U exhibit celebrates 41 years of Graywolf Press

Graywolf Founder Scott Walker
A picture shows Graywolf Founder Scott Walker at work in his office in Washington state where the press began.
Courtesy University of Minnesota

A new exhibit at the University of Minnesota celebrates the work of Graywolf Press, which donated its archives to the university a few years back.

The exhibit displays manuscripts, correspondence and early photographs. And it also shows how a tiny press that started with a staff of one became world-renowned.

Standing next to the exhibit, called "Graywolf Press: A World of Voices," Graywolf Publisher Fiona McCrae mused about the timeless quality of publishing. Even in this digital age, she said, the human relationships work much as they have for centuries.

"The tactics have changed, obviously," she said. "But you see through this that the editor and the writer and getting the book out — that's still the main thing we've been involved with for 41 years now."

Strolling through the airy galleries in the Elmer L. Anderson Library and looking at the selections from the Graywolf Archive is a reader's delight. There's an early mock-up of the Graywolf logo of three kind of friendly wolves. McCrae said it may have been done on the back of an envelope.

An early rendering of the Graywolf logo
An early rendering of the Graywolf logo. Current publisher Fiona McCrae says she believes it may have been done on the back of an envelope.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

Letters and manuscripts figure a lot in this exhibit. Cecily Marcus, curator of the Upper Midwest Literary Archives, now home to the Graywolf collection, has been sifting through the traces left by poets and writers as they worked with the press.

"For me, you know, seeing Jane Kenyon's early work, seeing postcards from David Treuer, sent on vacation or from his home near Ely," she said. "It sort of shows a different side of an author that you wouldn't get to see otherwise."

There are books by Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer winners and National Book Award winners. There's even a copy of Elizabeth Alexander's poem for Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, signed by the president.

It's an impressive display for an organization that began with one guy in Washington state.

"We had a printing shack, which I built with the help of a neighbor," said Graywolf founder Scott Walker.

Walker said he started Graywolf in part to see if he could run a literary press on his own. After naming it for the nearby Gray Wolf mountains, he began publishing poetry. The first two books won major awards.

The inauguration poem by Elizabeth Alexander
The exhibit has a copy of the poem written by Elizabeth Alexander for President Obama's inauguration signed by the President.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

Walker said that for 10 years he felt he was hanging by his fingertips over the edge of a cliff, financially. But in a world where many small presses are excellent at some part of publishing, he pushed Graywolf to do more.

"And I think that Graywolf was from the outset interested not only in finding and discovering good literature and then putting it into a format that was supportive of that literature," he said, "but then following through ... leaving no stone unturned in connecting that literature to its audience."

Walker described his "bottom of the invoice" correspondence with booksellers across the country, building relationships and a fan base for the press. That connection was important when he decided after 10 years to move the press to Minnesota.

"There are great bookstores in the Twin Cities, which is a reflection of the fact the weather's horrible, so there are a lot of very good readers there," he joked.

Fiona McCrae, Cecily Marcus,  Kathryn Hujda
Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae, left, stands with Cecily Marcus, the curator of the Upper Midwest Literary Archives and assistant curator Kathryn Hujda.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

There was also great philanthropic support for small presses. Graywolf thrived in Minnesota, attracting attention both across the U.S. and, according to Fiona McCrae, internationally.

"I always like to tell people that when I was in London in the '80s, I knew about Graywolf and followed Graywolf," she said.

McCrae took over as publisher 21 years ago after Walker decided it was time to move on. The press now publishes about 30 books a year, and expects to break the $2 million mark in sales this year. Its titles are regularly reviewed in major publications both in the United States and in Europe.

Walker is returning to Minnesota for a reception Thursday evening on the University of Minnesota campus. Essayist Sven Birkerts and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri will read from their work. The event, at Willey Hall on the West Bank campus, is free.

McCrae said she's looking forward to celebrating with Walker and the Graywolf authors who will attend.

"Sometimes people have asked me what defines ... a Graywolf writer," she said. "And one of our answers is that they don't sound like anybody else."

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