Jonathan Galassi, a lifelong veteran of the publishing industry, is author of the novel Muse and three collections of poetry, as well as acclaimed translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. His latest book of poetry is Left-handed. A former Guggenheim Fellow and poetry editor of The Paris Review, he also writes for The New York Review of Books and other publications. He lives in New York City.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Jonathan Galassi: I would like to do more wandering. My days feel so organized, so planned, that I sometimes wonder what I’d learn, and see, and feel if I were more distracted. But I’m too puritanical about my use of time to allow that as a rule. Traveling puts me in places I can’t have realistic expectations of and that disruption creates all sorts of possibilities. That distraction is a kind of fulfillment.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Galassi: Language, landscape, food, dailiness.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe.
Galassi: A small space, with only the things in it that I need. But most of my writing is done at my desk or on the kitchen counter. I don’t need a change of venue to write. I need other kinds of apartness—time and silence.
Cagibi: Please explain your choice in previous question—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Galassi: I suppose the ideal writing situation would be one of enforced sensory deprivation—no possible alternative distractions. But our tendency I think is to look for as many of them as possible. When they’re exhausted the only thing left to do is write.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Galassi: Travelling is about new sensations. I don’t want to interrupt them while they’re happening. The effects get felt later. I’ve never had the desire to go to a writer’s colony, for instance; the few times I’ve tried to work abroad I’ve always been drawn outward—to what’s going on in the exterior world, not inward.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel?
Galassi: I can easily find reasons to convince myself that traveling will enhance my work, when in fact staying put is what I really need to do.
Cagibi: Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Galassi: Absolutely! It’s a form of procrastination. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote in “Questions of Travel” which may be the ultimate statement on these issues: “Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?”
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Galassi: Hiding in plain sight is the ideal writing situation, as I understand it.
About Jonathan Galassi’s Muse
Jonathan Galassi’s latest book, a novel, Muse, was published in 2015. From the publisher:
In these pages, Jonathan Galassi—the longtime publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux—gives us an extraordinarily sensitive, satirically sharp novel set in the world of books that he knows so well. At the center is Paul Dukach, editor-in-chief and heir apparent at Purcell & Stern, one of New York’s last great independent publishing houses. But despite all his success, Paul remains obsessed with the writer who got away: the poet Ida Perkins, whose outsize life and work have made her a celebrity—and who is published by Stern’s biggest rival.
When Paul at last meets Ida at her Venetian palazzo, she entrusts him with her greatest secret—one that will change all their lives. Filled with juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, Muse is a salty valentine to the people who write, sell, and, above all, read the books that shape our lives.