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Small Press Spotlight

Introduction to Exact Change
Interview with Damon Krukowski
Selected Publications
Links

Introduction

Boston-based Exact Change has exactly two employees: Damon Krukowski, editor, and Naomi Yang, designer. Together they comprised two-thirds of the late 80s Boston band, Galaxie 500, and currently tour the world in their band, Damon and Naomi. They founded Exact Change press in 1989, when it occurred to Damon, “We knew a lot of people running small record labels, and we thought: why not do the same with books?”
Exact Change has published thirty books to date, some of them reprints of translations, first published in the 1960s by presses like City Lights and Grove, while others are original releases. Exact Change’s titles include Dada and Surrealist visionaries like Louis Aragon and Phillippe Soupault along with their ideological forefathers: illuminated madmen like Jarry and de Nerval; the books by those confined to the shadowy corners of literary history, like Alice James, sister of William and Henry James; and literary pieces by the twentieth century’s greatest painters and composers, including Picasso, Dali, and Cage.
Exact Change strives to faithfully represent these authors’ works, collecting them as originally intended, complete and dutifully translated. Similar care is found in Naomi Yang’s stylish book design, which is experimental, but never obtrusively so. Her impeccably clean layouts and choice of fonts make Exact Change books some of the most handsomely produced paperbacks on bookstore shelves.
Erik Ketzan and Allen B. Ruch of The Modern Word interviewed Damon Krukowski over email.

Interview

The Modern Word: What are you reading right now?

Damon Krukowski: I just read the very funny novel The Guide, by Narayan, at the recommendation of a friend who often leads me to great funny books, the poet Keith Waldrop. I’m reading a new translation of Celan’s poems. And a work of criticism I somehow managed to avoid all through graduate school, Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. I couldn’t resist that great title any longer. But in the end I think the title might be what I like best about that book.

Your general theme is surrealism, dada, pataphysics, and the avant-garde. Assuming this emerged from your personal taste, do you have any additional criteria or “screening process” you use in selecting new titles?

No, but the list is also determined by a lot of happenstance: what titles need to be published or reprinted, what rights are available, what someone is interested in translating, what we can afford to undertake…the list is an intersection of conditions like these, with our personal enthusiasms.

You publish books by John Cage and Morton Feldman. Given your musical background, do you have a particular fondness for books by composers, or do you see these as merely an extension of Exact Change’s general theme?

We’ve published a number of collections of writings by artists: painters, musicians, and one filmmaker (Chris Marker). Cage’s writing is a poetics – it applies to all the arts. And Feldman wrote about painting almost as much as he did about music. But in any case a lot of our list is written by artists – not only essays, but also some of the fiction, like Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Unica Zürn’s Dark Spring…even Denton Welch was a painter before he was a writer.

You will publish a volume of Picasso’s poetry soon. How did Exact Change get involved in this project?

This is a project that took a long time to put together. It started with reading Gertrude Stein, because she talks (very disapprovingly) about Picasso’s poems…We found the poems in French (they were written originally in both French and Spanish), realized that for the most part they had never been translated into English, and felt they deserved to be. We asked Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris if they might be interested in the project, because the work seemed like something that would appeal to them – and they took to it so enthusiastically that later Jerry even included some of his translations in one of his own books of poems! Gallimard welcomed the idea, and the French government helped with a grant for the translators. And here we are, a number of years later, the translation finished, and the book finally in production. I think it might help rescue Picasso from cliché – his poems are as surprising on the page, as his visual art must have looked 75 years ago.

Most of your authors are represented by a single title, but you publish three books by Denton Welch. Do you see yourself as being a particular advocate of Welch?

I think we consider ourselves particular advocates of all the books we’ve published; and actually we’ve also published, or are in the process of publishing, more than one title by Apollinaire, Aragon, Pessoa, Dali, and we have plans to do so with others on our list. In Welch’s case, all his writings were unavailable in both the US and the UK; so we worked to reprint all three of his novels.

Exact Change is also the North American distributor for Atlas Press. How did this relationship begin, and where does it stand today?

We just ended that official relationship, unfortunately. We recently changed distributors, to DAP, and Atlas didn’t make the move with us. But they remain our friends and comrades – we admire what they do, and we were distributing the books in order to support their efforts as best we could.

Mark Pollizzotti, author of Revolution of the Mind, a gentleman who also admires many of your favorite writers, said a few years ago in interview, “have we really moved closer to ‘changing life’ and ‘transforming the world’ (Breton’s two watchwords) than we were in his day? If anything, I suspect it’s the reverse.” Do you have any response to Breton’s or Mr Pollizzotti’s statements?

