You and I have done it!
Here we are! [Laughs.] You and me, we might be it. But do men read poetry? Maybe that is an interesting question. At Tracy K. Smith’s reading last night, there were significantly more women than men, so that audience provides some anecdotal evidence about who’s reading literature. But every editor, and every publishing house, must maintain the hope that what they’re doing has the power and the potential to reach anyone. Even the most experimental, innovative, destabilized voice—if that author is able to clutch the culture by the collar, I think any reader can go there.
The academic audience is an important one, because it’s often the place you have to start with challenging books. At a writing program or in an English department, there’s an engagement with the question of what it means to challenge a reader. Can you get that conversation to start there and gain enough traction to move further out in the culture? Sometimes yes, and often no. But it does happen. There’s still what used to be called the avant-garde. I love that there is still a mechanism through publishing houses and magazines and online and self-publishing for the new James Joyces and Samuel Becketts and Gertrude Steins. The writers who are pushing the language in such a powerful way that our first encounters with it scare us.
New Directions is a national treasure. That they're still committed to that kind of innovation is a testament. New Directions was the model that Scott Walker founded Graywolf on. Every small independent press that’s still active in this country is founded on what that press stands for. That’s very moving to me as a reader and as an editor.
Well, now that we’ve covered everything, let’s start at the beginning. [Laughs.] How did you become an editor of poetry books? I’ve read that you grew up in the Midwest in a very Scandinavian household.
I’m from the middle of Kansas, from a very small, rural town named McPherson. Deep Scandinavian roots.: 1880s immigrants from Sweden, many of whom came to central Kansas, some of whom didn’t like it and got scared and went back. Church steeples, oil wells. It was a beautiful place to grow up, and I was fortunate to have a lot of people lifting me up. It’s one of the most conservative places in the country. But my family had a tried-and-true-blue quality that I was completely oblivious to at the time, but which certainly seeped in. Even my grandfather, who’s gone now, was canvassing up to his last year or two for John Kerry against George W. Bush. My mom is a deep thinker and a reader.
We had these red faux-leather books in a series called the Book of Knowledge. And I remember us buying the encyclopedia letter by letter as the volumes came to our grocery store. I read a lot in the encyclopedia, and I remember my mom reading from the Book of Knowledge. [Laughs.] They’re absurd in terms of their impossible breadth. But it provided me with an imaginative world as a young person. I was lucky that those books were among the many ways that I was lifted up intellectually. I grew up believing I had to think my way out of there.
What do you mean?
Every teenager grapples with central questions of identity. Who am I, and what do I love, and is it supported here? All of those things.
I’ll back up a notch. My mom was a really big figure, but my grandfather gave me a worn copy of Tennyson that I still have. It was an odd gift, because he was not a readerly person. He went to the agricultural school at Kansas State University on the GI Bill, very proudly, and was a county extension agent. I used to walk wheat fields with him. He had these ritualistic practices and would walk a field in a certain way, seeing things that of course to my eye were invisible, and then he would chew the grain and deduce something. My dad had a master’s degree in theater, though he was a real estate agent and broker for most of my youth.
I’m sure this joke isn’t new to you, but: Did you hear about the Scandinavian man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?
[Laughs.] That’s the world I’m from. You keep it secret, that part of you.
But you noticed that part of you, and saw it in other people in your family.
My parents are very aware people. They were invested in making sure that my two sisters and I did things like go to art museums in Kansas City, which was this big three-hour drive from home. We took trips outside of Kansas, and that felt important. I mean, now that sounds pretty average, but Kansas is a land of settlers. That austere thing you’re talking about is deeply ingrained.
How did you come to realize the role creative expression could play in your life?
Mostly by reading. Then I tried writing poetry. Middle school is where it sparked. And then I had a remarkable high school English teacher named Carole Ferguson. We read Shakespeare and William Blake and the Romantics and Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. She was a remarkable teacher in how she introduced that writing without killing it—in a way that allowed you to think deeply about it but also enjoy it.
We had another high school English teacher named John Hudson, but everyone called him Hud. He was also the track coach, and he was all about Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville. Those writers in the deep masculine American vein. He taught literature the way he coached the track team, which was to inspire. He would stand in front of the class—he had this comical hairpiece—and take off his glasses and read us passages he loved. It was alive for him. I didn’t learn a thing about the critical appreciation of literature, but I loved it. Having those two very different English translators opened up a path.
Mrs. Ferguson recognized something in some of us. She gave me a poem called “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford and said I should read it. Stafford was still alive at the time, and he was from Hutchinson, Kansas—what we called Hutch—about thirty miles away. That was very powerful: to have a teacher take that interest in me, and to be shown that poetry didn’t end with Frost. She showed me that poetry was still alive, and in fact that there was a guy from right nearby who won the National Book Award. That was eye-opening.
Graywolf publishes William Stafford now; that’s not an accident. His new and selected collection was one of the first books I published. I remember it came in a big black box—this was after Stafford was gone—and I thought, everything has led me to this moment.
Were you the lone reader of poetry among your peers?
