Photography by Ackerman + Gruber
Last November at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois, a book of poetry stole the show. Its reader, a young woman seated just behind Trump, calmly turned its pages, holding up its haunting cover of a black hoodie in white space for the world to see. “Woman Trolls Trump By Reading Book of Poems On Racism,” blared Buzzfeed. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the rest weighed in. By the end of the news cycle, some 21 million people had watched the Vine, 350,000 folks had liked a Jezebel.com story calling the reader a hero, and the collection of avant-garde poetry had shot up Amazon’s sales rankings—66 spots ahead of Trump’s Crippled America.
The name of the unlikely hit was Citizen, a scorching and adventurous arrow through race and racism in contemporary American life by the poet Claudia Rankine. In the midst of its mini media tornado, Rachel Maddow grasped for words to contextualize the book for MSNBC viewers: “This is something you never hear talked about on cable news; you’ve never heard me talk about it before,” said Maddow, describing Citizen as a “literary sensation” and “the best-selling book of new American poetry in years—in that world, it’s a big deal.”
Of course, no one in the media circus of the day took the time to credit the publisher of Citizen: Minneapolis’s own Graywolf Press. Likewise, no one thought to venture a guess as to how this nonprofit publisher snagged the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2014 (Vijay Seshadri) and 2012 (Tracy K. Smith), had one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer in poetry this year, and was the United States publisher of the translated work of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011. There’s not enough room here to list the rest of Graywolf’s national awards and acclaim, but know that they include six National Book Critics Circle top awards and six New York Times Book Review covers.
Graywolf’s appeal is broad. At President Obama’s historic 2009 inauguration, the inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” was written by Graywolf author Elizabeth Alexander—only the fourth poet in history invited to compose something for a president’s ceremonial debut (the first was Robert Frost for JFK). Lately, the publisher has had different titles picked for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s online book club and actress Emma Watson’s feminist book club. It also published actor James Franco’s 2014 poetry collection Directing Herbert White, pushing against elite beliefs that he’s merely a movie star (New York Magazine recently noted: “Wow, James Franco’s Poem Is Very Good and Not Just Because He’s Hot”). In July, the Los Angeles Times cited Graywolf as the center of one of literature’s most important current developments: the rise of the lyric essay, a form that blends truth and personal perspective to “get out of the impasse of what’s real and what’s not” in this age of truthiness. The article named Graywolf authors John D’Agata, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, and Leslie Jamison as the leaders of the movement.
“We are punching above our weight, aren’t we?” says Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae when I met her near her Prospect Parkhome for lunch. A tall and regal Nairobi-born Brit in her mid-50s, McCrae moved to Minneapolis in 1994 to take over the press after its founder, Scott Walker, resigned. Walker had started Graywolf in Port Townsend, Washington, some 20 years earlier with handmade poetry chapbooks. He relocated to Minnesota in the 1980s because of our culture of support for the arts. Though Walker was a genius at selecting talent—he published Jane Kenyon early on—he drove into financial difficulties that left Graywolf in debt. The board spent the months after he left slashing budgets, finding money to shore up the debt, and conducting a national search for someone to steer the foundering press to calmer seas.
They came back with Fiona McCrae, then a young editor at London publishing house Faber & Faber. McCrae had a reputation for both digging deep into texts and understanding the wheels and gears of publishing. When she arrived, Graywolf was stock still, not releasing any new work. McCrae set a path toward rebuilding. Twenty-two years, a dozen strategic plans, scores of grant applications, and millions of miles of travel later, the nonprofit now publishes 30-some titles a year, distributed by national publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Beyond being financially stable—Graywolf brought in more than $2 million in sales in 2015—the press is an important literary standard-bearer, doing as much as anyone in the English language to advance the shapes, content, and forms of writing. This, as Rachel Maddow might say, is a big deal—and not just for the world of poetry. In any world, it’s astonishing to see what a powerhouse McCrae has built—a testamentto her own particular will and vision.
