The literary legend on his new book, about a personal evolution, and those he's published; MFA's and prizes; and the ongoing river of language.
“Writing is a psychic challenge,” Jonathan Galassi tells me. “You are putting yourself on the line. You don’t know if you can do it, even the greatest of writers feel that way.” Writing is what seems to be paramount on his mind. We’re sitting in his office at Farrar, Straus & Giroux where Galassi is an editor, President, and Publisher. He is a well-known literary personality but remains an old-fashioned gentleman with an intense gaze and kind mien. Controversy has surrounded him after his alleged romantic link to the literary Agent Bill Clegg and his recent divorce, after thirty-six years of marriage, to Susan Grace Galassi, with whom he had two daughters.
This journey is echoed in his new collection of poetry, Left-handed—a raw and melancholic series of poems—aching, and on fire. The narrator begins in middle age, contending with a life that in some ways has still been unlived. It depicts a marriage that ends in a painful divorce, when the speaker in the book decides to accept his homosexuality.
In the title poem, the speaker, similar to Galassi’s experience, says “my parents understood I was left-handed / and didn’t make me write against the grain / the way so many people their age had to.” Born in 1949, Galassi spent his earlier years in southeastern Massachusetts, went to boarding school in New Hampshire, moved to New York in the mid-’70s. He studied at Harvard University, spent two years at Cambridge, and then discovered Italy, where his love of the language, literature, and country began. This affinity for language resulted in many poetry translations, including the poet Eugenio Montale: The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays (1982) and Collected Poems 1920–1954 (1998).
We discuss Eugenio Montale, whom he has spent over 25 years translating, Italian writers Franco Fortini, Patrizia Valduga, Italo Testa, Antonella Anedda, Nicola Gardini, Italian literary movements like the neometrical Gruppo 93, the neoavanguardia, and the experimentalists. We also discuss how Italian literature influenced his work as well as his American influences, such as Elizabeth Bishop. Galassi’s first volume of poetry Morning Run was published in 1988 and in 2000, his second volume North Street.
Galassi is the most animated when we start speaking about the books he has read and published. His reaction to certain books can only be described as awe-struck, books like Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow or Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. His passion for literature, vision, and knowledge about the publishing business has helped FSG to thrive. Before assuming his current position, he was senior editor at Random House/Houghton Mifflin, and the poetry editor of the Paris Review for a decade. He received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award in 2008, recognizing his exceptional work in publishing. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets.
The walls of his office are lined with books, and some memorabilia, the raindrops settling on the huge window of his office, Galassi’s composure, settled within his own skin, echo the lines in Eugenio’s Montale’s poem “Glory of Expanded Noon,” which he translated: “My day is not yet done: / the finest hour is over the low wall.” Left-handed seems to be the beginning of that hour, of a new poetic overture for Galassi. What will he write next? As the final line of Montale’s poem reminds us: “there’s greater joy in waiting.”
—Nathalie Handal for Guernica
Guernica: Left-Handed has a prosaic quality to it yet there is a lingering formality. The blend of narration and formal inventiveness seem to echo the revelations made by the narrator in the book. Were you conscious of that while writing?
Jonathan Galassi: Well, the book was written over a lot of years and there are changes in the style that reflect the passage of time and changes in my own awareness and my own frame of mind, what was going in my life. The book is about a personal evolution but there is also a corresponding stylistic development.
Guernica: Most of the poems have short lines, forming a sort of column, which at times can look like an “I”—can you speak about what you were trying to achieve?
Jonathan Galassi: I definitely tried using various arbitrary widths in many of the poems as a way of breaking up the way they were read. When they are read aloud you don’t hear that. Some of these poems are in very traditional form in fact, with rhyme, etc. There is a columnar quality to them. Somebody else said that it felt like the sides of the page were pushing in on the poems, which I thought was interesting, as there is a certain kind of pressure involved. I developed this as a response to the emotional pressure that was generating the poems. It really came out of some experiments of a friend and mentor of mine, the poet and publisher James Laughlin. He had fooled around with similar sorts of things under the influence of William Carlos Williams. A lot of people thought it was a response to James Schuyler who does similar things but it wasn’t that in fact. Schuyler might have been a subconscious influence, but my method was definitely inspired by Laughlin.
