unhurried. I've always wanted not to rush, I hate rushing around or rushing things (just now the words of my junior-high English teacher, Mr. Roberts, taunt me: "Where you Russian to?"). So, what's the secret of your calm & collected nature -- seemingly unambitious yet so productive, with achievements that don't come easy...? You probably can't divulge this one, I know.

Another thing that I might persuade you to talk about -- and this fascinates me -- is rhythm: How do you see the difference in musical rhythm (I'm thinking of your sharp and clear syntax on the drums and guitar) and the rhythm of the prose line or poetic paragraph?

Damon: About 4'33" -- I just read Kyle Gann's new book on the subject, and he points out that the typical duration of a 78rpm 12" disc was . . . four and a half minutes. He presents it as one explanation for how Cage came up with that number. He also tells the incredible story that Cage initially thought of it as a potential product for Muzak -- piped-in silence! So yes, it's the ultimate single. Plus you could stamp it mono, stereo, and surround sound all at once.

And the b-side? That would have to be 0'00", an early 60s piece he dedicated to Yoko Ono. "Solo to be performed in any way by anyone. The first performance was the writing of this manuscript."

Which gets us back to poetry. I think that's one of the reasons I return to Cage all the time, his work is simultaneously music and writing. I love what you said about not wanting to write poems so much as poetry -- that's it for me too. And poetry happens in all kinds of way in our lives, it's even something people say as a matter of course: "oh that's so poetic." Yet how many look for that in poems? Those who don't may not be wrong -- I'd say the likelihood of finding poetry in poems is at best equal, and probably much less, than of finding it elsewhere. Something I question all the time for my own writing is why I think poetry is going to happen in words, necessarily. Isn't it also possible that words are an impediment to poetry? Maybe that's why poems worth reading are few and far between. It's like something I remember reading in Morton Feldman: "Music is so hard, no one should have to do it." I don't agree about singing -- it's a joy -- but about poetry . . . I can't say writing has ever been a pleasure for me, exactly. More a compulsion. It's like trying to recreate in waking life something that you dreamed -- a dream of what language might be, but isn't. A recurring dream, motivated by compulsion. How's that for an explanation of why poets write!

But to answer about rhythm -- yes that's joy. I love playing drums, I don't get to do it enough these days and every time I do I start grinning like a fool. And guitar -- there's simply a pleasure to the way a chord sounds when you strum it. When I tire of that -- and I do, on tour or otherwise -- I put the guitar away. It's in its case now, because we were playing very intensely in December and January and then I needed a break. But when I take it back out again, I always find that same simple pleasure waiting for me. Wouldn't it be great, if we could find that in words? Maybe that's my idea of the poem that could say it all -- when language is so pleasurable, it's like music. I have that experience reading, or rather I look for that all the time in my reading and find it from time to time. I'm guessing that's a reason we're both publishers -- you find something like that, you want to share it.

As for calm -- I'm going to show this to Naomi, she'll never believe that's what you see in me! But I'm glad if you do. Now I'll look for it myself.

Matvei Yankelevich links:

Ugly Duckling Presse
His new book, Boris by the Sea

BOMBLog interview with Matvei Yankelevich
PennSound poetry readings by Matvei Yankelevich

Damon Krukowski links and free and legal mp3 downloads:

Wikipedia entry for Damon Krukowski
Damon & Naomi website
Damon & Naomi MySpace page
Exact Change (Damon Krukowski's publishing house)

Damon & Naomi: "Cruel Queen" [mp3] from Within These Walls
Damon & Naomi: "My Flower (Watashi No Hana)" [mp3]
Damon & Naomi: "Eye of the Storm" [mp3] from Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian
Damon & Naomi: "The Mirror Phase" [mp3] from Damon & Naomi with Ghost
Damon & Naomi: "In the Sun" [mp3] from Playback Singers
Damon & Naomi: "Forgot to Get High" [mp3] from The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi
Damon & Naomi: "E.T.A." [mp3] from More Sad Hits

Erasing Clouds interview with
WTBU interview with Damon Krukowski

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks)

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