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Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian
Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Monday, April 19, 2010



APRIL 2010

Interview with Ryan Gallagher, co-founder of Bootstrap Productions and author of The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus

By Christopher Luna

Bio (sent by author): “Ryan Gallagher lives in Lowell, MA with his wife, son, and daughter. Visual artist, author, translator, educator, and publisher. Author of two books: Plum Smash & Other Flashbulbs (poems) & The Complete Poems of Catullus (translations). Runs Bootstrap Productions ( w/ Derek Fenner (over 25 titles published so far). Teaches high school literature. Also (occasionally) teaches Thangka Painting (Buddhist line drawings) to locked-up kids.”

Ryan Gallagher with his children

Here is a description of Catullus that Ryan prepared for Exchanges ( magazine: “Catullus was born in 84 B.C. in Verona, is said to have moved to Rome around 62 B.C. and probably died around 54 B.C. The manuscript that I translated, known simply as The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, was rediscovered in Catullus’ hometown around the 14th century. There is even a myth that the manuscript was found in an empty wine cask—after centuries of soaking up the spirits. Regardless, in just three decades, Catullus managed to fondle Venus, lick the sweat off the upper lip of Bacchus, and give birth to a blues lyric that has battled time. Catullus was a young, brash, salacious, and semi-famous celebrity at a time when most poetry was probably performed. Think Shelley mixed with Lou Reed and then some Lil’ Wayne (at his most vulgar moments)—his poems are political and mythological and sometimes absurd. In a great little prefatory description to his own translation, Jacob Rabinowitz asks us to imagine Catullus as a ‘playboy in the midst of a collapsing republic—roughly the Roman equivalent of a rock star. He could terrify a general or win a woman (or boy) just by inviting him to be the hero of a poem. Caesar begged for his friendship, and, what’s even more remarkable, Cicero shut up when he spoke.’ Catullus wrote many ‘love poems,’ and he wrote many ‘hate poems.’ He wrote mythology. He translated Greek poets like Sappho and Callimachus. He wrote a short, absurd play with two characters, one of which is the front door to a house, who tells us that one member of a famous political family knocked up his son’s wife because his son was impotent. He wrote heart-wrenching poems about his brother’s death and for people that have died at war. He belittled men (mostly ex-friends and politicians) for the small size of their—well, manhood. Some of his poems are about waking up with prostitutes and many more about his tumultuous relationship with his lover, or his primary lover, whom he names Lesbia, but who is known to be the historical figure Clodia, the wife of a conservative Roman consul.”

Ten years in the making, Ryan Gallagher’s The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Bootstrap Press, $15) is filled with raunchy, impassioned and irreverent poetry that is as provocative and relevant today as it must have been in Ancient Rome. Gallagher’s skillful use of contemporary vernacular, coupled with his ear for the music in the language, result in a translation that is both literary as well as accessible. The poems live and breathe, as if they had been written today. In his notes to the poems, Gallagher describes his approach:

I decided to try to find a way to fit the playful and colloquial language into tight poems which at  least visually resembled the original form of the Latin. Often times, the structure of the poem was as interesting to play with as shifts in voice, tense, and tone. I wanted to find a way to fit these shifts into a tighter form. (196)

Whether or not one is familiar with Catullus, Gallagher’s detailed notes place the work in its proper historical and literary perspective, while also taking issue with some of the choices made by previous translators of the work. For example, Gallagher has his own take on what some have characterized as misogyny in Catullus:

To focus solely on Catullus’s use of sexuality in his brash insults and label it misogynistic is too simplistic—of course he is, but his ability to be many things at once, or everything at the same time, or “negatively capable” as Keats would label Shakespeare, is what remains so strikingly crisp about his poetry. Many translators of Catullus into English, mostly Latin professors, seem to have missed this. Many translations lack shifts in voice that I see within individual poems, or even with certain lines. (194)

Gallagher boldly calls out those translators whose unwillingness to engage fully has led to boring and lifeless translations of great poetry. I appreciate the tell-it-like-it-is quality of these comments, which remind us that poets and translators are ambassadors of the culture, and have a responsibility to preserve it:

Anyone who views translation as having inherent problems, rather than lessons or challenges or opportunities, will almost inherently produce a dull version of a poem. A relationship with language must be built on the love of language to build poetry. (197)

The Complete Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus is one of the most fun books of poetry I have read this year. Congratulations to Ryan Gallagher for keeping this material in the public eye. I hope that you will pick up a copy of this book, a labor of love in which Gallagher demonstrates that he truly understands that “language, like love, is shaped by use” (204).