Guernica: Repression followed by reconciliation with homosexuality unfolds. You write: “Why did it happen this way/ and what took you so long?” Did something specific trigger this?
Identity is the continuity in a personality that survives through various vicissitudes, through change.
Jonathan Galassi: Yes, there was a new person who came into my life and rearranged it. But that quotation is from the earlier part of the book before it all happens. And there I am sort of imagining someone coming into my life, and in a way, it’s sort of a prediction of what came later, although I didn’t know that at the time.
Guernica: You write, “always the seesaw back-and-forth/ always the lack of the great here and now.” What has been your greatest discovery concerning identity, its contradictions?
Jonathan Galassi: Identity is the continuity in a personality that survives through various vicissitudes, through change. The person at the end of the book is that same person at the beginning, and yet he’s been through a wrenching transformation. I would say the exploration of identity and what is identity is one of the themes of the book. It’s put under pressure, what identity is.
Guernica: In section one, in the “A Clean Slate,” you end with “You never knew me and you never will.” Can we ever really ever know the other, or ourselves?
Jonathan Galassi: I think that particular moment in that poem is giving vent to a kind of rant—I don’t know if it’s meant to be taken literally but there is a sense that the world has not known the speaker. You can speculate about whether you can be known, and being known is one of the things the speaker is after, in fact. In the first part, this person is trying to grapple with not being known, maybe even by himself, so perhaps he’s talking to himself.
Guernica: You converse with poetry for illumination.
Jonathan Galassi: Yes… I said somewhere else I use poetry to explain myself to myself. It is a way of investigating who you really are, what you feel, what survives the pressure of writing. There are a lot of things that you can’t write down because they aren’t true. You can only put down what holds water at the time that you are doing it.
Guernica: In the last poem of the first section “Ours,” there is a debate—“was ours is ours”—about the life the narrator has built up until his revelation…
Jonathan Galassi: It’s both. The power of personal history bears down on the speaker but there is something that’s taken him away. It’s an elegy.
Many of the poems deal with wishing for something that isn’t, I think it’s an important way that people fantasize—negative and positive.
Guernica: In “The Room on Naxos” you write: “I tried to tell/ you it had been wonderful/ but it was/ over…/ I kept on going so as/ not to hurt you and/then fell in love/ again./ where would we/ be now if you had/ heard me?” Where do you think he would be? You would be?
Jonathan Galassi: There is no answer to that question but what’s raised is the possibility that it might not have happened. It’s alternative history.
Guernica: Like in your “BlackBerry Poems,” you begin with a series of “ifs”…
Jonathan Galassi: Yes, exactly. I once wrote another poem that’s reprinted in this book called “Still Life.” In an article that a psychologist wrote she used the poem as an illustration. It was about wishes contrary to fact. Many of the poems deal with wishing for something that isn’t, I think it’s an important way that people fantasize—negative and positive.
Guernica: Can I ask what are the “ifs” that ruminate in your mind these days?
Jonathan Galassi: No, you can’t [laughs].
Guernica: Then let’s speak about the pulse of this collection, love.
Jonathan Galassi: The middle section is largely made up of poems written to someone and given to him. Where it says “[lost]” it’s because the poem was lost by the recipient. And where you see things written in half-tones, in gray, it’s what’s remembered of the lost poems.
Guernica: Have you discovered anything else about yourself now that the book is published?
Jonathan Galassi: (laughs) I’m discovering many things about myself all the time. The title poem is based on material from psychoanalysis. I have been in that process for the last five years and I’ve learned many, many things. The book ends at a moment of emergence after a crisis. There is nothing resolved. It’s looking backward. Looking forward. It’s regretting. Joyful. It’s remorseful. It’s all the residual feelings one has after a huge crisis. It’s supposed to be open-ended.