“When I first encountered Graywolf 25 years ago, I thought of it as regional,” says Ira Silverberg, senior editor at Simon & Schuster and former literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts. “Now the word ‘regional’ doesn’t even slightly apply. They publish really fine, frequently adventurous literature, are doing some of the finest translations, and have one of the most esteemed poetry lists in the country. Really, today it is one of the premier literary publishing houses in the United States. When you look at the success of certain Graywolf titles, in terms of prestige, prize, and sales—they set the tone. Nationally.”
McCrae has a uniquely British biography. She was born in Kenya to one of those U.K. families who passed several generations going to and from colonies on slow boats, and her parents Alastair and Cynthia taught her that no matter how much upheaval is around you, books provide sense and a center. She remembers her father reading Hans Christian Andersen aloud while she and her brother wept at the plight of the little mermaid. “I think I was 6 or something and just amazed at the power of literature,” she says. Alastair was good at problem-solving and passed on that love to his daughter. She remembers a sort of 4-D stacked board of layers of Plexiglas and fishing line he rigged up so they could play a version of noughts and crosses, like multidimensional Connect 4. Her other childhood passion was a card game called Racing Demons, a complex and competitive group-play cousin to Solitaire. Everyone lays out 13 cards in the Solitaire way, four more piles, and then there’s a flurry of hand-quicker-than-the-eye chaos as players complete their Solitaire formations. It’s called the fastest card game known to man.
“All the McCraes play it in Scotland. You put a blanket on the wooden table and get everyone down.” Watching games of Racing Demons on YouTube, it’s easy to tell where the racing part of the name comes from—the cards slap so fast they sound like rain. “I was very good at it,” says McCrae. “The Racing Demons queen. Oh, you’re going to put that in, aren’t you? Well, yes, you’d have to.” And with that, McCrae gives a look—a cut of the eyes—that seemingly takes in things near, then far, as if she’s fully absorbed what needed to be perceived. Racing Demons is a lot like life, she points out. Personality is revealed. “Some people get flustered they can’t figure out what they’ve got, never mind what the other people have. I always could,” she says. “There was definitely a time I was frustrated—you can’t make a career out of playing Racing Demons? Well, what then?”
Well then: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and all the classics of literature came next. In school in England she fell hard for Shakespeare. “That was where I got the most profound lesson in the power of language,” she recalls. Sprung from college, she started at Faber & Faber out of a sense that Shakespeare and Austen must have come from somewhere, and she wanted to be where those next books emerged. “I remember thinking it made my whole life make sense to get that job.” At Faber she learned an unexpected lesson, not in what was new, but in the value of what was old—namely, the backlist. Faber had published T.S. Eliot decades earlier, yet now the poet, long resting in peace, and now big on Broadway in Cats, was paying everyone’s bills. McCrae realized that the reason Eliot—and Philip Larkin, and Sylvia Plath—were bringing in so much money was because of their importance to the culture and to literature. (Eliot is still a best-selling poet.) Cultural significance wasn’t merely a concern of critics: Cultural significance made publishers stable with money.
McCrae then began to think of publishing very differently than her American contemporaries with their laser-focus on the next bestseller. “More and more I see publishing is nota short-term event,” she says. “It’s not even an event. You don’t have a book that you publish and it’s like a play—a 12-week run and tally the books. A book might have a good 12 weeks, be minimally in print, move to paperback, e-books, and suddenly something happens three years later—a prize, a new book, it’s suddenly big in South Korea—and you have to reprint.” In other words, it’s smarter in publishing to have a few T.S. Eliots on your list than to have a brief bestseller you paid top dollar to secure.
McCrae landed at Faber & Faber’s Boston outpost, and from there she leapt to Graywolf. The reason a young star editor from London would relocate to the land of pond hockey is firmly rooted in McCrae’s British roots—from the sense of adventure that called all in her line. Everyone in Boston shook their heads and warned her that Minnesota was exceptionally cold and that everyone was unnervingly nice. “If nice is the worst, I think I’ll try it,” she remembers thinking. “Everything in my background would encourage me to say yes. It was an adventure!”
Her mother flew to Boston, and the two drove cross-country. When they finally arrived in Minneapolis, it was storming. As they pulled off I-94, bolts of lightning danced along the skyline. McCrae found an apartment on Emerald Street on the Minneapolis and St. Paul border, and she remembers her first year as peaceful. With no money and no new titles to release, the only thing to do was to plan, meet people, and apply for grants. McCrae started making friends.
