Jeffrey Shotts

Age: 39

Current title: Executive editor

Almost became: Professor of medieval literature

Higher education: B.A., Macalester College (St. Paul, Minn.); M.F.A. ,Washington University (St. Louis, Mo.)

Book that almost got away: Some Ether, the debut poetry collection by Nick Flynn, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for poetry, was under contract with another publisher for some time. When that publisher released Flynn from his contract, Flynn sent Some Ether to Graywolf, which has since published the following three poetry collections by the author.

Jeffrey Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, appears to have a golden touch when it comes to identifying talent. Books edited by Shotts have scooped up some of the world’s most prestigious literary awards: Tomas Tranströmer won a 2011 Nobel Prize for Half-Finished Heaven; Tracy K. Smith won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars; and, just last month, Mary Szybist won a 2013 National Book Award for Incarnadine. Then there’s Chinese scholar Liu Xiaobo (June Fourth Elegies), who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. And Elizabeth Alexander (Crave Radiance), who was tapped by President Obama to read a poem at his first inauguration. Shotts said he “did a little bit of work” on “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem that she wrote for the occasion, which Graywolf later published.

Shotts certainly has come a long way from his “very middle-class, very smalltown, very Scandinavian, very Lutheran” childhood in McPherson, Kans. Both his mother and grandfather inspired in him a love for literature and poetry. “I was never afraid of poetry, as some people can be,” Shotts said. “My mom and grandpa laid a foundation for me to get into other stuff too.” High school teachers also had a great impact, introducing Shotts to contemporary poets, including William Stafford, who had grown up in the nearby town of Hutchinson. (In a small-world twist, Graywolf first published Stafford’s Smoke’s Way in 1983, five years before Shotts entered high school.)

Shotts described himself having “one foot in classics and medieval literature and the other foot in contemporary poetry” when he moved to St. Paul, Minn., to attend college at Macalester. He double majored in classics and English, with a minor in history. The course of Shotts’s future career was set when, during his undergraduate years, he accepted a yearlong internship at the Hungry Mind Review, a now-defunct literary magazine.

After completing the internship, Shotts discovered that “book publishing was in the blood,” and scheduled an informational interview with Anne Czarniecki, a Graywolf editor, who encouraged him to apply there for an internship. Two days into that internship, Shotts was invited to apply for an assistant editor position.

It was a monthlong process, he recalled, “editing tests, writing catalogue copy, reading reports, evaluating manuscripts. It was quite an involved offer for someone coming in off the street. I was really fortunate that I landed that job.” After what he described as a four-year apprenticeship with Graywolf director Fiona McCrae, Shotts left in 2000 to pursue an M.F.A. at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. McCrae hired him back in 2002. Now as executive editor, in addition to overseeing the poetry list, Shotts acquires works of essays, cultural criticism, literary criticism, and translations.

Editing poetry, just like attending poetry readings, Shotts said, involves listening closely to the author. “You listen to what the poet’s music is—the lyricism, the line, how that transforms the subject matter,” he said. “I try to listen very hard to how that poet is conveying this voice, this emotion, or sometimes this story. A lot of it is recognizing what the poet is doing.”

Shotts also takes a holistic approach to editing, considering everything from the perfect title to the proper order for each piece in the whole. “The organization, the way a reader is brought through a collection—that’s the experience of that book,” he explained.

Poetry is more than simply words on a page, Shotts insisted; it’s a conversation, which begins among Graywolf editors when each manuscript is acquired. After the book is released, the expectation is that the conversation will continue in homes, schools, conferences, and elsewhere. “We trust poetry with our lives,” Shotts said, pointing out that humans invariably turn to poetry “in times of emotion,” such as weddings and funerals. Noting that Alexander’s 2004 “A Poem for Nelson Mandela” (from 2004’s Venus Hottentot), has circulated widely since Mandela’s death, Shotts said, “I want Graywolf poets to be part of those personal, national, and global conversations.”

Shotts noted that the industry has changed “extraordinarily” since he entered it in the mid-’90s. Publishers have become conglomerates; the larger literary presses have been pushed toward more commercial decision making; beloved bookstores have closed; and, he said, “even the way we read has changed.”

Those changes, however, “open the door” for publishers like Graywolf. “Poetry is central to our culture and to our understanding of the world. Graywolf and the other independents are becoming leaders in the literary genres. We’re trying to rise to the challenge.”