Full disclosure: Ryan and I were classmates at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and his press has published both my poetry (in the @tached document) as well as Literal Motion, a book which contains three interviews with the filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

Please also take a look at my interview with Bootstrap co-founder Derek Fenner:

CHRISTOPHER LUNA: When did you begin translating these poems and when did you complete the project? Did you know Latin before you began? Was it always your intention to translate all of the poems?

RYAN GALLAGHER: My first translations of Catullus were in high school in AP Latin (Lyric Poetry), which was a study of selected Catullus (his non-offensive poems) and some Horace. Many people (from earlier generations) have told me that they also translated Catullus, as well as Horace and Virgil--along with Cicero, Pliny the Elder, and Caesar when they were in high school, but Latin is not a very popular subject anymore in either high schools or colleges.

I picked up Catullus again when I arrived at Naropa ( and took Andrew Schelling's translation class. At first, I just wanted to put together a small chapbook of fun, salacious poems. But I was instantly hooked on the act of literary translation and Catullus' poetry. Along with some prompting from some peers and professors, I decided early on in grad school that I wanted to try and finish The Complete Poems. In retrospect, this was a bit ambitious for my first translation project, but I also remember thinking at the time that I wanted to finish the project before I was 33, the year Catullus supposedly died. I thought it was advantageous to be Catullus' age when translating his poems, as all the other translations that I'd previously seen were done by older men. I didn't end up finishing the project before the end of grad school, but that didn't matter too much to me either. I finished my first draft of the translations before my first child was born, five years ago, with the rush of oncoming responsibility--over those years I read many Catullus translations (some of which ended up in an annotated bibliography at the end of my book.) I also read just as many historical & biographical texts, which I decided not include in the annotated bibliography because Peter Green’s bibliography ( was more extensive and complete than my own, (though his translation is terrible.)

I took a year or so off after my daughter was born and returned to the translations and all of my notes and essays and finished the book. It was published in 2008, ten years after I began the project. Today, my wife and I also have a son and now I'm 33--it's my Jesus / Catullus year and I'm toying around with the idea of translating Ovid's Exile Letters, but wondering if I can stomach another potential 5-10 year project, since I can't afford to leave my job for a year or two and put all my attention to translating.

Did you receive guidance from instructors at the Kerouac school who are known for translation, such as Anselm Hollo and Andrew Schelling? If so, what was their advice? Did either of them give you any advice that you chose not to follow, and why?

One of the reasons that I enjoyed Naropa / The Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics so much was the pedagogical approach. Anselm Hollo and Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman and Lisa Jarnot (professors during my time there 1998-2000) created a community where what one did and thought and wrote and said mattered. I also learned how to ask questions—these are gifts I've tried to carry with me, not just in my art, but in my own pedagogy as well. What I learned was that it was important to care enough to stand behind my own work and the work of others—I remember Anne Waldman (though this certainly could have come from any number of people there) saying that she couldn't think of a writer that she really respected that did not publish or translate or run a magazine or do something that promoted the work of other artists. (I'm paraphrasing from a distant and somewhat hazy memory, so maybe I'm making this up—but I feel like the sentiment must be true.)

I've been teaching high school now for the past eight years and am quite proud of this. My students are smart and talented and impressive in ways that I am unabashedly jealous of. Here is a recent Boston Globe article on the high school and community where I teach ( Malden High School in Malden, MA is one of the most diverse schools in the country and has over 50 languages represented at the high school (1,700 students). In any one of my classes, there may be 7-10 different languages represented and many of my students are multilingual; as a translator of poetry, this adds a dimension to my literature classes that I love & has kept me excited about teaching high school for the past 8 years.

I guess what I am really trying to say is I learned that I needed to make my art (translating, painting, publishing & writing) my life--that it wasn't a career path and that it wasn't a hobby. Of course, I learned this as much from my 'friends' and 'peers' at Naropa as I did from my 'professors', and as you know, all these lines and distinctions in nomenclature at The Kerouac School were fortunately and beautifully blurred and have since remained wonderfully malleable.

How did the translations change over time? Were any of these changes influenced by your ongoing research?

I don't really have any specific examples that I'd feel comfortable sharing in this context or format, but the poems definitely evolved over the years. At the beginning I played around with the possibility of translating without punctuation (but this was a dead end and more of an act of me projecting my own aesthetics on the poems rather than learning from them) and also I tried opening the form of the poems on the page--but this had already been done by Peter Whigham (Modernist translator) & others and I became more interested in trying to produce the quickness of Catullus lines in closed form. So I stuck with the original line breaks and form as best I could. I also kept track of every word by marking the poem number in the dictionary to pick up patterns and repetitions. Though this was a bit laborious and unnecessary at times, I was glad I did this in the end as it helped me understand the manuscript on the whole and how to justify choices in diction.