Today, she talks about “friend-raising” as well as fundraising—a cumulative process that is one of the several secrets to Graywolf’s success. When McCrae started, the press had received $11,000 in donations the year before. Thanks in part to her relentless networking, that number hovers around $250,000 to $300,000 today. Another secret to Graywolf’s success under McCrae is her T.S. Eliot approach to publishing. Early in her tenure, one of the titles that gave Graywolf a lift was a collection of poems by Jane Kenyon, which became a quiet bestseller. Similarly, the poet Tess Gallagher has been with Graywolf for 30-odd years,and her 1988 classic Amplitude is still in print.
In those early days she attended the first reading of the first book by the young adult and children’s author John Coy, and ended up in the group invited back to his apartment. “I met his father, his sister, I spoke to them all at the party in his apartment,” says McCrae. The two hit it off and eventually married. (“I came to her wedding in England,” remembers National Book Award–winning author Andrew Solomon. “It couldn’t have been more British. It was so decorous in a very British way.”)
Coy and McCrae now live in Prospect Park, none too far from the bluffs over the river. McCrae says having a writer and an editor in the house has been good for the work stress of each. When Coy isn’t hearing back from an editor swiftly enough he can look at his wife and remember the hundred things an editor might be doing, and McCrae says she gets inspired to return manuscripts more quickly seeing the agony of the wait right before her eyes.
Yes, McCrae edits manuscripts, which is all but unheard of for a publisher today. Her office is located off a turning hallway down the way from Graywolf’s main offices in the Traffic Zone building in the North Loop (Graywolf relocated here from St. Paul a few years ago). It looks like the fantasy any bookish person might have of an editor’s life. Tall stuffed bookcases line the walls, piles of manuscripts make little walls on the edges around the desk, and big windows make the office feel something like a book-filled treehouse or a perfectly literary tower.
The rest of the main Graywolf offices takes up much of the top floor of this building, a stone’s throw from the Minneapolis landmark wine bar Bev’s. Like McCrae’s workspace, it’s a bookish place that smells of ink and paper. There are book reviews spread on a table at the door, new publications arranged for display, and medals, trophies, certificates, and prizes on most shelves and surfaces. More than a dozen people now work in this prize-strewn, paper-stuffed space high above the city. Look closer at McCrae’s desk and you’ll see the manuscripts themselves are covered with detailed notes in a fine hand. It’s the proof of her fine attention to the words and the sentences that Graywolf publishes: She works with some authors on different drafts for years.
Novelist and memoirist Paul Lisicky is one of those writers. He’s been working with McCrae since about 2000. Back then his first manuscript was making the rounds in New York. “It wasn’t a linear book,” he says. “There was another publisher who wouldn’t take it on unless it was arranged in linear fashion. It would have been a monochromatic book if it were written like that. Intuitively, I knew Fiona would be open to something more adventurous.” A long and happy relationship in non-linearity followed. “Fiona has incredible intuition for what a reader wants in a book,” says Lisicky. “I’ve noticed that when a reviewer quotes from the book, it’s very often from a section added per Fiona’s suggestion. When you get those notes you think, ‘OK, I’m not sure the book needs that,’ but then she’s so often right.”
This deep textual attention is accompanied by an acute emotional sensitivity. “My first book was about Soviet artists and published by Knopf,” recalls Solomon, who is also president of PEN America. “My editor and I had a falling out. It was a messy situation. Andrew Wylie, my agent, said, ‘There’s this woman who’s just taken over Graywolf, and she seems very smart.’ Fiona made an offer, and I felt so indebted to her. . . . She restored my confidence in my ability as a writer at a time I was worried writing for me was not at all going to work out. She has published a lot of books that have been turned down by other houses which went on to be significant.”
McCrae says the press’ roots in poetry make her and her editors unafraid of difficult texts, but it’s hard not to see her personal belief that money follows importance to the culture as a main driver. A good example of a culturally significant author McCrae picked up through shrewd foresight is Eula Biss. Early in her career, Biss had unsuccessfully tried to sell a collection of essays titled Notes from No Man’s Land to a few of the bigger New York publishers, who couldn’t imagine a market for essays. Graywolf took it, and it went on to win a National Book Critics Circle award. The big houses came calling for Biss’s second book, On Immunity, but she decided to stick with Graywolf.