I don’t think Surrealism, as a project that linked the imagination and politics, failed – certainly Breton as a politician failed in many respects – but didn’t Breton’s assertion that art can transform the world, in fact transform the world?

Do you happen to have any special interest in any of the core “Modern Word” writers? (Pynchon, Eco, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Borges, García Márquez, etc.)

Kafka, Beckett, and Borges are among my greatest heroes. To return to your earlier question, didn’t they each transform the world? At times I think we live in the world they invented.

That’s an interesting statement. Do you care to elaborate?

I think the imagination runs ahead of history – because it’s through the terms we have to describe it, that reality takes shape for us. Often those terms come from artists. In some cases, the terms they invented have even been abstracted to adjectives – Kafkaesque, etc – that are now applied to the world as much as to other literature.

Which Exact Change book has sold the most copies? Which the least?

A sorry but probably predictable experience of ours is that the more famous the author, the easier a book is to sell, regardless of content. We expect to sell a large number of our upcoming title by Picasso, despite the fact that the writing in it is probably more obscure than most all our other titles. And the converse holds: a book by a lesser known author, like Stefan Themerson, is a tough sell, even though his might be among our most amusing and readable titles on the list! We find all our books equally appealing, so we’re surprised there are such differences.

What book would you like to have published that either got away from you, or was published before you started your company?

Well the press was started in part because I very much wanted a copy of a volume of Marcel Duchamp’s writings called Salt Seller, which was out of print and impossible to find in used book stores. I xeroxed the text from the library, but kept wishing someone would reprint it. And then one day I went to the store and there it was, from Da Capo (under a different title, however). I looked at the copyright page, saw that they had licensed the out of print edition, and realized: we could have done that ourselves, instead of just wishing and hoping!

What’s next for Exact Change?

A previously untranslated prose work by Fernando Pessoa, our second volume of his work.

Oh, and – is there a story behind the name “Exact Change?”

Naomi and I both grew up in New York City, and it used to be on all the buses. It’s on tollbooths everywhere, too. Just a found phrase in the landscape. But we like how it could also be taken as an imperative.

Do you have a bookshelf at home where all the Exact Change books you published are lined up next to each other, just to admire them? That’s what I would do.

The irony is we most often find ourselves surrounded by “hurts” – the damaged, returned copies of our books! We have so many of those, they tend to be the ones we most usually look at here in the office…all the nice shiny ones are at the distributor’s warehouse. But thank you, we’ve always thought of the books as a little library, that would look good together on a shelf. Come to think of it, that’s how my parents keep their copies, and it looks very nice!

Selected Publications

The Blue Octavo Notebooks

by Franz Kafka

Exact Change, 1991, repr. 2004, ISBN 1-878972-04-9; Paperback $13.95. [Browse/Purchase]

This is not the first Kafka book one should read. It is not even the fifth, but for the dedicated Kafka reader, the Blue Octavo Notebooks display one more facet of the master’s glittering mind. Kafka filled the Notebooks with drafts of letters, scraps of stories, and a wealth of standalone ideas, but the volume ’s most interesting addition is “Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way,” a collection of 109 thoughts and aphorisms, culled largely from the Notebooks, numbered and arranged by Kafka. Many of Kafka’s short stories display his remarkable economy of prose; Give it Up, although only a paragraph long, is a masterpiece of storytelling. But the thoughts included here in “Reflections” offer Kafka distilled even further, a Kafka to savor one powerful thought at a time, like sipping a strong, strong drink. Like all of his novels, “Reflections” was left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, but some of the most fascinating Reflections are those he marked to rewrite: “The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.” (Reflection 29, pg.88).

Maldoror and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont

by Isidore Ducasse, trans. by Alexis Lykiard

Exact Change, 1994, ISBN 1-878972-12-X; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

