Guiding a Poet’s Press

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CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

The Half-Finished Heaven

Cowardice breaks off on its path.
Anguish breaks off on its path.
The vulture breaks off in its flight.

The eager light runs into the open,
even the ghosts take a drink.

And our paintings see the air,
red beasts of the ice-age studios.

Everything starts to look around.
We go out in the sun by hundreds.

Every person is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless field under us.

Water glitters between the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.

Poem by Tomas Tranströmer
Translation from the Swedish by Robert Bly
From The Half-Finished Heaven, published by Graywolf Press, 2001

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

By Laurie Hertzel | Photo by David J. Turner

At night, after his young sons have gone to bed and, hopefully, to sleep, Jeff Shotts ’96 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’s 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.

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 says. “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 email 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,” says 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,” says 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 says. “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 says. “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’s 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 says. “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 says. “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.”

Shotts, 39, grew up in McPherson, Kansas, “a place of farms, and oil wells, and church steeples.” His father was a real estate agent, his mother an expert in early-childhood education. As a boy, Shotts walked the fields with his grandfather, Otis Ray Griggs, a county extension agent whose job was to test the quality of wheat. Griggs wore a bolo tie and a straw hat under the hot prairie sun, and he always solemnly chewed and spat a sample of wheat before passing his judgment.

Griggs had hoped that Jeff would go off to college and then come back to Kansas, perhaps to work with genetically modified crops. But he inadvertently sent his grandson in a different direction one year by presenting him with a tattered volume of Tennyson.

“My grandfather was not a poet or a reader of great literature,” Shotts says. “I don’t know that he even knew what he was doing, giving me that book. What was I, 12, 13 years old, reading the heights of Victorian verse in the middle of Kansas. But that sensibility was something I responded to deeply at that age. That was an extraordinary moment.”

Shotts did leave Kansas, to attend Macalester, where he studied classics and English, but he didn’t return home. He landed an internship at Hungry Mind Review, and then, in 1996, a job as editorial assistant at Graywolf. He left to earn an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, but in 2002 McCrae asked him to come back as poetry editor. Shotts, now executive editor, also edits essays and literary criticism, and he works with novelist Charles Baxter ’69 on a series of books about the craft of writing.

But when he talks about his job, it’s all about the poetry.

Shotts approaches a poem slowly, reading it over and over, immersing himself in the poet’s intent and meaning and voice. His green-inknotations are merely suggestions. “I never know that I’m right,” he says. “The author is the only one who can ever be right.”

Shotts approaches a poem slowly, reading it over and over, immersing himself in the poet’s intent and meaning and voice. His green-inknotations are merely suggestions. “I never know that I’m right,” he says. “The author is the only one who can ever be right.”

He looks at the manuscript both as its parts, and as a whole. “I’ve done significant edits, from title changes to cutting individual poems to resectioning books—the organization of a poetry book is extremely important,” he says. “Why is that first poem first? Why is that last poem last? I look at things like diction—are there words that stand out, and should those words stand out? If a writer is creating a kind of casual, colloquial tone, but there’s suddenly a 10-dollar word, is that intentional? It might be, because that tonal register shift can be a huge pleasure, too.”

He looks at how the poem appears on the printed page, and how the left-hand page looks in relation to the right-hand page. He double-checks spellings and foreign phrases and historical references and slang. “That’s a place where I can sound really dumb, or, in some cases, really white,” he says. “Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Washington, D.C.,, neighborhood vernacular is probably different from the vernacular I used growing up in central Kansas, to say the least.”

When President Obama chose Graywolf poet Elizabeth Alexander to write the poem for his first inauguration, Shotts edited her “Praise Song for the Day” with an ear toward how it would sound when read aloud. Some of his green marks Alexander agreed with, some she did not. “What I love is when the author welcomes the suggestions but also says, ‘Here’s an alternative to this concern, but all the other stuff you’re saying, that’s where I draw the line,’ ” Shotts says. “If I’ve gotten an author to the point where they can define that line, I feel that’s perfect.”

The best poetry, Shotts said, shakes people up. Recent Graywolf collections have dealt with race, terrorism, and living in a post-9/11 world. “We pride ourselves on taking on some poets who are controversial,” he says.

A collection by actor James Franco, to be published in 2014, “is a fascinating view of how we, as a culture, are fascinated by fame.” The poems in Ellis’s Skin, Inc. are “at times a song, and at times a punch in the face,” Shotts says. “These are poets who have something to say about what we’re trying to do as human beings. That’s the poetry that I love and get affected by—jarring us out of our complacency, jarring us out of what we think we already know.”

There is, of course, a third party involved in all this work: the reader. Books, even slender books of difficult poetry, are written to be bought, and read. “We’re not interested in throwing books down a well,” Shotts says. “I feel very much in a tradition—a tradition of editors that go invisible, and should be invisible, helping to bring something beautiful and necessary and artful to the world.”

Reprinted with permission from the Star Tribune (April 13, 2013).

PUBLISHED: 07/29/2013