In your notes on the poems, you mention how helpful Louis Zukofsky's translations of Catullus were to you. What did you learn from Zukofsky that you have been able to apply to your original work?

I mostly just took from how Celia (Zukofsky, Louis’s wife) did word-by-word translations for Louis, which he turned into homophonic translations. But I felt no impulse to attempt what they did in any way.

Though it seems a bit 'romantic', when I translate a poem I first write out the original so I can 'feel' what it's like to write the poem--plus it forces me to just spend some extra time with the poem as is. Then I look up every word in the dictionary, no matter how minor—again, this forces me to spend some time with the poem before jumping into a translation and it also forces me to recognize patterns that emerge in the whole manuscript, which is important when considering the poems in relation to the whole. After the word by word translation is done and after I have spent some time with the original poem (both on the page and how it sounds) I go about translating it. By then, I usually have a sense of which direction I might want to pursue--I also make notes so that I can remember why I made certain decisions in case I want to use the notes in essays or argue with myself over decisions in relation to the whole manuscript.

Do you read the Catullus poems publicly? If so, how do you approach it?

Yes. Like anything else, it depends on the context of the reading--though I did give a reading in Geoff Young's gallery last summer in Great Barrington, MA where a woman was very upset with some of the translations and took a copy of my book from the table and tossed it at my feet as she stormed out of the reading—I think it was poem 97 that got her.

How has your own writing been affected by your deep study of Catullus? Do you have a favorite Catullus poem? If so, what makes it your favorite?

Poem 68, which can be found here:

Ryan Gallagher

With this, my fortune and my downfall, I feel the sharp
weight from the tears you dropped, written in your letter.
Like a violent shipwreck in the foaming sea swell,
I will get up and return to Death’s door
without the rest from the soft sleep of sacred Venus.
I’m left alone to suffer in bed.
The sweet songs of the old words of Muses
don’t please me when my mind is anxious all night.
I am grateful that you are my friend
and that you send the gifts of Muses and Venus.
But my troubles will not be unknown to you, Manlius.
It’s not that I hate my duty as a friend.
Accept this, even though my fortunes are sunk in waves
of misery. So don’t expect any happy lines.
There was a time when I wore the plain clothes of youth,
when life was a pleasure, spring flowers bloomed.
We were full of games that were not unnoticed by our goddess,
who mixes sweet bitterness with her spear.
So all of this enthusiasm has left me alone to mourn my brother’s
death. I’m miserable. My brother is gone.
You, my favorite brother, your death has numbed me.
Our one and only home is buried with you.
Every one of our joys perishes with you.
This sweet love of yours fed on life.
All of my mind is ruined. You, who left everyone
with your enthusiasm and a delicate soul.
So, when you write this note to Catullus to ask
if it’s terrible in Verona, where even the best
warm their cold limbs by themselves in bed—
it’s not terrible, Manlius, it’s just so miserable.
Forgive me then, if my sorrow has taken away
a gift which I cannot give you,
for the best writers are not here with me.
They are at the house in Rome, where we live,
at my place, where my time has gathered.
Only a small box has followed me here,
which has refused to help the sharp pain in my mind
or satisfy the nature of my soul.
If you cannot use this, then come here for the rest.
Besides, I would give you more, if there were any.


Quod mihi fortuna casuque oppressus acerbo
conscriptum hoc lacrimis mittis epistolium,
naufragum ut eiectum spumantibus aequoris undis
subleuem et a mortis limine restituam,
quem neque sancta Venus molli requiescere somno
desertum in lecto caelibe perpetitur,
nec ueterum dulci scriptorum carmine Musae
oblectant, cum mens anxia peruigilat:
id gratum est mihi, me quoniam tibi dicis amicum,
muneraque et Musarum hinc petis et Veneris:
sed tibi ne mea sint ignota incommoda, Malli,
neu me odisse putes hospitis officium,
accipe, quis merser fortunae fluctibus ipse,
ne amplius a misero dona beata petas.
tempore quo primum uestis mihi tradita pura est,
iucundum cum aetas florida uer ageret,
multa satis lusi: non est dea nescia nostri,
quae dulcem curis miscet amaritiem:
sed totum hoc studium luctu fraterna mihi mors
abstulit. o misero frater adempte mihi,
tu mea tu moriens fregisti commoda, frater,
tecum una tota est nostra sepulta domus,
omnia tecum una perierunt gaudia nostra,
quae tuus in uita dulcis alebat amor.
cuius ego interitu tota de mente fugaui
haec studia atque omnis delicias animi.
quare, quod scribis Veronae turpe Catullo
esse, quod hic quisquis de meliore nota
frigida deserto tepefacsit membra cubili,
id, Malli, non est turpe, magis miserum est.
ignosces igitur, si, quae mihi luctus ademit,
haec tibi non tribuo munera, cum nequeo.
nam, quod scriptorum non magna est copia apud me,
hoc fit, quod Romae uiuimus: illa domus,
illa mihi sedes, illic mea carpitur aetas:
huc una ex multis capsula me sequitur.
quod cum ita sit, nolim statuas nos mente maligna
id facere aut animo non satis ingenuo,
quod tibi non utriusque petenti copia posta est:
ultro ego deferrem, copia siqua foret.