“One of the remarkable things about Graywolf is they take on titles which present formal challenges, challenges in terms of subject—the books that aren’t chick lit and aren’t angry men with guns,” says Solomon. “They aren’t by the very few writers like Jonathan Safran Foer who are popularly permitted to wander from approved topics. They’re rather chiseled and exquisite fiction, but full of really profound insights: That is a kind of writing, that’s where literature is actually happening around us today.”
The reason why literature is actually happening at Graywolf, imagines Solomon, is because of McCrae’s tendency to go against conventional wisdom in publishing. “It was one of those wags, Will Rogers or PT Barnum, who said: No one ever went wrong underestimating the American public. Well, Fiona has done the opposite,” says Solomon. “She’s the one who walked in and said: ‘You’re underestimating the American public, they will like to read this challenging work and that challenging work.’” And they do, sometimes exactly beside Donald Trump’s head at rallies.
Challenging work is, of course, not an easy thing to describe in shorthand. Asked what defines a Graywolf title today, McCrae will tend to point to the press’ roots in poetry, and how this makes her and her editors unafraid of difficult reads. Yet, the work Graywolf publishes isn’t difficult in that arcane academic way so popular at many academic presses. When pressed, McCrae will allow that a Graywolf book is something you feel more than know. She paraphrases Tom Stoppard: “It’s the difference between a lumpen piece of wood and a cricket bat. When it’s right, you get that feeling of connection to the language, and it comes alive. Pop, now it’s a cricket bat.” Beyond that, a Graywolf book comes right from her childhood, it’s the thing that brings travel and transport. “You have to have more than cold admiration for a piece. You have to feel you are someplace new—inside somewhere, inside someone’s head, in a new place.”
Finding that feeling of transport often requires transporting the Graywolf staff. “People think a book arrives on your doorstep ready-made and you shoot it off to the printer,” says McCrae. “It’s not like that at all.” It’s more like this: McCrae spends a good chunk of every year touching down in far-flung points of the globe. “I got my free suitcase at the million-mile mark long ago,” she laughs. Every month she travels to New York. Every year she goes to Europe for book fairs and meetings. In the course of the several months we are in touch for this story she was in India, Finland, California, and at a writer’s conference in Vermont.
Why does someone with such a literal paper-pushing job need to be so often in the sky? That emotional attention to writers. During one of our meetings, McCrae was fretting because Max Porter, a British Graywolf author, was scheduled to give a reading in Brooklyn without a friendly Graywolf face in the audience. “I’m not going to let him come to New York all alone,” she vowed, and later flew to New York. When I told her most publishers are indifferent to whether their authors are lonely at readings, she said that’s the sort of mistake they don’t even know they are making, and told me of an author they lost from what she later decided was inattention. “You can’t only be in touch when it’s strictly business—you must have some sense of the press as your family.”
Key in this family is poetry editor Jeff Shotts, whom McCrae fondly calls “our wizard.” She characterizes their relationship as a 20-some-year conversation in poetry. Shotts started as an unpaid intern fresh from Macalester, later became McCrae’s assistant, and eventually, after leaving to get an MFA, returned. Shotts grew up a Kansas country kid and says he got hooked on poetry hanging out at the lost and lamented Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul.
Shotts is the editor of most of the culture-changing poets on Graywolf’s list, including Claudia Rankine, whose work was used to troll Trump. “What makes a Graywolf book a Graywolf book is a real sense that how something is being said is just as important as what is being said,” explains Shotts, who, like his mentor, travels regularly to meet his writers. He’s also quick to point out McCrae’s business-sense role in the press’ success: “[Fiona] has a mind that synthesizes development and fundraising with the artistic aspect. . . . It’s very rare to find someone who is both invested in detail in the weeds and a deep visionary. When we go into editorial meetings, the first question is never, ‘How many copies can we sell and what advance would that merit?’ The first question is, ‘How transformative is it, in terms of literature?’ . . . I don’t hear a lot of other editors say that.”
