Graywolf Press celebrates 50 years of publishing wild literature 

Carmen Giménez poses for a portrait
Carmen Giménez poses for a portrait at the Graywolf Press in Minneapolis
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Update: 7:19 a.m.

Five major publishing houses anchored in New York dominate the publishing industry. But Minnesota is home to several small nonprofit publishers that punch above their weight class, publishing books that not only compete for readers’ attention but also garner national awards.  

Looming large among them is Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Graywolf started as a maker of hand-sewn, limited-edition poetry chapbooks. Now, it publishes 30-35 books a year of short stories, poetry, novels, nonfiction and translated works.

Poet Danez Smith was 28 and drawing attention and awards for their first poetry book at a smaller press when Graywolf’s poetry editor Jeff Shotts took notice. The two met for coffee, and it was the start of a dream opportunity. 

“Being from Minneapolis and just revering books, Graywolf was always a goal,” recalls Smith. “If I could just be on Graywolf — if I could just have my books alongside Claudia Rankine and Jim Moore and Tracy K. Smith and all these wonderful poets that wrote for Graywolf — it would have been a dream, and I didn’t expect it to happen that early for me.”

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Danez Smith and 'Don't Call Us Dead'
Poet Danez Smith's collection "Don't Call Us Dead."
Portrait by David Hong | Book cover courtesy of publisher

Smith’s first book with Graywolf, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. They’ve stayed with Graywolf; their third collection, “Bluff,” comes out in August. 

“I think every time I turn in a book for Graywolf, there’s this reminder that ‘we want to be your home.’ And I don’t think it’s selfish or commercial capitalist. Maybe — I can’t tell you what they’re thinking — but to me, it truly feels like an invitation to say, like, ‘we want to be a house for these ideas. We want to be champions of this language and of you.’ And I think that is the type of relationship with the press that some writers go their whole careers wishing for.” 

“It’s a unique time because people are really excited about publishing with independent presses,” says Carmen Giménez, who is executive director and publisher at Graywolf and a poet in her own right. “We’re able to take risks that commercial presses might not necessarily be able to take. We can publish weird books that don’t exist in the world that people might say, ‘wow, I didn't know that you could do that in a book.’” 

Giménez says indie presses lay the groundwork for the big risks that the bigger presses take. Those risks are made possible by the nonprofit’s philanthropic support, as well as by their books’ long shelf life. Over 50 years, Graywolf has developed quite a backlist, and as those literary works continue to sell, they form another kind of endowment that supports both authors and press. 

As for what’s next in the publishing world, that’s a favorite question in the industry and the answer is shifting, if not unknowable.

Giménez says she’s drawn to stories about “what it means to live in this world, in this moment, with the pressures that surround us: ecological crisis and financial instability and all of the ways in which we share human vulnerability despite how different we are — but also acknowledging that those differences create really significant challenges. There are aspects of life that are universal, and there are aspects that are not. And so to acknowledge what those two differences are and how to live in another person’s life is really significant, too. We’re interested in how that can be represented in literature.” 

Graywolf Founder Scott Walker
An exhibit of Graywolf’s 50 years of archival history, “Graywolf at 50: First Drafts and Next Pages,” is at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library through May 17.
Courtesy University of Minnesota

There are more ways now than ever to engage with ideas and discover new books, from TikTok and YouTube to Goodreads and printed (or radio!) book reviews. No matter how you encounter a book, Giménez says, the pleasure of entering the new world of a story remains unchanged. 

In November of last year, they launched Graywolf Lab, a podcast paired with a multimedia digital magazine with themed issues. For a company whose product is usually bound with a cover, it’s a chance to encounter new readers as well as writers whose weird, wild and beautiful words just might be next on Graywolf’s list. 

An exhibit of Graywolf’s 50 years of archival history, “Graywolf at 50: First Drafts and Next Pages,” is on view at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library through May 17.  

There’s a special reception Thursday at 6 p.m. to celebrate the anniversary. Giménez will speak, along with Jeff Shotts, executive editor and director of poetry; author Roy G. Guzmán, and poet Jim Moore. The reception is free and open to the public, though registration is required. 

Correction (Feb. 28, 2024): A previous version of this story misspelled Claudia Rankine's name. The above story is updated.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.