On August 14th, I had the honor of interviewing Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, by phone. A native of McPherson, Kansas, and graduate of Washington University’s MFA program, Shotts began his career as an editorial assistant before going on to edit poetry and nonfiction. After hearing his guest lecture during Antioch University Los Angeles’s summer residency, I was blown away, inspired, and I knew I wanted to talk more with him. During our interview, we discussed his journey through the literary world, the power of becoming a great literary citizen, how to prepare for rejection and acceptance, and the impact and necessity of international literature. Throughout our interview, I learned about the literary world from both the editing and publishing end, all from the kind, genuine, and authentic voice that is Jeff Shotts. He currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, with his family.
Barbara Fant: When did you fall in love with poetry and literature?
Jeff Shotts: Really early. I was always a reader and loved the sound and texture of words. More specifically, I must have been in middle school, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and my grandfather gave me a copy of Tennyson’s poetry. When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me. But there was something in it that I just loved and was ready to read, even that sort of Victorian high-power voice. There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me; I was taken with that. And like many, I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who introduced me to the history of poetry, how poetry works, what’s good and not good in a poem. That teacher, Carole Ferguson, was so wonderful to introduce us to contemporary voices; voices that sounded like us, and talked the way we were talking. Many of those voices were right there from Kansas, like William Stafford, and Langston Hughes, who grew up in the Topeka area, and Gwendolyn Brooks. So, there was an interesting Kansas strand that I could follow by the time I came to the Twin Cities. There’s such a rich literary and contemporary scene here, not just in poetry. It really helped open my eyes to the contemporary possibilities of literature. It was then that I met the local publishing scene too.
BF: How did you work your way into the publishing field?
When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me… There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me.
JS: I’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, no question about that. I was always the guy who was working on the school newspaper and working on the school literary and art magazine in high school and college, and just always loved that. I always loved making something public and of course that’s the heart of publishing. So, it had always been in my stream or path and then in my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I did a yearlong internship at a wonderful independent review magazine, Hungry Mind Review. They reviewed university presses, small independent nonprofit presses, as well as the larger commercial New York houses. Seeing all those catalogs coming in, everything from Random House and Simon & Schuster to the University of Minnesota, Wesleyan University Press, or Pittsburgh University Press, then of course Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press, was a huge education for me, in terms of what publishers were doing at that time. This was obviously when people were looking more at print catalogs. You can do this much easier online now.
At that internship, I was so fortunate to do an informational interview with an editor that I really loved named Anne Czarniecki at Graywolf Press. I realized how many Graywolf books I had been reading. Like many people, I read the authors more than the publishing house. When I finally lined that up and realized, that pointed me in a direction. After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land an internship. In some ways, the rest is history. I was just in the right place at the right time. I always loved contemporary literature and poetry, and I think that’s what Graywolf was looking for at that time.
Poetry is such a significant part of our publishing landscape. I learned from being an assistant and an apprentice in 1996 with Fiona McCrae, who is still the director of Graywolf. With publishing and editing and publicity work and all the parts of publishing, you really learn by doing it. I learned by seeing the correspondence of other editors, how they operated, how they wrote rejection letters, how they edited a text, how they were sniffing out exciting new writing, and what magazines they were reading. I soaked all that in and tried to copy it as much as I could. I think it’s still very much like that, though. We say technology has changed the way we read and think about some of these things, yet I think people still respond to the line or the sentence or paragraph or whatever you’re looking at with the sense of human depth and endeavor.
BF: I’m interested in how you choose the books you choose for Graywolf.
JS: Yeah, that’s a big and ongoing question. We have evolved over forty-four years, so next year we are getting ready to celebrate Graywolf’s 45th anniversary. We’ve been on the map for awhile now. We work in a lot of different ways. There are five or six of us in the editorial department and we’re always looking; looking online, looking in print magazines, we’re meeting with magazine editors, visiting MFA programs like Antioch, and elsewhere. I’m going to Breadloaf tomorrow, going to AWP; we try to go where writers are. We try to create relationships with magazines and agents and writers. We’re inside a larger conversation, and that’s exciting.
