It’s been a big couple months for the Minnesota literary scene, with Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press organizing its second annual salon and the Twin Cities Book Festival taking place October 14.
Last week, publishers, arts patrons, professors, authors, and wide-eyed English undergraduates (myself included) gathered in the Aria Minneapolis’ industrial brick reception room for Graywolf’s second Literary Salon. The event, “Poetry, Prose, and Power,” featured three of Graywolf’s star authors: poet Layli Long Soldier (WHEREAS), fiction writer Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties), and local poet Danez Smith ([insert] boy, Don’t Call Us Dead), who read from their most recent works.
Let’s back up: Who, or what, is Graywolf Press? Founded in Washington state in 1974, Graywolf started out publishing poetry chapbooks with bindings hand-sewn by founder Scott Walker (not the governor). Graywolf moved to St. Paul in 1984, the same year it became an incorporated nonprofit. After its directorship changed hands, it moved to Minneapolis in 2009.
Over time, Graywolf has made the kind of big splashes you’d expect from a New York publishing house. Graywolf authors have won the National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and even a Nobel Prize. This year, one of its star poets, Tracy K. Smith, begins her term as PLOTUS: Poet Laureate of the United States. Smith has authored three poetry collections, including 2012 Pulitzer winner Life on Mars. Unofficially known as the biggest small press, Graywolf publishes around 30 books a year. With a lineup like this, they’re kind of a big deal.
Books published by the press are literary, diverse, and, most of all, timely. Wednesday’s readings embodied the theme of “Poetry, Prose, and Power” in a way that reflected of the nation’s current state of social unease and public questioning of power.
In Layli Long Soldier’s debut poetry collection, WHEREAS, she confronts head-on the broken relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government. During the reading, her soft-spoken manner belied the rage inherent in her poetry as she turned government treaties’ own language against itself. Carmen Maria Machado read from her upcoming story collection, Her Body and Other Parties—a darkly humorous take on experiences of womanhood, sexuality, and feminism. Her prose piece “Eight Bites,” read in her lyrical voice, describes a woman’s struggle to reconcile her body image with that of her sister’s, who underwent gastric bypass surgery. Danez Smith’s poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead tackles the recent killings of black men by police officers, imagining an afterlife where these men live together without fear. Smith wasn’t shy about raising his voice to punctuate his verse, which earned frequent mid-poem applause from the crowd. All three authors are longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award.
PHOTO BY ANNE KOPAS
After the readings, the authors held a freeform conversation about the relationships between literature and power. As moderator and Graywolf editor Jeff Shotts remarked, “Anyone who reads poetry looks up with different eyes,” a sentiment echoed by all on the panel. Poetry and prose, they argued, call social justice issues into the spotlight in a way that is more human, and perhaps more accessible, than traditional politics. “When we’re writing,” Smith said, “we’re either trying to take power away or give power to.” His goal, in his poetry, is to show how the world could be, asserting that a brighter future must be imagined before it can occur in real life.
Shotts joked that everyone in the room should buy two copies of each book: one to dog-ear and annotate, and another to get signed and preserve in a safety deposit box. While most attendees did no such thing (that I know of), his comment highlighted Graywolf’s lasting power not only in the Minnesota literary scene but on the larger national stage as well. I’m left with something lasting, too: the feeling of being present at a snapshot moment that speaks to, along with my own future as an aspiring author, the intersection between literature and social change.