Nor does one hear a lot of poetry editors rave about strategic planning documents. Shotts says if I could see the various strategic plans Graywolf has presented to the board over the years, I’d be dazzled by the beauty of them—the way they make explicit the connections between current fundraising goals and the culture-changing literature to follow. “If you looked back at those documents, there are things they probably wouldn’t want you to see, hopes for major literary recognition. They set that vision and it all came to pass.”
All of it? McCrae understandably doesn’t wish to share Graywolf’s current strategic plans. After all, it’s competing with other publishers everywhere. Still, a nosy magazine writer watching Graywolf’s steady march to capture and hold an important seat at the center of English-language literature will start to wonder irritating things such as: What next? McCrae grimaces at the question. There are some obvious next things. The press is launching live events in New York and Minnesota, and McCrae admits that the idea of a long-term endowment—what she calls “the E word”—has been preoccupying Graywolf for a few years.
“We may decide to, or we may decide not to, but it’s going to take some time to decide,” she sighs. “On the whole it feels like a nice problem to have---—it comes from attention being paid to us, that’s good. Have we got enough critical mass and have we proven ourselves so people would trust us to be around forever? So long as there’s a world and there’s publishing?” At the thought her attention shifts into that place where she can see much more than the person she’s speaking with, and she reckons there and returns. It would take a lot of fundraising, a lot of cultivating donors, a lot of attention diverted from the present moment to the needs of eternity. She’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do, she says. “I don’t like to be off to one side doing one thing,” she says. “I like to be in the center.”
But then I remember what she told me about playing that stacked noughts and crosses game her father built from fishing line and clear plastic. “I used to like to build two rows of four,” she says, her brown and gold eyes lighting up. “Then if a person found you out, it’s too late—it looks like you’re doing one thing, but the whole time you’ve been doing two.”
10 Essential Graywolf Reads
Want to get up to speed on how Graywolf Press is changing literature? Pick up a few of its titles and prepare to be wowed.
1 of 10
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Poetry, criticism, and politics come together in one of the most acclaimed works of poetry this decade. The American zeitgeist is often sought after and rarely captured, with this book being an exception.
2 of 10
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
What do travel, prison, heart palpitations, delusion, and murder trials have in common? Not only does Jamison’s book explore these varied byways, it pulls the neat trick of making you examine and activate your empathy.
3 of 10
On Immunity by Eula Biss
Why are the fears of the anti-vaxxers so powerful, and what can we understand about our culture so riven with those fears? Biss brings more than facts to this fact-resistant split in America—and more than facts may be the only thing that can heal us.
4 of 10
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
How can motherhood be both valorized and undervalued simultaneously? What is pregnancy when your partner is taking testosterone and getting a mastectomy? Where is gender now? Find some answers here.
5 of 10
3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri
Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry from one of America’s best (and a longtime New Yorker copy editor). The work here is funny, clear, sharp, and often arresting.
6 of 10
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
Northfield, Minnesota’s own Percy, the best-selling thriller writer and comic book star, gives his serious and wide-ranging thoughts on popular genres like thrillers and mysteries, which don’t get much respect in literary culture.
7 of 10
The Making of the American Essay by John D’Agata
For two decades, this Iowa Writers’ Workshop icon has been making a case for the importance of the essay. His final book on the topic brings all the strands of American culture together to show why the essay has become the preeminent form of expression today.
8 of 10
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
This satiric riff on Kafka’s Metamorphosis is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and wonders what would happen if its black hero woke up with white skin. Barrett is from Nigeria and this book is a great example of Graywolf’s dedication to seeking new talent on several continents.
9 of 10
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Part history of the space shuttle era at NASA, part elegy for its passing, part lyric essay on what the shuttles meant to Americans such as herself, Leaving Orbit exemplifies Graywolf’s love of genre-mixing works.
10 of 10
May Day by Gretchen Marquette
A quiet, lovely set of poems centered around Minneapolis’s keep-it-weird Powderhorn festival and neighborhood. May Day proves that Graywolf is truly local—and knows where locals like tobe tickled.