That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings, the way that they talk about what they’re writing about, subject matters that they’re approaching. We find our books by listening. But it’s obviously more than that. We also hope we have created a list of books that beckons to other writers, “Here’s a place for you” if you’re writing poetry or innovative novels. We want to stand as a strong example of a respectful and vibrant home for that kind of challenging writing. We want people to associate Graywolf with that and with a sense of social justice. I hope we communicate that through our books, website, catalog, one-on-one meetings with writers, talks at MFA programs, and through everything that we put out into the world that is meant to say, “Hey, this might be a home for you, keep us in mind, keep us in touch.” And I hope it challenges writers to think about things in less straightforward ways, in terms of literary artful ways of talking about the important topics of our time.
BF: What are some of similarities and differences of editing nonfiction and poetry?
JS: I love being an editor of nonfiction and I love being an editor of poetry. I love that I get to think about certain texts with the same sense of precision. What I mean by that is the nonfiction that we aspire to publish has the same challenging power of language that we associate with the poetry that we publish. And I think that in recent years, in particular, our poetry lists and our nonfiction lists are in communication with each other. I’m thinking of books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is a poetry book, but it’s also an essay book; it’s its own invented genre in a way, but it is so interestingly navigating the lyric and the sense-making that very directly confronts something like race and microaggressions and visual artwork, and all the things that are going on in Claudia’s text. So as an editor, I don’t turn off my poetry editing to edit nonfiction and I don’t turn off my nonfiction when editing poetry. In a way, that’s what Graywolf looks for with our nonfiction prize: works that come at essay writing or nonfiction writing with an innovative structure or innovative language to get at what they’re talking about. I would say this for nonfiction and I would certainly say this for poetry: the voice and style with which those genres are made are just as important as the subject. I think within these last few years, with Claudia Rankine and Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison, there is a real audience that is hungry for that kind of challenging writing and not just a straightforward telling. It’s something that really immerses us into a kind of thoughtful experience. It’s a different way that we read and think and learn. The power of those words seeps into your bones in a different way.
That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings…
BF: When I started with Lunch Ticket, I was told that working on a literary journal makes you a better reader and ultimately a better writer. How has your editing influenced your writing and vice versa?
JS: That’s a great question and thank you for asking it. It’s a question I don’t get very much. To get to the first part of your question, I think about my own MFA program. I had a wonderful experience at my MFA, which was at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was in the poetry program and I studied with Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, who are just wonderful and very different teachers for me. It was hard for me to write for the workshop and to feel like I was on deadline, so to speak, and to have that work then talked about. I was the person around the workshop table who cowered a little when my poem was up for conversation, but I was also the person who loved talking about everyone else’s poem. And I think that told me a lot. I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. It made me realize that publishing and editing and list-building and all those things that we were talking about, is what was at my core.
Every once in a while, I will find myself jotting a little line or there’ll be something that pops up and I feel a creative urge to just fragment something, and that’s usually about where it stays. Most of the writing I’m doing now is reports on manuscripts, catalog copy, jacket copy, editorial letters to nonfiction writers and poets and translators. So for me, that editorial language comes from the same creative pool as the creation of my own poetry or essay writing. Some people are able to compartmentalize that, but I’m just not one of those people. It all comes from the same space. And the truth is, I have a family, I have two young boys, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it takes to be a writer, to look away from them and look at my own page; I can’t make that trade. So I guess I would rather be a present editor and a present parent, not necessarily in that order, rather than a present writer. So my own writing is fairly dormant, to be honest with you right now, but there’s always a porch light on.
BF: I read up on a few of your interviews and I noticed that the theme of “service” comes up often in terms of the author being in service to the book and the book being in service to the world. How do you define service? And what advice would you give some one who believes that they’re called to be in service to the literary world?
