Published: December 24th, 2014
Jonathan Galassi is the President and Publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of New York's most prestigious publishing houses. He has edited for Houghton Mifflin and Random House. A poet himself, Galassi earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and was the poetry editor for The Paris Review for ten years. Galassi has published three full-length books of poetry and translated six.
Howl: As a translator of poetry, do you find that some languages convey certain themes or emotions better than others? What can really be lost in translation?
Galassi: I do think each language reflects – and in turn helps shape – a mental disposition that is intrinsic in a culture. French and Italian are very different languages for many many reasons, and a translation can only convey some of these differences. Others are necessarily sacrificed to the "target" language, a tax on the procedure, you might say.
Howl: How do you, a poet and former poetry editor, read poetry? i.e. do you prefer a particular setting, read at a certain pace, look for imagery or diction?
Galassi: One thing that is great about poetry is that it's often compact and can be read on the fly – even on an iPhone! I love reading the daily poems that come onto my machine every morning – though I love even more sitting quietly by myself with an old book discovering magic I didn't have any idea of. What's important to me is sound – and rhythm above all.
Howl: As someone who has risen through the ranks of the literary world and held so many positions within it, what do you feel you have gained and perhaps lost, being at the top of one of the largest publishing houses (23 Nobel Prizes in Literature, 22 Pulitzer Prizes, 23 winners of the National Book Award, and 2 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize)?
Galassi: FSG is not large – we 're really a boutique, but I've certainly had the privilege of working with many truly great writers. When I think about it sometimes it takes me aback, – how did I get this chance? I think one thing I've lost some of is the excitement of the hunt for something really new and surprising. It happens but the more responsibility you have the harder it is to have time to dig for truffles.
Howl: You once blogged for the Poetry Foundation that, “The truth is that most poetry, even most of what is greatly prized and read today, even what has been wrested from nothingness by these heroes of mine, is destined to be forgotten. But that’s not our concern. The future will decide what it can make use of.” What do you think this generation is in need of and what poetry out there can they benefit from that they may not know exists?
Galassi: Well I think the best thing any generation, ie , any young person, can do is just read as widely and deeply as possible. Hunt for your own truffles – and don't look in the expected places. Things will rise up at you out of obscure depths and lead you down shadowy corridors to rooms you didn't know existed. So don't hug the shore of what you know. Look into the past, into cultures that have nothing to do with you. It will be amazing, I promise!
Howl: Where do you see the field of poetry heading in the future?
Galassi: Poetry feels to me like the literary medium of our time. Everything is becoming poetry – short gnomic texts, commentary on reality, non-linear, non-chronological, disjunctive! They just don't know it's poetry. (Don't tell them)!
Howl: What advice do you have for budding poets?
Galassi: Be as daring and send [submissions].
Howl: What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing editing as a career?
Galassi: Be as daring and iconoclastic and as well read and formally correct and everything as you can.
Howl: What are your influences and why?
Galassi: In a way everything you've ever read that you noticed is an influence, often unconsciously. Poets I consider influences include Horace, Shakespeare (duh), Bishop, Montale, Larkin, Merrill, O'Hara' Gunn – to name only a few of the most obvious.
Howl: You’ve mentioned in regards to your book, Left-Handed, about a middle-aged, married man (yourself) accepting or learning more about being gay that, “I’ve always used poetry to explain myself to myself.” I think that is a sentiment many people who read poetry can relate to. What do you think it is about poetry that allows such flow of introspection for yourself?
Galassi: I think in poems you give voice to aspects of yourself you don't necessarily show on the surface. Or think you show. Self-concealing is probably something you do for and to yourself rather than others. But somehow poetry as we understand it today can't work that way. We see it as a repository of authenticity. And if it's not authentic, it shows.
Howl: Are there any titles or authors you are most fond of discovering and why?
Galassi: If you're talking about my time as an editor that's too dangerous a question to answer. As a reader I remember being blown away by Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, and Baudelaire, and of course Montale. Those are discoveries you never get over!