André Breton called Maldoror, “the expression of a revelation so complete it seems to exceed human potential.” Maldoror was the work of Isidore Ducasse, who lived from 1846-1870, dying in famine-stricken Paris during the siege which ended the Franco-Prussian War, a few months short of his 25th birthday.
Little is known of Ducasse’s life, but the works he left behind, complete in this Exact Change volume, include Maldoror (divided into six Cantos) and Ducasse’s Poesies. Unprintable in France during Ducasse’s lifetime, Maldoror languished in complete obscurity for fifty years before being rediscovered by Breton and the Surrealists.
Maldoror is book length, but neither novel nor prose poem, entirely. It is macabre, to say the least: “I am filthy. Lice knaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus… From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with umbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries.” (142) Ducasse has often been compared to his near contemporary, Arthur Rimbaud (born in 1854; although Rimbaud lived until 1891, his creative life ended around 1873, only a few years after Ducasse’s death) because Maldoror shares much with A Season in Hell: the hallucinatory, visionary prose, relentless creativity (the famous Surrealist phrase, “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine,” comes from Maldoror), and fervent exploration of the mind’s darkest reaches.
Exact Change’s Complete Works collects the best translation of Ducasse available in English – which we know because the translator, Alexis Lykiard, tells us so. In his Notes on the Text and Translation, Lykiard dismisses previous translators of Ducasse one by one: “The first English edition, Rodker’s in 1924 is, unfortunately, an archaic travesty…while Wernham’s 1943 guerilla war on the text is even worse. Mr. Wernham is guilty of the crassest mistakes on every page… As for my successors, the so-called Penguin Classics edition (trans. P. Knight, inexplicably reprinted in 1988) is a disgrace… Generally dull, it is more often incorrect and certainly incomplete.” (22) I’m glad we have Mr Lykiard on our side.

Aurélia & Other Writings

by Gérard de Nerval

Exact Change, 1996, ISBN 1-878972-09-X; Paperback $13.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Admired by Proust and referenced by Eliot in The Waste Land, Gerard de Nerval is the most popular of obscure French writers.
De Nerval reads like Proust abridged, Combray cut free from the endless paperoles pasted into the margins of Proust’s manuscripts. De Nerval was a lonely, solitary romantic, whose universe stretched only from Paris to the tranquil French countryside, from an actress feverishly desired from afar to a childhood friend living free of the city’s corrosive passions. De Nerval lived from 1805-1855, but his voice sounds surprisingly modern, probably due to his unique combination of romanticism and, trembling under the skin, the madness which would eventually consume him.
One of de Nerval’s stories contained in this volume, Sylvie, was referred to by Umberto Eco as “one of the greatest books ever written.” Eco devoted much of his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods to exploring Sylvie and its subtle literary devices, writing further that, “Every time I pick up Sylvie, even though I know it in such an anatomical way – perhaps because I know it so well – I fall in love with it again, as if I were reading it for the first time.”

Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician

by Alfred Jarry

Exact Change, 1996, ISBN 0-9673215-7-3; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home.
–The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

Another experimental writer revived by the Surrealists, Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) is best known for his nihilist/absurdist play, Ubu Roi. Like all Jarry’s works, Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, written in his mid-twenties, is an absurdist romp, but one which engages the literary milieu of his day more than Ubu. “Any summary of Jarry’ s novel must remain highly hypothetical,” warns Roger Shattuck, in the work’s introduction, but generally, Dr. Faustroll is an outlandish old man forced to flee Paris to avoid paying his considerable back rent. With the local bailiff manning the oars (kept docile with alcohol and chained to the boat) and a baboon named Bosse-de-Nage (whose colorful ass callosity has been grafted onto his face, blue on one cheek, red on the other, in mockery of the French Tricolor) in tow, Faustroll takes off in a skiff in the form of a giant sieve, in other words, a boat full of holes.
In this literal ship of fools, Faustroll embarks upon an island-hopping adventure in the vein of Homer’s Odyssey, encountering strange nations ruled by even stranger kings. One, the monarch of the Fragrant Isle, plays “a zither with seven strings of seven colors, the eternal colors… As the skiff cast off from the reefs, we saw the king’s wives chasing from the island a little legless cripple sprouting green seaweed lie a wizened crab.” (44) The islands Dr. Faustroll visits, like the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, simply teem with endless parades of bizarre creatures, people, and things. In Dr. Faustroll, Jarry coined the term, “pataphysics,” which he explicates as an “anti-science” of laws governing exceptions, rather than universal rules. Here, “pataphysics” could describe the density of Jarry’s incomparable imagery.
Although Jarry is most often remembered as a nutty fin de siècle nihilist, there is much in Dr Faustroll which predicts the tone and themes of Thomas Pynchon. Both Jarry and Pynchon treat science as their literary plaything, sharing an obsession with both the minutiae and overarching human implications of scientific concepts and inventions. But the real similarity is in their prose: surgically precise, erudite language describing preposterous absurdities of remarkable originality.

Links

Exact Change Homepage – The official homepage of Exact Change.

Damon and Naomi – The Exact Change creative team’s band, Damon and Naomi.

Turtle Point Press – Turtle Point Press will publish Damon Krukowski’s first collection of prose poems, The Memory Theater Burned, later in 2004.

Denton Welch: Doomed to Perennial Rediscovery – Michael Cisco discusses Denton Welch in his Modern Word column, “Jungle Mind.”