JS: Wow, that’s a great question and I think it’s also at the heart of what writers and teachers can be and, I hope, what editors, publishers, and publicists can be. I think everyone has to answer this question for themselves in terms of what they’re in service to. And I think it’s okay if writers say, “You know, I’m in service to my own need to write.” That may sound selfish, but I really respect that and in some cases that’s what writers need to demand of themselves. It’s a very hard thing to look at your own page, to hear your own voice, and to hone it. So that said: I’m in service to the art, in service to the individual book, to the individual writer, and of course, I’m in service to Graywolf. I hope that what I am able to contribute is in service to particular people whose voices matter and can change us and can change me. And maybe that’s the selfish part of what I do. I want my imagination filled, I want to know more than I do, and I want to be changed by the writers that I’m working with or other writers that I’m reading. I want as many readers as possible to feel the same way. And I hope that also means that readers act in the world in a different way: more respectfully, more politically, more aware or astute, more able to see others for who they are and to challenge each other in those spaces.
I think that literature and art in general is such a great space for that conversation to happen. We live in a culture that needs more of that. I feel energized by serving that purpose. I don’t know if it’s a small or a large purpose, but it is what it is. I am so fortunate to be able to work with writers who share a sensibility of wanting their work to challenge people and get under their skin, and sometimes it can rise up and make a large-scale cultural shift. And I think Citizen has changed some of the ways that we have language around race, and that feels very powerful and important to me. I have learned so much from that. I think that’s where translators, for instance, are wonderful people who offer themselves to writers in various genres. They are doing such an amazing service to writers as they offer themselves to language and stories and poems that we are not hearing in this culture and in this language. That seems like a wonderful service, too. I really see small and independent presses, like Graywolf and obviously many others, that are a great enterprise in service to culture as a whole. Our main service is not a commercial one. Obviously, we want our books to do well, we want our writers to be paid and all those things, but that is not the first thing that we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about how these books can reach particular communities that need them.
I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable.
BF: I know that Graywolf is devoted to diversity; what is your dream for the press and the larger literary world in the near future? How do you envision it?
JS: That is a wonderful question! One part is that I would really like to see American culture be awash in the serious literature of other cultures and languages because we’ve fallen short compared to other countries and what they’re publishing. There is very little global literature coming in or being translated. So one huge way of answering your question is more global cross-pollination and intersectionality across borders and cultures and languages. That’s one place the American publishing scene can grow and change and become more exciting. The more voices that come in, the more influence they have on English and the more they have influence on our own culture. That’s how our language literally changes. That’s exciting to me when you see the shifts in language; you see the changes in vocabulary or thinking. That feels very important. It’s one of the reasons why we try to do so many books from international writers, whether they are writing in English or not. We need more support for those books because they tend to be more expensive books to create. Sometimes those books need something extra, especially if the writers aren’t known or if there is a certain cultural resistance to their writing. Those are challenging books to do, but that’s our mission and our nonprofit status allows us to do them. It’s a thing that writers can do, too, whether it’s a shout out on social media, a review in the New Yorker that says, “Hey, pay attention to this. Here is this exciting book and wonderful book written in Mexico or Brazil, or wherever.” I think it’s a place where individual writers are often really good literary citizens. I see that a lot in author interviews, a sort of advocacy for writers who deserve a place in the literary world and are just not getting it.
BF: At Antioch you spoke about being a literary citizen and a good literary citizen. What did you mean by that?
JS: I think this is a question that everyone gets to answer for themselves. Being a good literary citizen means certainly putting your own work out there, as a writer that needs to be central. But alongside that, finding ways to amplify the voices of other people that you want to see in the world. And there’s lots of ways to do that. Whether that is something as simple as writing a blurb for a new writer, whether it’s introducing them to a magazine editor, or book editor, or agent. Whether that’s just standing as an example for young writers or new writers who need that example. You can never have enough examples. And so many writers are wonderful teachers or activists in the community. The act of writing can point us in all kinds of ways of interacting with our communities: locally, nationally, and globally. Finding ways to hold hands with one another rather than being in competition. Making time to lead each other, take each other into account, and argue with one another. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always have to be friendly all the time, we don’t always have to agree. That means being shrewdly critical, whether it’s inside of literature or inside the publishing culture, or inside the conference culture or MFA culture. Calling those things out and being willing to have difficult conversations also feels like a citizenship and a kind of service to the art.
