Agents & Editors: Jeff Shotts

Michael Szczerban

Tell me about a couple books you got behind.
I really got behind Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, which we published in 2004 and have reprinted many times. It was not the kind of book that Graywolf was known for, but we succeeded with it.

I was building a diverse list, because that’s what I saw in contemporary poetry: fragmentation. The historical idea of schools of poetry had been upended, and we wanted Graywolf’s list to reflect what writers were writing. We published Thomas Sayers Ellis’s first two books, and started relationships with Cave Canem, the African American poets group. We published Natasha Trethewey’s first couple of collections.

Mary Jo Bang’s first book that we took on, Elegy, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a marvelous and moving book, and it meant a lot that it was by my teacher. We’d been a finalist so many times and we finally had broken through in one of the big three awards. We got up to around thirty books a year maybe four years ago. We’re roughly equal thirds: fiction, nonfiction, poetry. I love that in the same season we might have a book like 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri, which uses a lot of traditional craftmaking and rhyme, and it might be next to something like Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, this remarkable lyric voice, next to Tony Hoagland’s cultural conversation about identity. We are deliberate about trying to have some new and emerging voices, some midcareer voices, and then some established voices on each list. That’s a way to avoid competition within the list itself.

How do you schedule a book of poetry for publication?
Everyone asks if we only publish poetry in April. When I first started at Graywolf, the Academy of American Poets was just starting National Poetry Month, and the larger houses didn’t catch on for the first few years. Early on it was really driven by independent publishers, and they really promoted our books well. Later, Knopf and others started publishing their big poets in April.  What do you do with that promotional machine? It’s positive for poetry, but now it means that April might not be the best month to publish a poet’s first book—something that might get lost alongside Philip Levine or Billy Collins.

We operate in three seasons because of our distribution through Macmillan/FSG, with three to four books of poetry each season. We have lead poetry titles, which is to say established poets like Tracy K. Smith, Tony Hoagland, Fanny Howe, Matthea Harvey, Claudia Rankine, and so on. And then we might have a translation, and a first book we selected for a prize or from an organization we have a collaboration with. Those books aren’t really competing in the same conversation.

The main thing is to support the roster of poets that we’ve built, to space their books out in a meaningful way. It does mean making some of those poets wait, and that is a difficulty. Most poets are willing to work with us, and we try to make use of that time as an incubator to make the book as ready as it can be by the time it comes out.

How do you use that time?
We’re able to do more editorial work, place more poems in magazines. Frequently that extra time ends up yielding some of the best work around that manuscript.

Take Nick Flynn. We’re working on his new poetry book, and the conversation about its title, My Feelings, has led to him working on a title poem to insert into the book. For a book of poems, that’s a major edit. He’s also on the cover of American Poetry Review, and that helps create some anticipation. And it’s never too early to gather blurbs. People think it’s funny to talk about promoting poetry in the same way you might promote a book of stories. But it’s the same.

How else do you conceive of promoting poetry?
Some poets want to do, and are very good at doing, a lot themselves. Doing readings, placing poems, all of that. There are marvelous places that want to know about our books and talk about them and support them. We are always sending them our galleys, getting them early copies. The AWP conference is a really powerful tool: You get thirteen thousand people. But a lot of this goes back to what we were talking about before: What is it about this poet or this book that might reach other special audiences? 

You’re trying to increase the poet’s profile in the world of poetry while you try to find readers outside of it.
Absolutely, and that’s not unlike how one would promote a nonfiction book. We treat poetry as a genre that is up to the sales potential of our fiction and nonfiction. Are there specialty catalogs that this book might fit into? Are there particular magazines that this particular poetry book might enter into?

In March we published a book, How to Dance as the Roof Caves In, the third book by a poet named Nick Lantz. It’s a great book, imaginative, smart, and it’s very much about the collapse of the housing market and the downturn of the economy. NPR has picked up on this book and has done a couple pieces on it that I’m not sure the book would have gotten without talking about this subject in such a candid and imaginative way.

It’s that assumption that poetry is its own circular beautiful self. It can be, but what else is it? We’ve been able to get that book in the hands of good reviewers who might not otherwise review a poetry book, so that’s one example where subject matter can drive the way we promote a book. Nearly every book has an angle that gives it appeal to varying audiences.

Would you walk me through acquiring a book of poetry? You publish ten or so poetry books a year, but must receive some vast multiple of that.
Technically, if you go to our website right now, you’ll see we are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. That said, I still am inundated.

More than a thousand a year?
Oh, easily more than twice that. I’ve checked e-mail once this morning, and there were at least three by 11 AM.

Some of it is stuff that I’ve solicited: people I’ve met at Bread Loaf, AWP, authors who live in the Twin Cities, people who one of our authors have recommended. I’m seeing more and more agents sending poetry, often because their client does something else. I wouldn’t say that’s a huge percentage, but they are there, and I take those submissions seriously.

How do you triage that volume of reading?
Those poets whose work I’ve solicited or who have been recommended by one of our poets, or who I’ve met at a conference or read in a magazine—I take those pretty seriously right out of the gate, more than something that just comes in cold. It’s human nature, I suppose. But we do look at what comes in.

Do you have readers who do a first pass?
We do have some readers in-house who we kick some stuff to. Because our list is technically closed, most of the submissions we get are from people who are trying to go around the door. I look at them as I canI’m far slower than I want to be, but that’s just a reality of time and commitment to the books that we have taken on.

We have such a roster that of those ten to twelve books we publish a year, eight might be filled by returning poets. Balance becomes a huge question. It is part of our mission to keep the list fresh. So far we’ve done a pretty good job, but there are harder decisions ahead. That’s the worst day: turning down somebody you’ve worked with before. 

