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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Jonathan Galassi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

New York is an island nation. It belongs to New York State, yes, but its people, its traditions, its style are sui generis; it’s somewhere between Europe and California. It has always been and will always be the city of immigration. Like most New Yorkers, I’m an immigrant myself. The truest exotics here are the natives. I’m still a newcomer, still wide-eyed after forty years at the energy, the sense of possibility, the mixing it up, the aliveness. It’s a hard place. It can be cruel. Melting pots aren’t pretty. It’s good to get away for a while. But New York absorbs almost anything. Even the Trumps. They’re ours, unfortunately, but they’re just another blip, a blemish, in the great panorama.

Lately, though, there’s an anxious overlay on New York’s frenzy. The forward rush continues, but there’s concern about where we’re going. We’re under attack—not from the outside world, but from something in our own country that doesn’t wish us well. Something in America that hates its own vitality, hates itself, I’d say—because New York is absolutely the American engine. New Yorkers are tolerant by nature; they have to be. What they don’t tolerate is intolerance.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Looking at the gaping hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center and watching the second plane hit the South Tower. 9:03 a.m., September 11, 2001. The enormous fireball.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How the streets tell the history of the city. The old row houses next to a factory and a contemporary high-rise all on one block.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Most New York writers are immigrants, too. Not one of the so-called New York School of poets, who define mid-century New York for me, was born in the city. A few natives who catch the multifarious New York voice are, in no particular order: Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Betty Smith, William Bronk, Herman Melville, Jerome Charyn, Louis Auchincloss. And George Templeton Strong’s diary.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Metropolitan Museum is the greatest institution in New York, by far.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Brooklyn Bridge. Walt Whitman worked at the Brooklyn Eagle on Old Fulton Street and wrote about crossing Brooklyn Ferry before the bridge was built. Then Hart Crane immortalized it. The Brooklyn Bridge is New York’s great skyscraper—along with the Woolworth and Chrysler Buildings.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

College Point, Queens, is entirely Chinese. Jackson Heights is amazingly polyglot. Other neighborhoods are losing their specificity, like Williamburg, Brooklyn, which belongs to Euro-yuppies now, and Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant are being “gentrified” like Hell’s Kitchen. Yet the west side of Soho is still unreconstructed, unchanged from the way I remember it in the ’70s. Some of the underbelly survives.


Where does passion live here?

Everywhere. Passion for wealth, fame, achievement, standing, significance. Passion for love, art, pleasure—anything you can name. Avidity is New York’s middle name. It used to be said, when Boston and New York were the two poles of East Coast life, that Bostonians think New York is brash, vainglorious, and money-obsessed, while New York thinks Boston is hidebound, smug, and defensive. They’re both right!


What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

My novel, Muse (2015), is about the glory days of independent literary publishing as it was from the mid-twentieth century until the day before yesterday.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

I’m not sure. New York is all about finding a way in; once you’re there, they’ll have to carry you out.


Jonathan Galassi is the author of three volumes of poetry—Morning Run (1998), North Street (2000), and Left-handed (2012)—and the novel Muse (2015). He is also an eminent translator of Italian poetry and has translated several collections of Eugenio Montale’s work. Galassi is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is an honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets. He served as the poetry editor of the Paris Review, as senior editor at Random House/Houghton Mifflin, and as executive editor of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, before assuming his current position, as editor, president, and publisher of FSG. He received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award in 2008, recognizing his exceptional work in publishing.


Published May 9, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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