Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts’s authors have had a remarkable run of being nominated for—and winning—some of publishing’s most prestigious literary awards. In 2016 alone, three of the 10 poets longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry were edited by Shotts, including Danez Smith for Don’t Call Us Dead, one of two Graywolf finalists. It seems as if everything Shotts acquires turns to gold.
Graywolf has had five other NBA poetry finalists in the past five years and a 2013 winner, Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. Graywolf poets have also won two Pulitzer Prizes since 2012, with Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars winning that year and Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections taking the prize home two years later.
The press’s recent National Book Critic Circle Awards credits include two poetry winners (D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, in 2013, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, in 2015) and a winner in another Shotts category, nonfiction (Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, in 2016).
And then there are the Nobels: in 2011, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose work Shotts acquired and edited in translation, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The year before that, Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, another Shotts acquisition, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Oh, and Tracy K. Smith is now the poet laureate of the United States.
The publisher’s influence on contemporary poetry owes much to Shotts, who has the ability to ferret out superb, innovative poetry by up-and-comers that taps into the cultural moment. He joined the press in 1996, first as an intern and then as an editor, shortly after graduating from nearby Macalester College. Shotts had a two-year stint editing at large while acquiring an M.F.A. in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis. Afterward, Graywolf’s publisher, Fiona McCrae, invited him back aboard. Since then, he’s become instrumental in the press’s success, acquiring poetry in English and in translation, anthologies, and nonfiction—especially literary criticism and lyric essays. “A little bit of everything but fiction,” Shotts says, adding, “We have better people doing that.”
McCrae—a PW Notable herself in 2014—says that’s just like Shotts, whom she calls “a generous colleague who tries to deflect just about any compliment you send his way.” She adds that “Jeff has an amazing mind: able to focus intently on the smallest detail in a manuscript while never losing sight of his truly expansive vision, one that he steers and leads by.”
What credit Shotts doesn’t attribute to the Twin Cities water (“We’re just trying to keep whatever’s in the water in it”) or McCrae (“It should be said, Fiona’s leadership here has been instrumental, and impossible to exaggerate, in making that particular liquid concoction”), he attributes to his wide-ranging interests and his passion for the discourse of and around contemporary poetry.
“Getting into literary magazines, talking to young writers, seeing what other people are reading and why they’re interested in that is part of the conversation that I see myself in,” Shotts says. “It’s part of my job to be part of that conversation and to really listen to it. Even if something at first repulses or frightens me or questions what poetry even is—those are actually the moments that I’m most excited by and disturbed by. I’m really excited by that part of the list, that really challenges our assumptions of what the line, the poem, the tradition, the book is or should be.”
As such, what’s bad news for the characters in 1984 is good news for poets: someone, Shotts included, is always listening.