I have to mention the Hollow Men. Growing up in central Kansas, as I mentioned, there could be a sense of silence, and a sense of a narrow path forward surrounded by immense horizons that seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere.
The Hollow Men was a group of us in high school who stole away in secret up to Coronado Heights, the highest point in McPherson County, the legendary northern point Coronado reached on his search for the Seven Cities of Gold. He reached that point, saw what he assumed was nothingness, and turned back. But that’s where we turned, a bunch of guys who went there at night to read poems out loud and try to eke some meaning out of that nothingness. T. S. Eliot’s poem provided us with our name.
We were pretentious and hopeless, embarrassed and beautiful, and around those fires in the humid Kansas nights, we introduced ourselves to Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, and we uttered poems by living poets whose names we might not have been hearing in our classroom. Seamus Heaney, Tomas Tranströmer, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, E. E. Cummings, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, Allen Ginsberg, many more.
It’s amazing to me now that we Hollow Men found one another. We’re still all marvelous friends, now trying to be fathers and artists and teachers and editors. I suppose we never stopped being Hollow Men. I think we’d all say poetry saved us from ourselves and provided us a space where we felt in control of our lives. That’s one way to answer how I came to poetry. Another way to answer: listening deeply to what others brought to light for me.
Why did you move from Kansas to the Twin Cities?
I made the great decision to go to Macalaster College in St. Paul. I was an English and classics double major, studying a lot of Greek and Latin language and history, seventeenth-century literature, Chaucer, Beowulf. Charles Baxter had been the editor of Macalaster’s art and literary magazine, so there was a kind of literary history at Macalaster. Tim O’Brien went there, Mary Karr.
What decade would this have been?
I graduated high school in 1992, and then graduated Macalaster in 1996. During my senior year at Macalaster I did an internship at Hungry Mind Review, which used to be a magazine for independent and university publishing that was distributed for free in independent bookstores. I did everything from pitch books for review to sell ads. It was there, while I pored over independent publishers’ catalogues, that I realized the Twin Cities has an amazing literary scene. Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, the Loft Literary Center, the University of Minnesota Press, and so on.
I wanted to get some more experience in publishing after I graduated, so I started an internship at Graywolf. The second day I was there, the guy who hired me said he was leaving and asked if I would consider applying for his job. It was shortly after Fiona McCrae had taken over the press, and I was in the right place at the right time. I owe Fiona everything. She was very patient not only in developing books and authors and a list, but also in developing her staff. I learned like you, like everyone, by really doing it.
Fiona deserves all credit for moving the press from, at the time, a potentially disastrous financial moment. Scott Walker left in 1994 and there was a board of directors in place that then hired Fiona. Slowly but surely Fiona saved the press from that precipice, and we’ve been thriving since then.
What did you accomplish those first few years?
In the first year, I was able to put my finger on some poetry books that excelled for us. One of them was William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. I knew the power and potential in that manuscript, and it continues to be one of our best-selling titles, period. I’m very proud of that, both for mythic personal reasons and because it was a good publishing decision. Another one around that time was Tony Hoagland’s Donkey Gospel. His books are among our best-selling titles as well.
You were all of twenty-two or twenty-three at the time?
Yes. Not all of them went on to the same success, of course, but I was given freedom to march into the publisher’s office or to be at an editorial meeting and say, “This is big. This is important,” and put some enthusiasm—if not acumen—behind those books. The community here was willing to lift me up. It means everything to me now, that there were people who listened to that young jabber-mouth wannabe.
I got promoted and took over more of the poetry. I worked at Graywolf as an editorial assistant, and then assistant editor, and I think I was just editor by the end of those first four years. By then I knew I wanted to go to graduate school for an MFA in poetry.
I imagine you had some pretty nice recommendation letters by then.
[Laughs.] I did, and that probably helped my application. I hope I had a decent writing sample, too, but please don’t try to find it!
What was your motivation to go back to school?
I needed to figure out if I was an editor or if I was a writer. I studied with Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang, who are both absolutely terrific teachers, at Washington University in Saint Louis. I learned a great deal about the history of prosody and craft from Carl, and from Mary Jo I learned how to read new and innovative kinds of writing. I realized later that I became an editor through my MFA program. In those workshops I learned how to read and line edit and respond to a writer. I really took that very seriously and earnestly—as I tended to take everything. [Laughs.]
Were you publishing any of your own work?
I did a little, and I did some reviewing. But I recognized by the end of that experience that my path was back to Graywolf. I had been freelance editing during those two years, and Fiona asked me to come back. In 2002 I took over the poetry list. Then we started to make more commitments to our series of books on the craft of writing—that’s when we launched the “Art of” series with Charles Baxter—and started the nonfiction prize soon after that. It was a marvelous moment of upward movement and growth.
Fiona put extraordinary faith in me. We took on D. A. Powell, Matthea Harvey, Katie Ford, Claudia Rankine, and many others, and continued longtime support for Dana Gioia, Linda Gregg, Jane Kenyon, William Stafford, Eamon Grennan. I was given amazing autonomy to bring in the kinds of work that expanded our list.