The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 23, 2010

Jonathan Galassi: What Is Poetry? What Is Fiction?

Lydia Davis

Throughout the month FSG publisher, poet, and translator Jonathan Galassi will be adding his thoughts on various aspects of the poetry world.

There's a lot of convergence in the arts that's very fruitful and interesting. A lot of crossover. I've always felt that Lydia Davis's stories are poems. We often talk about the “poetic” qualities of prose, which I think means a very concentrated language, where the intensity of the words is packed with multiple meanings. Some prose is more open, where the forward thrust is what matters. But Lydia's prose is packed with significance.

The time may be coming when it will be difficult to tell what’s fiction and what’s poetry.

As a publisher, it's undeniable that it's easier to sell something labeled as prose. The system assumes that it's more digestible, that more people are open to it. So we sell Lydia Davis as a prose writer. But to me, Lydia Davis is a great poet in the sense we've been talking about.

Sometimes I say that one of our jobs perhaps is to "put really good books over on people." Publish books as more accessible than they really are. There's a lot going on in some of these books, but you keep quiet about it, let people discover it on their own.

Take Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey—that's a poetic book. It doesn't work like most fiction. It's self-aware, it's indeterminate, it's mysterious, it has a certain dispassionate quality to it. There's a strain of that in fiction, but it's not what we're normally used to. That mathematic quality behind the book is in a way a poetic quality.

We're calling it a novel, but it's not really a novel. It's a piece of writing. That's true of Henri Cole too. We package Pierce the Skin as poetry, which it is, but it's a piece of writing. There's a cross-fertilization among genres that's interesting.

Related: The Believer interview with Lydia Davis by Sarah Manguso


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N. T.

In addition to Davis's concentrated use of language, I think there is something about her hypnotic use of rhythm and repetition that functions like poetry.

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