Guernica: And how about now as we sit here?
Jonathan Galassi: Now as we sit, I feel probably the best I’ve ever felt in my life in terms of being resolved, and integrated.
Guernica: Let’s go back to Plympton, Massachusetts, where you grew up, in an assimilated Italian family…
Jonathan Galassi: My father’s father was Italian but he married a Yankee. And my father also married an American WASP.
Guernica: But you grew up speaking Italian?
Jonathan Galassi: I learned it after college. There was a sense of the greatness of Italian culture in my family but I didn’t really know it until I went to Italy after college and fell in love with it.
Guernica: What is your connection to Italy today?
Jonathan Galassi: I have spent much of my writing life translating Italian poetry—Montale and Leopardi primarily. And as a publisher I have published many Italian authors. I am very interested in Italian literature and culture.
Guernica: Italian critics in the last two decades have decried the decline of Italian poetry. Is it a decline or rather a distancing of lyric poetry, the lyric voice, the lyric subject, which has traditionally been representative of Italian poetry?
Jonathan Galassi: Poetry is always in transformation. There are certain aspects of contemporary Italian poetry that are very preoccupied with politics and deconstruction and they don’t deeply interest me. But that’s the case in most cultures. We have our own Language Poetry, which doesn’t interest me either.
I don’t think you learn how to write in an MFA program. You might learn how to read better and you meet people, sometimes make lifelong friends. My feeling is the gamesmanship of writing that is encouraged or that people get exposed to in writing programs is really a distraction from being a writer
But if you look at this anthology [The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Geoffrey Brock], you’ll see the incredible depth and variety of poetry in Italian in the twentieth century. It’s amazing how great and various Italian poetry was in the last century, and there’s no reason why it won’t be similarly great in the twenty-first. It’s an incredibly alive poetic language.
Guernica: Yes, and writers like Milo De Angelis and Patrizia Cavalli…
Jonathan Galassi: [looks for something on his desk] I want to show you something… The Selected Poems of Patrizia Cavalli, coming out from FSG next year.
Guernica: To shift to literary disputes in the U.S., like Ginsberg’s famous debate with one of your professors, Lowell…
Jonathan Galassi: Lowell had come up through the rhetorical system of the Great Poet, very literary, very worked, very patriarchal. Ginsberg was involved in something new, fresh, and more radical. And Lowell was threatened by this, I think. But what amazes me today as we stand further back in history is how much there was in common between Lowell and Ginsberg. You could do a great course about the two of them. They both had mental illness in their backgrounds; they both had issues with their mothers and fathers. They were children of the ‘40s and ‘50s responding to the politics of their time in very creative ways, although they were coming from very different places.
Guernica: And your connection to the two poets…
Jonathan Galassi: I was a student of Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In fact, one of my father’s cousins was a minor member of the Beat circle, which was surprising to me. I feel more at home with the “Brahmin” literary tradition…and with Bishop more than Lowell. But it’s the infusion of energy from different sources that makes poetry exciting.
Guernica: Ginsberg was the first poet I interviewed and he died a month or so later… the experience had a great impact on me.
Jonathan Galassi: I remember once being at a PEN event and seeing two old Jewish men in suits in the corner talking very animatedly, looking like professors. And I realized these two bourgeois figures were Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. These men who had been the avatars of radicalism in my youth were professors in suits—it was very instructive about how what’s radical at one moment becomes establishment twenty-five years later. It gets absorbed by the culture… they became the mainstream. The culture moved to accommodate them.
Guernica: What do you think about the debates surrounding the breaking of the line in Italian?
