Executive editor Jeff Shotts is the force behind Graywolf Press' recent great success

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2013 - 9:12 AM

In recent years, books published by Graywolf Press have won just about every significant literary award there is. In nearly every case, the common denominator was editor Jeff Shotts.

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Jeff Shotts toasted his Graywolf colleagues in April 2012 after hearing that Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars,” which Shotts edited, had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

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At night, after his young sons have gone to bed and, hopefully, to sleep, Jeff Shotts gets busy. He pulls a sheaf of typescript from his work bag and spreads the pages across the dining room table. He uncaps his green pen — green, because it is a more soothing color than fierce and angry red. He bends over the pages and begins to read, intently. Every now and then he makes a tiny note, followed by a question mark. Is this the right word? Does this line need one more beat? Should this stanza be moved up?

Questions, always questions.

In the past five years, authors published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press have won just about every major literary award there is: The Pulitzer Prize. The Nobel Prize. The National Book Critics Circle Award. Awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN Foundation and the Lannan Foundation.

The names of the writers vary and their tones range from lovely to enraged, but in each case one thing was the same: Shotts was their editor.

You have to have a certain temperament to do what Shotts does, editing some of the most important voices in contemporary American poetry: You have to be confident; tactful yet forceful, thick-skinned yet sensitive, and with an almost insane devotion to the written word.

You pretty much have to be Jeff Shotts.

Listening to the poet’s music

Poetry is such a personal art — thoughts distilled to their essence, cloaked in mystery, camouflaged in metaphor — that the idea of editing it is daunting, and many poetry editors do not try. They acquire work, and they publish it. But that is not how Shotts views his job.

“A huge part of my job is reading and evaluating manuscripts, encouraging submissions, being part of a conversation,” he said. “The other, larger, function is working with writers to make the best possible book.”

He does this, he says, by attuning his ear to each poet’s particular music. “Do they write in lines? Do they write in prose blocks? Do they use rhyme and meter as a regular function of their poetry? Is their syntax fairly open and readable and accessible, or is it contorted and tortured and loud?”

He works with writers by e-mail and phone call and sometimes by fax; he works with them for years and knows their work thoroughly. “Jeff is devoted to Graywolf’s poets, and they know it,” said publisher Fiona McCrae. “They want to work with him again and again.”

This was not how the process worked at Wesleyan University Press, where D.A. Powell published his first books.

“At Wesleyan, it felt like somebody prints your book and then anything else you do you have to do on your own. It was pretty dismal,” said Powell, who lives in San Francisco.

Shotts lured Powell to Graywolf in 2002. “I think the first thing that drew me was just the sense that somebody was going to be listening to me,” Powell said. “Somebody was going to have a conversation with me about the shape of the book.”

Powell has now published three books with Graywolf and has won a number of awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Working with Shotts “is like having a second brain,” he said. “I can’t say for sure that Jeff is the best because there are other fine editors I know, but for me, he’s absolutely the best.”

St. Paul poet Leslie Adrienne Miller appreciates Shotts’ thoughts throughout the process. “In the early stages, he’s really trying to give you a sense of what he finds most valuable, so you can do more of it,” she said. “I’ll hold onto his conversations for months.”

Both poets praised his tact, as well as his keen eye. “Obviously, as an editor you don’t want to kill the creativity of someone else,” Powell said. “You want to preserve and protect that. Some editors don’t get that. They think their job is to make these large cuts through the forest. Jeff isn’t like that. He’s more like — he’s like a therapist.”

Not in Kansas anymore

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