Graywolf Press in Minneapolis won its second Pulitzer Prize in three years Monday — unprecedented for a small independent press in the Midwest.
The award for “3 Sections,” a collection of poetry by Vijay Seshadri, comes just four months after another Graywolf book, Mary Szybist’s “Incarnadine,” won the National Book Award, and two years after Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer for “Life on Mars.”
“I’m trembling from head to toe,” publisher Fiona McCrae said in a phone interview from Boston. “I’m very pleased for Vijay. It’s very good news, and we were hoping for such a thing, but there’s a big gap between what one hopes for and what happens.”
Graywolf’s recent success has been nothing short of remarkable and is fast giving the small press the reputation as the place to be published. Last week, its new book “The Empathy Exams,” a collection of essays by Leslie Jamison, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. On Monday, when the Pulitzer was announced, publicity director Erin Kottke joked that no one had to run out for champagne — there was still some in the office left over from the Jamison celebration.
Graywolf publishes 30 titles a year — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — and in the last few months, its books have won the Oregon Book Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and, last month, a National Book Critics Circle Award.
McCrae attributed Graywolf’s success to talented editors and a hardworking team of publicists and marketers. “We give time to the editorial process,” she said. “We have an editor who edits poetry. These are books that we took on because they are at the heart of our mission, exactly at the heart of what we do. It’s hugely gratifying.”
Success also comes from nurturing writers over the years. Both Seshadri and Smith have published all three of their books with Graywolf, and both won the James Laughlin Award for best second book of poetry before winning the Pulitzer for their third.
“Eventually, these poets are going to win,” McCrae said. “They do their third book with us because they did their first and second books with us. These are not overnight successes.”
Being a nonprofit is also crucial, she said. “We have these incredible, generous board members and foundations in Minneapolis who allow us to take that kind of artistic risk. If we had to make the most money out of every book, we couldn’t stop for Vijay, we couldn’t do literary essays. It’s a very encouraging time.”
A poet with wit and vision
Graywolf executive editor Jeff Shotts, who worked on Seshadri’s book, was the one who delivered the news.
“I just got off the phone with Vijay,” an ebullient Shotts said. “I think he’s still picking himself up off the floor. It was sort of wonderful to hear him say, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!’ ”
Seshadri, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, was born in India and moved to the United States with his family as a small boy, and that sense of being both from here and not from here suffuses his poetry. “If you read across his three books of poetry, he’s touching on that throughout,” Shotts said.
“3 Sections” contains rhyming poems, long poems, and an essay in the middle — what Shotts called “a marvelous kaleidoscope.”
“One of the things I always respond to is this array of forms — he’s a poet who’s not afraid of rhyme,” Shotts said. “The book has a lot of traditional, brief rhyming poems, with a wry, dark, droll humor to them. And those can be right next to these sprawling, long conversational poems about what it means to be an American.
“It sounds funny that rhyme is now considered a risk, but among many readers and people who judge these things, that’s a thing that serious poets don’t do anymore. Being open to that kind of risk is something that an independent nonprofit press like Graywolf can do that a larger, more commercially focused [publishing] house can’t do.”
The Pulitzer committee called Seshadri’s book “a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.”
A few years ago, McCrae said, Graywolf focused on the word “singular” as part of its mission. “We wanted to publish people who don’t sound like anybody else,” she said. “And I think that helps people rise to the top, when they don’t sound like anyone else.”
Prizes are fabulous, Shotts said, but it’s the work that matters.
“You can’t expect these things, they do fall out of the sky,” he said. “It’s just this amazing burst. And you get your author breathing normally again, and then you marvelously get to shout excitedly about work that was important all along.”