When Carmen Giménez, then a young poet in San Francisco’s vibrant literary scene, walked into one of the city’s bookstores in 1999, she was dazzled by its selection of chapbooks: short and often handmade, the booklets came in all sizes, textures, and materials.
While she was riveted by the variety of zines and small presses she saw represented at the store, called Paperback Traffic, she found few publishers that promoted writers of color in a way “that wasn’t tokenizing,” she said.
“As a woman of color, I had an awareness that there was this whole world of writers that existed, that needed a space, and could coexist with white writers in a catalog,” she said.
So she decided to try her hand at publishing. She produced a friend’s chapbook on another friend’s letterpress, and was hooked. By 2002, Giménez had co-founded Noemi Press, which in the years since has produced lithographs, silk-screened books and even a poetry collection with a spray-painted cover. Its books have been finalists for National Book Critics Circle and Lambda Literary awards, while its editorial staff at one time included three National Book Award finalists.
Now, after 20 years, Giménez, 51, has stepped down from Noemi to become, on Monday, the executive director and publisher of Graywolf Press, one of the nation’s most venerable independent, nonprofit publishers. She also left her post at Virginia Tech, where she was an English professor.
Her goal, she said, will be to cultivate the next generation of public intellectuals, whoever and wherever they might be, and to widen the press’s audience.
As careers in academia and journalism become harder to sustain, especially for young people, she said, writers “might not be coming from the same traditional academic backgrounds.”
The search for new talent will encompass “any number of places where people are talking or thinking, or being creative or having a voice,” including TikTok, where Giménez believes there is probably a public intellectual waiting to break out.
“Maybe their book doesn’t even exist yet,” she said, “but let’s talk about what it would look like.”
At an independent press editors can offer sustained attention to books “that might need a little bit more development,” she said. After years in the industry, “you see what the book can be when the writer has the capacity to work at their wildest, full potential.”
Graywolf’s list includes acclaimed authors such as Carmen Maria Machado, Maggie Nelson, Percival Everett and Diane Seuss. (Giménez’s own book “Be Recorder,” a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, was a Graywolf title.)
Giménez’s focus on growth and mentorship has been a hallmark of her career, according to Suzi F. Garcia, one of Noemi Press’s new co-publishers. “She is looking to create opportunities.” The first book Garcia acquired as a poetry editor — “Beast Meridian,” by Vanessa Angélica Villareal — earned the author a Whiting Award in 2019.
Giménez gave her the space to pursue the project, Garcia said, “but she would not set you up for failure, because she was going to back you up the whole time.”
Anthony Cody, another new co-publisher of Noemi, met Giménez a decade ago and considered her a mentor before joining her staff in 2017. “She’s really helped pull the curtain back and allow people to see how publishing works,” he said, “and demystify some of what, historically, has been gatekept.”
Giménez was born in New York and grew up in Maryland, New Jersey, Southern California, Mexico and San Jose, Calif., where she attended high school and college. As a young person, she wanted to write fiction, “but because I’m so attracted to the granular level of language, I ended up being a poet,” she said.
In college, where she ferried writers around on behalf of her school’s reading series, she became interested in the entrepreneurial side of literature. “I wanted to know how you plan a reading,” she said. “I wanted to know how you make a journal. I wanted to know how you do literary activism.”
She plans to develop Graywolf’s existing social justice initiatives, such as Citizen in the Classroom, which aims to start discussions about race in high school and college classrooms using Claudia Rankine’s seminal text, “Citizen.”
“The world is changing in really scary ways,” she said, citing a rise in book banning and rhetoric targeting marginalized communities.
Books often take one or two years to publish, so editors must ask, preemptively, she said, “How is this going to fit into a national conversation or an international conversation about what it means to be a human being?”
Beyond publishing “books that are provocatively engaging,” it’s up to presses to find readers for those books.
“The next frontier is, how do we widen the audience? How do we get into places that aren’t literary?” she said.
Cody cites Giménez’s foresight as one of her greatest assets. “Carmen is someone who, 20 years ago, was willing to see a need and begin to take the risk to publish work without any sort of hint that it would pay off, but knowing that it was the right and necessary thing to do,” he said.
And as an author herself, Giménez understands that publishing is a team effort.
“I’m very much a believer that I’ve never written a book by myself,” Giménez said. “There are all sorts of people who inhabit, reside in, and have been transformative forces in every book that I’ve written.”