Miami Book Fair: Poet and Publisher Jonathan Galassi on Coming Out as Gay in His New Book
photo by Nancy Crampton
Like most poets, Jonathan Galassi is also the president of one of the world's most renowned publishing houses and is the foremost translator of Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet Eugenio Montale. He probably also has a cat.
Galassi runs Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which has Montale and 21 other Nobel laureates on its roster, as well as a phalanx of acclaimed authors -- Jamaica Kincaid, George Packer, Sam Lipsyte and August Kleinzahler among them -- who will be at this year's Miami Book Fair International. Galassi will be there, too, but as a Knopf author with his latest volume of poetry, Left-Handed.
"The book is about change, about stripping off layers and getting to reality," Galassi says. He readily volunteers the nature of this change: after two decades of marriage, Galassi divorced and came out as gay.
"To pretend that it's not about that seems a little bit disingenuous," he explains of the new collection. "But it's generalized, universal. It's not about this or that person but a situation. I don't think it has to be seen as gossip."
Of course, there was gossip when Galassi's first public relationship with a man was with a prominent literary agent from whom Glassi had acquired a manuscript for FSG. That relationship is over now and no one ever seriously questioned Galassi's practices; he has edited as broad a range of writers as Pat Conroy and Anne Sexton, and his sure-footed leadership of FSG has maintained its synonymity with literary excellence. What remains is an aching testament to that period of change, his poems.
In the collection's title poem, Galassi laments not recognizing his sexual identity in his youth, not seeing it as being as natural a part of him as his left-handedness is. He writes, "The cake went stale; / I never got to kiss it into life / and be Prince Charming / with a sheepish butter-and-sugar face."
"Throughout, there is a sense of being half-in and half-out," Galassi says. "There's a documentary quality to the book, a certain sense of urgency as there is in a diary."
Which raises an odd wrinkle: Galassi's poetry is viewed as both the work of a well respected poet but also as the confessions of one of the most highly visible figures in the literary world. He's also readying his first novel, a satire of the publishing industry which, even though Galassi says it isn't autobiographical, seems ripe for examination. And as if the representations of one man weren't fractured enough, he's also a significant character in Hothouse, Boris Kachka's history of FSG.
Of the latter, Galassi says, "I think that when you're involved in a public profession, you have to except accept that people may not see you the way you see yourself. So you have to give a journalist a lot of leeway."
Galassi then bursts into flame and soars above a charred cityscape of memory and repressed pain.
"I don't don't really see the later days of FSG the same way that Boris does. He doesn't understand me, but that's okay. What I do in my profession and what I do as a poet are different; Hothouse is what I do in the office and Left-Handed is about what I felt. It's almost two different people but they're not. It's two different aspects of a person but they do have something to do with each other."
The intersections continue the poems in Left-Handed bridging several traditions. Many are written in subverted versions of classical forms, taking, for example, a sonnet and splitting it into extremely short lines down the middle of the page, resembling a Barnett Newman zipper painting. The rigidity of the columns, according to Galassi, "let me be loose and sinuous inside them."
The content owes some measure of inspiration both to confessional poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, under whom Galassi studied, and to the Italian poets he has spent his adulthood translating. But ultimately, what makes Galassi's poems worth disappearing into is the plainspoken beauty of his language. In "O Youth and Beauty," perhaps the finest poem in Left-Handed, a character is aging and alone while watching rowers during the Head of the Charles, "happy to be cold and hoarse / and swaying with the crowd / the whole gunmetal afternoon, / all of you chanting in a broken descant / then wandering off to dinner and each other, / part of the party, before it moved on."
The collection's middle comprises a series of poems written to the object of Galassi's first realized homosexual love. The conceit of the section is that some of them are missing, as though the poems were gifted and then lost. Greyed-out snatches of the vanished text float in a void, the words literally and figuratively lighter and more ellusive than in these preserved moments of uncertain and new love.
"It's a little mysterious, but love is mysterious," Galassi says with no paucity of confidence in what love means to him now. "Poetry, fiction, essays, memoir and all sorts of writing, they are about trying to make sense of experience and trying to convey something to others that will be useful to them. To express something. This book is about an upheaval. About change and passion and failed love and using artistic tools to subvert the expectations of the way the poems would be made."
After the book fair is over, Galassi will be back to his day job as a publishing titan. He will continue to write, edit and translate as he has done for the last quarter century, but comes out on the other side of Left-Handed a new man.
"What I'm much more aware of is that publishers don't realize how hard it is for an author," Galassi says. "Authors are very vulnerable to doubt and don't like being kept waiting for answers, it turns out."
Jonathan Galassi's Left-Handed is newly available in paperback. He will be reading at Miami Book Fair International on Saturday, November 23 at 4 p.m. For more, visit MiamiBookFair.com.
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