Jonathan Galassi: Italian is a very different poetic situation and there are these hard and fast rhythmic periods, settenari, ottonari of seven and eight syllables. These are fundamental to the way people speak and write and breaking them is more radical in Italian than when we break a line. I’m sure there are Italian poets who want to write poetry as prose and break these Petrarchan rules. And breaking them is fun and a valid thing to do. But I’m more interested in trying to write poetry that absorbs tradition and uses it in new ways, and doesn’t throw it out. That’s why Montale, to me, is the ultimate twentieth-century Italian poet. Because he takes the tradition and modernizes it and uses it to create something incredibly great. He continues the main line of the Italian lyric, but in his own way. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Guernica: Maybe some Italian poets are going back to that…
Jonathan Galassi: A lot of people said after Montale that you had to try to do something else because he had done it all and to live in his shadow was intolerable. That’s always true, that you have to get out from under your fathers. Now enough time has passed that he’s probably less threatening. Many people hated Montale because of his dominance. It wasn’t his fault. He just happened to be the one to do it. As said, tradition isn’t continued by the person who wants to but by the person who can. It’s almost involuntary in a way.
Guernica: Of the contemporary Italian poets, who really captivates you?
Jonathan Galassi: I really love Magrelli. I like Cavalli, and De Angelis too. I have a friend, a young critic, poet, novelist, Nicola Gardini, whose work I like very much. He’s influenced in part by Pascoli. But I think there’s a whole generation of young interesting Italian poets, though I haven’t studied them.
Guernica: Who would you have liked to have translated but didn’t?
Poetry is an ongoing conversation with the past and the future and the present. I’m interested in that continuity, in that way of tying civilization together.
Jonathan Galassi: I’ll tell you who’d like to translate in the future. They are not Italians: Horace and Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s poetry is classical and radical at the same time.
Guernica: What do you think of poetry written by younger American poets?
Jonathan Galassi: I love to publish new writers, and we do so consistently. But a lot of contemporary American poets sound alike to me. They want to bring spoken, prosy language into poetry and I understand that desire. But they don’t edit. It’s not very curated work. It seems very lackluster, very uncareful. It may be the un-carefulness is also something they intend but there’s a kind of “So what?” quality to a lot of it. I’m old-fashioned enough to really still believe that the poem is an object to be memorized, venerated… I still believe in that kind of poem. A lot of poets today don’t, they want to get away from the poem as object. They want something looser. Unfortunately, a lot of it is boring to me.
Guernica: That conversation with the past is important…
If you’re reading an exciting book, it raises an expectation but it also raises a fear that the author is not going to deliver, that the expectation is not going to be met, you’re going to be disappointed by a wrong turn. But when the thing is completed, the exhilaration and gratitude are deeply intense.
Jonathan Galassi: Poetry is an ongoing conversation with the past and the future and the present. I’m interested in that continuity, in that way of tying civilization together. It’s like shoe laces, it holds things together. We publish Frederick Seidel. He is not young but is a great poet. His work is that grinding of the past on the present. I respond to that.
Guernica: You have published Nobel Prize winners, national bestsellers—can you share an unforgettable moment or one that has marked you?
Jonathan Galassi: The greatest is when you read something that is so utterly unexpected. Some of the books that recently did that for me: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, or Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, one of his greatest books, or Middle Earth by Henri Cole. It’s really dangerous for me to do this by the way. (laughs) Or Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, an incredible little masterpiece, or Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I put my head down on the table and wept when it was over. Those are just a few. It’s so great to be able to work on books that are great. Or The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I couldn’t believe it was his first novel. I could go on and on. I’m feeling speechless now. To be able to be involved to getting such books into the world is such a privilege. What was your question? (laughs) Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. I remember my growing excitement as I read and thinking, “If the judge did it I can’t publish the book.” I felt such tension. If you’re reading an exciting book, it raises an expectation but it also raises a fear that the author is not going to deliver, that the expectation is not going to be met, you’re going to be disappointed by a wrong turn. But when the thing is completed, the exhilaration and gratitude are deeply intense. You’ve gotten to read a great thing at its moment of emergence. I remember when I was a young editor at Houghton Mifflin, I was asked to read Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. First of all, it was the best-typed manuscript I’d ever seen. It was so beautifully done, so concise. I thought, this really what publishing is, to read a masterpiece. It was so way beyond everything else I’d been looking at.