Here are my notes to the poem, also from Exchanges: The poem in the form of “the letter” may find its father in Catullus. Though poets have had their speakers address specific people throughout the history of lyric poetry, no one poet had so consistently and effectively adopted this as a style before Catullus, and certainly no other poet addressed the process of writing the letter in the body of the poem so specifically.

Poem 68 begins as a letter to Manlius, Catullus’ friend back in Rome, while Catullus was in Verona for the funeral of his brother. Catullus laments the misery he feels for the loss of his brother. Because of the mythology that Catullus includes later on in this poem, we are left to assume that his brother died at war, or at least for the expansion of the Roman Empire, a sin which we know is equally disappointing to Catullus. In any case, in lines 89 through 99, by alluding to the myth of the Trojan War, where King Menelaus is left by Helen (or, depending on the myth, she is taken from him against her will), Catullus once again questions why so many humans have died because of phallic posturing. Catullus blames his brother’s death, or anyone’s death for that matter that is the result of war, on feelings of jealousy and the privilege to act on it by powerful people.

Since I've written extensively on the ability of Catullus to present such varying styles of writing and weave them together within poems and manuscripts (both in my book and in the previous link), I think I'd like to mention the idea of writing letters as poems.

I'm very much aware of audience—I think writers have to be. Poems don't exist in a vacuum.

One thing (of many) that makes Catullus' writing so great is its occult intimacy. He seems to be the first Western poet to so directly use the form of the letter (which is more intimate than even dedicating or addressing a poem to someone) which creates layers of being 'in-the-know'. We might imagine that the person for whom the letter was written would 'get' almost everything in the letter (though we all know this isn't totally true, as we've all probably poured over intimate letters trying to read between the lines) and that a close circle of friends of either the writer or receiver of a letter would 'understand' more, and the layers could expand based on geography, time, language, culture, etc. But there is something universal in the act of 'pouring over a letter' and 'trying to read between the lines' that makes this form in poetry so intriguing and appealing. Especially in the time and place we live now, is there a stronger impulse in art than to be a part of something slightly occult, magical, and intimate? to be 'in-the-know'? to feel connected to people beyond surface-level interactions? What if this could happen with people that lived 2,000 years ago?

Also, Catullus never lost sight of the most basic and important reasons people write poems—to convince someone else to sleep with you. You can theorize all you want about poetry, and sometimes theory can be beautiful, but is there anything more beautiful than when a girl, all gawk and glitter, is in your arms (early afternoon) and full of intimate electricity? Probably, but it was the first thing I thought of and I went with it--you can have your own fantasy.

I recently interviewed your Partner in Truth and Beauty, Bootstrap Productions co-founder Derek Fenner. Briefly describe how Bootstrap Productions came about. What is your role in the press? Of all the books and magazines you have published, what makes you most proud? Where would you like to see it go in the future?

Here's the Wikipedia link: Though it hasn't been updated for a while, the history is pretty accurate. Derek and I handle pretty much everything in terms of the press. I guess the question may really be: Why is there a Bootstrap Press, instead of what we do, which is a pretty long answer--but maybe I'll just leave it at this: The books I am most proud of are my own books (Plum Smash and Other Flashbulbs & Catullus) and Derek's books (My Favorite Color is Red & I No Longer Believe in the Sun: Love Letters to Katie Couric) because we were both able to see these titles through the whole process and were in complete creative control over them. We were able to place our work along other titles, writers, and artists in the Bootstrap lineage to help further expand our artistic vision and community.

With that said, we recently released A NEW BOOK FROM ROME by John Wieners. The book is a limited edition (258 copies), beautiful hardback collection of a journal edited by Jim Dunn "from a six-month period between July, 1969, to January, 1970, covering his stint in Central Islip State Mental Hospital on Long Island to the time around Charles Olson’s death when he was back in Massachusetts living with his parents."

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