Messiness Is a Beauty of its Own: An Interview with Sarah McCarry

A special post today for our readers- our final (for now) interview from contributor Matt Runkle. He is moving away from the Bay Area to pursue graduate studies at the University of Iowa, leaving a trail of excellent SFCB blog interviews in his wake. Good luck, Matt, we’ll miss you around here. Readers, enjoy this honest and lovely interview with Sarah McCarry of Ugly Duckling Press. -Rocket

Where do I start with Sarah McCarry? How about a personal disclosure: we were kids together long ago in a remote corner of the northwest. It was in those years she became a dedicated zinester, and began writing and producing her title, Glossolalia. She’s also a letterpress printer who first showed me the typesetting basics on a tabletop proofing press. Since then, she went on to work in the publishing industry and found a hugely successful blog, The Rejectionist, originally based on her experiences therein. More recently, she finished a novel with the assistance of a MacDowell fellowship and is now gearing up to launch a series of nonfiction chapbooks.

Her day job these days is as Presse Manager at poetry heroes, Ugly Duckling Presse, where she works some administrative magic, bringing order to an operation that thrives on creative chaos. UDP is a poetry press run by an editorial collective whose stated mission is to “explore what makes a book a Book.” They’ve published over 200 titles since they began as a single photocopied zine in 1993, including artist’s books, broadsides, and performance texts. I was happy to catch up with Sarah recently and get some insight into the inner workings of Ugly Duckling, as well as the many other hats she wears.

Sarah McCarry / Photo: Meg Clark

Matt Runkle: UDP’s website talks about the name Ugly Duckling as a “general exaltation of the mess as a kind of antipode to beauty, and aversion to computers and gloss.” UDP started in the thick of nineties zine culture, making Xeroxed newsletters without any “intention of becoming a swan.” I’m curious about this aesthetic of messiness that seemed to come to a head around the same time computers first started taking over our lives. Why is it still resonant today? As technologies morph faster and faster, how does such an aesthetic keep its head above water in an increasingly slick-ified world?

Sarah McCarry: Everyone at UDP would probably answer this question differently, but for me I think our books have a visceral appeal that stands out—whenever I’m tabling at book fairs or conferences people can’t resist picking the books up and handling them. The messiness is a beauty of its own. I think over the years we’ve transitioned to a much more refined sort of mess, too; the books still have that very tactile and hand-assembled quality, but our cover designs tend to be pretty elegant. I like to think of the mess as more symbolic—a resistance to increasingly corporatized methods of production and distribution. Both our co-directors and all the editorial collective members are volunteers; when you have a culture of people who care so much about what they’re doing that they do what is basically a full-time job for free, it shows in the work you create.

UDP’s letterpress studio / Photo: UDP

MR: Can you give a rundown of a typical day of work for you at UDP?

SM: There are so many different parts to my job that every day is a little different! I usually spend the morning responding to emails, processing book orders, doing bookkeeping stuff—all the little tedious bits of keeping the office running. I’ll remind editors with upcoming books of where they should be at in their production schedules, work on the website, post events to twitter and facebook, sign us up for events and find people to staff them, coordinate with our production manager to make sure covers get printed and chapbooks get assembled, send out review copies, pay bills, fix the drain… I’m equal parts office manager, publicist, cat herder, imposer of order. Probably my favorite part of my job is working with our interns; we consistently have some of the most fantastic people come through here, and they do a lot to keep the office running as well.

MR: You’ve written and published the zine, Glossolalia, for years. It’s often had a similar aesthetic/production process as UDP titles, where a letterpress cover conceals contents that are more practically printed (offset, photocopied). Has your recent work at UDP influenced what you do with Glossolalia?

SM: I only put out about one issue a year now, and I haven’t actually published one since I started at UDP in January! Being here has inspired me to finally start up a project that’s been on the back burner for a long time, which is a nonfiction chapbook series. I’ll be publishing radical essays once every few months with the same general aesthetic as Glossolalia: offset or laser-printed guts, letterpressed covers, hand-sewn bindings. The first essay is a piece on book-banning in Arizona by my friend Bojan Louis, who’s a poet and a genius. Should be out in August.

Glossolalia 11 / Photo: Sarah McCarry

MR: You’re a prose writer who also prints with letterpress, a much rarer combination than the poet/letterpress printer. Do you think there’s something beyond the impracticality of setting long blocks of prose that generally prevents non-poets from engaging with the form? And if so, why do you think you break that mold?

SM: Oh, I always cheat—I always use typewriters or a computer for text, and then photocopy. I love hand-setting posters and covers, which I think offers the same opportunity for obsessiveness as setting longer blocks of text, but with much more immediate reward. I learned to print from Rebecca Gilbert, who was a fantastically meticulous teacher and who never let me get away with anything sloppy, for which I’m still grateful.

I’m not sure why more prose writers don’t use letterpress—if you’re averse to the idea of setting blocks of text, you can always print from plates. I think there’s probably more of a tradition of self-publishing in poetry, which leads people to look for different kinds of printing methods.

Maybe Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back / Photo: Sarah McCarry

MR: As a letterpress printer/poetry press manager/publishing industry insider/ soon-to-be-published novelist, what are your thoughts on the future of the book as an object?

SM: I think there will always be a place for the physical book, particularly well-designed physical books. E-books have a lot of advantages, obviously, but there is something irreplaceable about the experience of the book as an object. People often seem to assume the future is either/or, and there’s no reason that should be true; plenty of people who have e-readers also have physical libraries. Smart Big 6 publishers are putting out physical books with beautiful covers and other design elements that don’t translate to an electronic medium, and a lot of independent small presses have been doing this already for years. Obviously Ugly Duckling books have aspects to them that are irreplaceable electronically (although we are talking about doing some e-books, and we have an online archive of our out-of-print chapbooks here: Robert Darnton is someone who writes very beautifully and very well about the ways in which physical books and e-books can and do coexist.

Some people get quite dramatic about the pending demise of the physical book, but I think a lot of that stems from a general propensity to wax hyperbolic on the internet. I am someone who believes pretty fervently that civilization as we know it will come to an end in my lifetime and I’ll be hunkered down in the woods somewhere with my library and a shotgun, but I realize that vision of the future is not shared by everyone.

MR: You have a novel coming out next year! Can you talk about it?

SM: Yes! It’s called All Our Pretty Songs, and it’s coming out in the spring of 2013. It’s a very goth retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1990s Seattle.

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Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle's writing has appeared in The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, on BOMBlog, and is forthcoming in Wigleaf. A former Cartoon Art Museum resident, his comics are anthologized in Sparkplug Comic Books' Gay Genius and Rob Kirby's THREE. The third issue of his zine, RUNX TALES, will be released in 2012. Brooklyn Arts Press will publish a collection of his short fiction in 2013. You can visit his personal blog here.

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