BF: In your lecture at Antioch you also talked about preparing to be accepted. How should one prepare to be accepted?
JS: When I talk to MFA programs or young writers, there’s such a focus on getting in the door. And I get that, because it’s hard and possibilities feel scarce. It can be easy for writers to stop there and not get to what’s on the other side. What happens when an editor says yes? Or a literary agent takes you? Or a magazine? Writers can prepare to be accepted by thinking very carefully about where they’re sending their work. The more thoughtful you are about it, or your agent is on your behalf, the more chances you have of being accepted. If you target your approach, your acceptance rate is always going to be better. That goes for magazines or online publications or book publications.
Also, writers can be surprised by the way editors and publishers talk about their writing. You’ve lived with something for a long time and sometimes very intimately and privately, but the moment it gets accepted and is inside a publishing house, that work is being talked about and promoted through catalog copy, blurbs, publisher’s websites. It can quickly feel far away from that intimate space that an author held so dear for so long. Editors and publicists have to write that copy. Those four or five sentences that are a description of your book, whether a novel or short stories, essays, or poetry, those become very, very important because they sort of follow the book around. They’re the catalog copy and that becomes the jacket copy and that becomes what’s on these online platforms and they calcify and all of a sudden they define your book. And of course, at Graywolf, we write these things alongside you. It is a space of collaboration.
But I think one thing to anticipate is that when writers start to submit work, graph your own copy. I would never say do this while you’re composing or creating your work, but when you have a sense of it: what would you want on the back of your book that would encapsulate your work in a way that would be enticing to the reader, but also very assured to your original vision? It’s very hard to do. We all have to read that marketing language that falls into a set of clichés, so how do you escape that? And I think that it’s an interesting challenge for a writer to do that, and it also prepares you to have that conversation with the publishing agency. It will always make the author feel a strong presence inside that way. No one can talk about a book as well as the author, no one. Obviously, a publisher is going to work with you in various ways to hone that and get that right, but that’s one specific thing an author can do to help anticipate a yes.
BF: The literary world seems to be getting younger, especially the poetry field. What would you say to the writer who feels that they’re too late or they haven’t taken advantage of the right opportunities to pursue their writing career?
JS: Don’t give up. Don’t think that. The life of art is long, I hope. And I’m inspired just as much by those writers who come to publishing much later in their lives, and those writers come to their second and third published books with such a different voice and experience, and I’m an editor who loves that. I’m thinking of Mary Jo Bang (my teacher) who we published at Graywolf, who had done many things in her life before she became a published and more well-respected poet. I would say the same about Diane Seuss, and her last book Four-legged Girl was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, and she came to publish much later in her life. In seeing writers like that getting strong attention, getting reviews, publicity, and spotlight, I find that very inspiring. So I think you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of those who came into their publishing lives later. That doesn’t mean that they came into their artistic lives later. They probably have been writing their whole lives or decades before they started publishing. Publishers are working hard to get these different voices, more established writers, attention. It happens, but it happens in a pathway that might not be expected. The best things that sells books is word of mouth, being out there and being a great reader and performer of your work. Being a great literary citizen in the way we’ve talked about, these are ways that all readers can participate in, and many do. Fear not.
Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for twelve years. She has represented Columbus, OH, in nine National Poetry Slam competitions and placed eigth out of ninety-six poets in the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is featured in the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Columbus Makes Art Campaign and Columbus Alive named her in their 2017 People to Watch. She is a TEDx speaker, an author of three poetry collections, and has been commissioned by over ten organizations. She holds a BA in literature and a Masters in theology. Currently, she is pursuing her MFA in poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also served as co-lead poetry editor on Lunch Ticket. She works at The Columbus Foundation and teaches poetry at Transit Arts. Barbara believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.