Guernica: It probably took a while before you found…
Jonathan Galassi: (laughs) It was years before I got to read anything else as good.
Guernica: Is there a writer you regret not having published?
Jonathan Galassi: There are many, but I can’t talk about that!
Guernica: You can’t give me the name of one author?
Jonathan Galassi: I can say we parted ways with Philip Roth years ago and that was a terrible loss for FSG. I wanted to publish The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and didn’t get to. There are many books we don’t win the auctions for. But one of the sayings in publishing is, “Worry about the ones you have, not the ones that got away.”
Guernica: So MFA programs, literary prizes…
Jonathan Galassi: I don’t think you learn how to write in an MFA program. You might learn how to read better and you meet people, sometimes make lifelong friends. My feeling is the gamesmanship of writing that is encouraged or that people get exposed to in writing programs is really a distraction from being a writer. Really being a writer is being at home and writing your book and reading. Maybe keeping away from that destructive competition is more advisable; people need comrades but they don’t need somebody who’s jockeying to best them. But if they can genuinely support each other, that’s very helpful.
Guernica: So you think if something is really good, it will get published?
Jonathan Galassi: I absolutely believe that…
Guernica: But don’t you think there is good literature that didn’t get published?
Jonathan Galassi: Of course, literary history is full of books that were
Guernica: And what are your thoughts on prizes?
Jonathan Galassi: We need prizes as publishers… to focus attention on books, for people to know what to go look for. But very often in my opinion and in probably everyone’s opinion, the right books don’t get chosen. Still we need books to be chosen even if they are not exactly the right ones… otherwise many people won’t know what to read. As a publisher, I feel prizes are very important for the publishing business. But as a writer, I think, writers shouldn’t get too distracted by prizes because very often they don’t go to the right person. They don’t really define what’s best. You shouldn’t take it too seriously if you haven’t won a prize. It doesn’t mean you haven’t written a wonderful book. I feel prizes are helpful in the short run but don’t matter in the long run. And writers function in different ways. Not every writer is going to be immortal, even writers who are very popular in their lifetime often sink out of relevance later on. You have to write for yourself finally.
Guernica: You are such a celebrated editor, what’s it like being on the other side?
Jonathan Galassi: It’s really interesting. I have published other books but this is the first time that I’ve published a book that had more general attention. It’s a little bit awkward for me. I have to say I love what my editor, Robin Desser, has done. Knopf has been wonderful… very annoying to say that (laughs). But I have a different appreciation for the neediness of authors, let’s put it that way.
Guernica: Elizabeth Bishop—whom you studied with—had a significant impact on you both poetically and personally. Is there something she taught you that became very essential to you as you were writing this book?
Jonathan Galassi: Her approach to her material was important to me. There is a sort of impersonality to her writing, its tone is intimate yet there is a kind of distance. And I hope that’s true of these poems—that they’ve been through some kind of coffee grinder or mill to make them something that isn’t just about me. Her work is pure and clear and direct but also purified somehow. I don’t know if I’ve attained that but I certainly aspire to it.
Guernica: I like that you think poetry is mainstream…
Jonathan Galassi: There is something essential and necessary about the immediacy and democracy of poetry. If you look at the history of literature, poetry is the one enduring genre from Homer to Ashbery—no other literary form has lasted as long. The novel is only two or three hundred years old… And yes, it’s mainstream if we look back, we often turn to poetry to encapsulate what was going on in a particular moment because it crystalizes the experience in a very condensed and meaningful way. “They fuck you up, your Mom and Dad.” No one has ever said it better than Larkin. It’s true that poetry is an ongoing river of language that is not going to stop. People find other forms for doing different things, but the poetic impulse is at the root of it all.
Guernica: You wrote, “A poem is a ruin”…and Jonathan Galassi is….
Jonathan Galassi: A ruin too, soon to be a ruin!