25 Years of Poetry Month

A Conversation with Jonathan Galassi

Once again, Farrar, Straus and Giroux celebrates Poetry Month, which falls, in the words of Shakespeare, in “proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim” (Sonnet 98). Jonathan Galassi has been instrumental in publishing poetry at FSG and will be awarded the 2021 Academy of American Poets Leadership Award at the Poetry & the Creative Mind virtual gala on April 29. Poetry Month began in a marketing meeting at FSG in 1996, and over the years the house has published many award-winning poets, more perhaps than any other trade house. We talked to Galassi about the origin of Poetry Month, being a student of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and the upcoming publication of The FSG Poetry Anthology (November 2021), which celebrates FSG’s lifelong commitment to the poetic form.

Work in Progress: This is the 25th anniversary of Poetry Month. Can you tell us how it came to be in 1996 and how FSG was involved?

Jonathan Galassi: I remember in the FSG marketing meeting we were talking about how to bring more attention to poetry, and the suggestion was made that we should do a “month.” There were already other “months,” Black History Month, e.g., that had proven highly effective in calling attention to a particular discipline or group of books and writers. At the time, I was involved with a group called the Academy of American Poets, and our director, Bill Wadsworth, jumped on the idea. Working with us and other publishers, the Academy developed National Poetry Month into a broad-ranging effort that I believe has made a real difference to poetry’s place in bookstores, schools, and the broader cultural conversation.

WiP: How and why did poetry become so important to FSG and its mission?

JG: Poetry became a central part of our culture when Robert Giroux joined the firm from Harcourt, Brace in the mid-fifties. His college friend John Berryman, along with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and T.S. Eliot, too, showed up before long, and all of a sudden Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as it eventually came to be known, was a force in poetry publishing, and literary publishing in general. Poets weren’t seen as an indulgence or a sideline, but as central to what the house stood for. And it’s stayed that way.

WiP: Were there any FSG initiatives or events for Poetry Month over the years that you particularly enjoyed?

JG: I love the way you can dial in to hear the poets reading their own poems—and poems by others that are especially significant for them. [Editor’s note: Call 385-DIAL-FSG to hear a poem read by a poet or author every weekday this month.]

WiP: What does poetry bring to the world of literature that other forms don’t?

JG: Poetry is the most condensed form of expression; it’s writing at its most distilled—a concentrate, a liqueur: very rich stuff. Joseph Brodsky used to call the poet “the one by whom the language lives.” He was right about that. Think how often poets are quoted to sum up a moment in time or in sensibility—Walt Whitman, for instance, tells us so much about the Civil War era in very few words. Prose does this, too, of course, but in a different way. I always feel they’re two sides of the same coin—you can’t have one without the other.

WiP: It’s FSG’s 75th anniversary, and The FSG Poetry Anthology is coming out in November. Were there any poets from the list that you were surprised spoke to our current moment?

JG: Robyn Creswell and I had a ball putting this book together. It includes most of the poets we’ve published since Bob Giroux arrived—more than 125 from many different parts of the world. It’s tremendous fun seeing the variety of what’s come out under our imprint, and I think it speaks volumes, as it were, about the centrality of the writer’s voice at the house. As Robyn has pointed out, it’s fascinating to see poets talking to each other, not necessarily consciously, across generations—like Marianne Moore with Maureen McLane, Carl Phillips, and Ange Mlinko; or Robert Lowell with Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Fred Seidel, and Frank Bidart. I think great poets always speak not only to their own moment but to the present. That’s why they’re great.

WiP: How important was Robert Giroux to the early years of the poetry list and what did you take from him in extending the tradition of publishing poetry at FSG?

JG: Bob set the tone, and the standard, with his core poets. They were a small group that followed a certain aesthetic line. Other generations followed, rippling out in broadening circles, as Robyn says. We’ve expanded our perspectives in many directions and are always looking to do so, because that’s what the culture does naturally, but the sense of poetry as an ongoing project, a never-ending experiment evolving from a center, has been fundamental. Poetry, to my mind, is not about subject matter per se. It’s about the consciousness of the poet as expressed in language: it’s about words, and how the poet uses them. And these days we’re exploring the consciousness of Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, Valzhyna Mort, francine j. harris, Henri Cole, and Ishion Hutchinson, to name only a very few—not to mention Delmore Schwartz and Charles Baudelaire.

WiP: Was there a book of poetry before you became an editor that was transformative in your own relationship with poetry? What about it opened your mind?

JG: When I was in college I was lucky enough to be in Robert Lowell’s poetry class. I was tremendously in awe of him, terrified might be a better word. With his great sheaf of white hair, he was like a prophet—though I realize now he was only in his fifties. But I remember his reading of poems, especially by others, as incredibly affecting. This was at the time that Notebook 1967-68 was published and a lot of it was set in Cambridge, Mass., where I was, and somehow its immediacy and the experimental power of Lowell’s rhetoric had a hypnotizing effect on me. There was something almost holy about it (I was still a teenager, remember). And the book was published by FSG, so that became part of the mystique. It only deepened the following year, when I studied with Lowell’s great friend Elizabeth Bishop, who became my most beloved teacher ever. Her Complete Poems had just won the National Book Award, I think, and it had been published by FSG, too, so the attachment was what’s called overdetermined. I never lost my reverence for the poetry book as a sacred object—up until today!

Jonathan Galassi is the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.