What happens when you read a submission and love it?
I take that manuscript to our editorial meeting, where I present the book and say why I’m excited about it. Often, I will send out a sample ahead of the meeting. We talk about where this poet has published work, if it is his or her first book, whether the poet is a good reader of his or her own work. There’s absolutely nothing like a great poetry reading, and there’s nothing like a really bad poetry reading.

What makes a great poetry reading?
It surprises people when the poet is able to move out of the expected territory, that slow, elegiac, incantatory tone that doesn’t add much value.

I love hearing those poets who really allow for their own voice. I love when poets are risking something during the reading, whether that is what they are reading or how they are reading. What they are risking at that microphone is something people are moved by and interested in. Not all poets can be great presenters of their work, but it’s a huge help for any author to present work in a unique and exciting way. It adds to the experience of the book.

Is the poetry reading one of your most important promotional tools?
It’s huge. It is poetry. The page is one significant method of transferring the art of poetry, but part of its deep tradition is oral. That is part of the alchemy for a successful poetry book. People take note of the really great readers. Having a big reading at AWP, or a breakout reading at Bread Loaf at that famous theater where Robert Frost read years ago can make a difference. I’ve started dialogues with poets because I sat up at their poetry reading. I think those things even can influence the academic job market for a writer.

I’m curious about the unexpected places you find terrific writing.
One way to answer that question is social media. I’m a clicker, and I love it when someone tweets out a poem or posts it on Facebook. It might be a poem from Rattle magazine or a publisher’s website or the Paris Review, but getting it funneled through someone else’s enthusiasm is one of the ways the tool of social media can be interesting for an editor. It can also be incredibly deceptive and a waste. But I love books and poetry that ignite conversation.

Word of mouth is for poetry is huge. Tony Hoagland’s early success was due to word of mouth: “Can you believe how beautiful this poem is, how audacious this guy is, how this person is pissing me off by saying this in a poem?” That conversation is exciting. That’s what we’re in it for: people who are not only appreciating literature but are passing it on and saying it is important. I want all of our books, whatever genre, to do that.

I try to look outside my own aesthetic value. The conversation is as important to me, and maybe more so, than what I think is “good.” As an editor, reading outside yourself is everything. You can’t possibly put yourself in the shoes of every audience member. That is another reason why I take notice of word of mouth, even when the material isn’t my cup of tea.

You want to understand why people are responding to it and you are not?
Right. My assumption from that Scandinavian background is, “What’s wrong with me?” [Laughs.] “Why don’t I see this?” The deficiency is mine. That interests me, because it’s a place from which I can expand and learn. I learn a lot from the books that on first read I was startled by or assumed that I didn’t like.

At the editorial meeting, you come to the conclusion that you’d like to publish a particular piece of work. Then what happens?
We do a P&L for all of our books. We’ll talk about format, season, advance, and then I’ll contact the poet and make the offer. That is the great day, the best day in publishing, when you get to make that phone call, especially with someone who is new to the list. For a first or second book of poems, the advance might be a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars, so it’s not a life-changing amount of money.

But it is a life-changing event.
I hope so. That’s a lovely phone call to make.

Okay, now on to a big question. How do you edit poetry?
Very carefully. [Laughs.] And with a green pen.

Never red?
God, no! I haven’t really had writers flip out, but green is a psychologically friendly color. That’s tip number one: Green is helpful.

You edit poetry by listening deeply and taking on the voice of the poet. For me, it is an act of empathy. It is an act of taking on that poet’s voice and plight and subject matter such that I can make intelligible suggestions that are within the conventions and voice of that writer. I go through everything that I think needs to be gone through. That can start with the title of the book. A title often suggests what the central set of concerns is in this book, so it is a way in. You want to make sure you put your best foot forward.

What are some of your favorite titles?
Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me has probably received as much or more attention than any titlepurely as a titleon the poetry list. In a much more subtle way, Mary Joe Bang’s next title is The Last Two Seconds, which is so unusual and fascinating to me, and it's not a usual poetry title. And I do think Nick Flynn’s new book, My Feelings, has a great title because it flies in the face of every poetry workshop and thesis advising committee in this country. He’s managed to challenge himself and risk something with that title. It’s risky for being the most clichéd title imaginable, and yet readers will see the title change in a really meaningful way when they come to the moments where that phrasing occurs. I had to come around to that title, I admit.

One of the things I work on the most with poets is this: How does the poet earn our trust and get us into that voice? The first movement of the book is so important, and that starts with the title. Is there an epigraph? What is that epigraph saying, what is it doing, how does it relate to the title? I’m intrigued by the way that a reader starts to accrue meaning. Maybe there’s not an epigraph, maybe there’s a dedication. Sometimes a dedication can totally change the way you read a book.


Active Patience

I like the idea of "active patience."  That is the part of writing I struggle with the most.  Waiting for responses from readers, editors, agents, and critiques is gut wrenching.  But at the same time moving on to a new project, a new baby, with new characters with difference voices and a different story to tell almost feels like cheating.  I think if I can figure out active patience I just might come through this thing in one "peace!"  Janelle

Active Patience

I like the idea of "active patience."  That is the part of writing I struggle with the most.  Waiting for responses from readers, editors, agents, and critiques is gut wrenching.  But at the same time moving on to a new project, a new baby, with new characters with difference voices and a different story to tell almost feels like cheating.  I think if I can figure out active patience I just might come through this thing in one "peace!"  Janelle