Minnesota's two Pulitzers something to cheer about

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2012 - 9:32 PM

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In typical Minnesota fashion, the jubilation was low-key Monday afternoon at the offices of two arts groups honored for producing Pulitzer Prize-winning work last year.

At Minnesota Opera Center, a half-empty bottle of warm champagne signaled a modest celebration at the desk of artistic director Dale Johnson.

At Graywolf Press, staffers continued working after the announcement and waited patiently to raise a toast at 4:30 p.m. Their restraint belied how extraordinary it is to have two Pulitzers with Twin Cities connections.

In music, the Pulitzer went to composer Kevin Puts for "Silent Night," a Minnesota Opera commission that had its world premiere last November at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. Tracy K. Smith won the poetry award for "Life on Mars," published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf.

"It changes everything for Tracy and for us," said Jeffrey Shotts, who has edited Smith's three books at Graywolf. "It adds that recognition and shows how capable small, independent nonprofit presses can be."

The awards cap a season of achievement for both organizations. Graywolf last year had a National Book Award finalist, a top 10 book in Publishers Weekly and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Graywolf also published translations of the last two Nobel Prize winners in literature.

The Minnesota Opera, which has garnered national attention for programming new work, brought "Silent Night" to the stage, and revived the rarely seen "Wuthering Heights," by famed film composer Bernard Herrmann. Next January, John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-winning play "Doubt" will have its world premiere as an opera.

Smith, a New Yorker who celebrated her 40th birthday Monday, said in a statement that the news was "particularly elating, because I think of the book as a tribute to my father, who passed away in 2009."

A real shocker

Puts, also 40, said that he learned of the award when the Associated Press called him. "I'm still in shock," he said, as his 2-year-old son, Benjamin, squealed in the background.

"An opera is an incredibly collaborative work, so I want to thank the Minnesota Opera for being so wonderful, and my librettist, Mark Campbell. He figured out a beautiful architecture for the piece."

Puts, who lives in New York, has composed mostly instrumental music, including a piece performed in 2006 by the Minnesota Orchestra.

"Silent Night," based on the story of the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I, was conducted by Michael Christie, who is now the opera's music director.

"Kevin had this innate understanding of how to express music through the voice, and you can't teach that," said Christie. "That's genius."

Christie said Puts was "still the same old humble Kevin" in a couple of text messages Monday.

"He had the same kind of boyish glee that he had on opening night," Christie said.

In a Star Tribune review, critic Larry Fuchsberg described "Silent Night" as "grimly beautiful," and said it "heralds the emergence of composer Kevin Puts as a force in American opera. ... In the course of two hours he integrates an astonishing range of forms and styles. ... 'Silent Night' is, improbably, Puts' first opera; it shouldn't be his last."

The Minnesota Opera spent about $1.5 million to produce "Silent Night."

Johnson said he remembered the first workshop.

"After we did the first act, everybody was just weeping at the beauty of the piece," he said. "We all knew at that time that it was something pretty special. When the second act came in, it was even better."

The opera is commissioning Puts again, but Johnson would not discuss details.

Smith began at Graywolf with "The Body's Question" in 2003 and followed with "Duende" in 2007. "Life on Mars" is a collection of poems about the stars and her late father, an engineer on the Hubble space telescope.

"She's grown with each collection in poise and grace and intelligence," said Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae, speaking from England, where she's attending the London Book Fair. "In anticipation of the awards, I had a mixture of hope and expectation like many publishers do. Tracy's insights and lyricism are real. She's a true, deep talent."

Minneapolis' Coffee House Press was a Pulitzer finalist in poetry for "How Long" by Ron Padgett.

Shotts was holding down the fort at Graywolf's offices, which are less than a mile away from the Opera Center in downtown Minneapolis. He said he heard the news when someone shouted, "Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize!"

Michael Taeckens, in his first day as marketing director, suddenly found himself deluged by media requests.

"We're still in a state of happy shock," he said.

Under McCrae, Graywolf has had an astounding run of accomplishment. Writer Deborah Baker was a finalist for the National Book Award last year; in 2010, Eula Biss won the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Notes From No Man's Land."

Graywolf also has published work by the past two recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature, poets Liu Xiaobo of China and Tomas Tranströmer of Sweden.

"This means a lot to us," Shotts said of Smith's award Monday, "for the art of poetry and for Tracy, and for us."

Northfield writer Mara Hvistendahl was a Pulitzer finalist in nonfiction for "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men."

Staff writers Rohan Preston and Claude Peck contributed to this report. Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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