An Interview with Joan Houlihan, Director of the Colrain Conferences

by Jacquelyn Malone

What are the Colrain Conferences and how long have they been going on?

The Colrain Conference is a weekend (three-day) program, held once a month, that focuses exclusively on poetry manuscripts. Renowned poets along with editors from established presses work with a select group of poets who have book-length (and chapbook-length) manuscripts with the goal of publication in mind. I held the first conference in Colrain, Massachusetts in 2006. Since then, I have developed a smaller “Intensive” Colrain Conference for returnees and/or those with manuscripts close to publication (finalist, semi-finalist, etc.) held in Greenfield, MA. Colrain also holds conferences in Truchas, New Mexico and Whidbey Island, Washington.

Why did you decide to concentrate on poetry manuscripts?

I learned from personal experience that virtually no guidance exists for poets who have gone through workshops, long periods of solitary writing, studied with mentors, and/or in MFA programs; for poets who have collected their individual, worked-on poems into manuscript form (or at least added up their poems into a manuscript’s worth of pages); for poets who have many unanswered questions, such as: Is this a “real” manuscript and if so, what are the publishing options? Is this manuscript in fact ready for submission to a publisher?  How do editors and publishers make decisions to publish a particular manuscript (or not)? What is the contemporary poetry publishing landscape like? How does one (or does one?) submit outside of the contest system? And especially: who is reading my manuscript and what are they thinking? The lack of substantive feedback on a manuscript from a “decider” is, I think, a lack that not only I felt when trying to publish my first book, but that every poet who reaches a certain stage in their development feels. 

So, the venture began as both a personal and an intellectual challenge for me: how can a poet get feedback on one of the most important milestones of his/her poetic life from the person/s who matter most—the editors and publishers?

What features make this conference program unique?

The program design as a whole makes it unique. From the pre-conference work to the all -day manuscript analysis with well-known, well-published poets, to the editorial session with top-notch editors from presses such as  Graywolf, Four Way, Barrow Street, Persea and others, to the final wrap-up with advice and strategies for moving ahead with the manuscript, the weekend is compressed, intense, and filled with useful information and honest feedback. This is not a retreat, not a workshop, not a craft lecture and not a “working vacation.”  It is a kind of total-immersion experience devoted to the gestalt of the manuscript, from creation, to selection and ordering, to the process of submission. Its purpose is to give the poet a way to see the manuscript that the poet has never had before.

What has been the success rate of attendees getting a manuscript published?

Over a period of 8 years and over 600 attendees, there have been over 150 manuscripts taken for publication. Some of these are chapbook publication (less than a quarter of the total). With only a few exceptions, the manuscripts have not been taken later by the editor who worked with that Colrain attendee. Of the few that have taken a manuscript from someone they worked with at Colrain, they were taken outside of the contest system, either through an open submission period at that press, or solicited some time after the conference. In other words, the point of the program—to educate attendees on the publication process in general, not to serve as talent-scouting operation—has played out just as I had hoped. The education received at Colrain is applicable to the manuscript submission process in general, not to particular presses and editors.

Can you put that success rate in terms of the general poetry population who submit a manuscript for publication?

I don’t know the numbers of poets who submit manuscripts for publication, nor how many times they submit.  All my knowledge of that is anecdotal. Based on what attendees report, and from what the editors say at the conference, every press is inundated with more submissions every year and most independent (i.e. non-trade) presses have instituted contests as a way to both raise money for the press and to control the submissions such that the 400 to over 1,000 that come in will come in at only a certain time of year. Some presses have shut down submissions entirely due to the backlog of those accepted and waiting. Suffice to say it is getting more and more difficult, especially for a first book publication (most, but not all, our attendees).

Have any attendees won awards?

Yes. So far, Colrain manuscripts have won the following awards:

-   The Bakeless Prize
-   Editor's Choice Akron Poetry Prize from University of Akron Press
-   Gerald Cable First Book Award
-    T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize from Truman State University
-   Orphic Prize from Dream Horse Press
-   Levis Prize from Four Way Books
-   Wick Prize from Kent State Press
-   Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize
-   Four Way Book Intro prize
-   Beatrice Hawley Prize from Alice James Books
-   Patricia Bibby First Book Award
-   Emily Dickinson Prize from the Poetry Foundation
-   Marsh Hawk Press Prize
-   Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize from Persea Books
-   Grayson Press Chapbook Prize
-   Nightboat Books Poetry Prize

The complete list of published manuscripts is here: Colrain Publication News

Tell us a little about your faculty members.

When I started the conference, I hired what fortuitously turned out to be my “core” faculty: the editors and poets who picked up on what I was doing immediately, met the challenge with excitement, and became experts in this new manuscript evaluation methodology. They return many times during the year. Fred Marchant, someone I greatly admire as a teacher and poet, and well-known in the Boston area, was my first co-teacher. Jeffrey Levine from Tupelo Press, an outstanding editor and the publisher of my third book, was a supporter of the idea from the start and a logical choice for press editor role. (Note: Jeffrey has since left to start his own poetry conference.) Martha Rhodes, a powerhouse editor with Four Way Books, and also an outstanding teacher, supported and encouraged me in starting this venture. She took to the idea immediately and has been instrumental in its success. The dynamite poet, editor and co-teacher, Ellen Dore Watson, completed the original "core."  I then branched out to include the brilliant young editor Jeffrey Shotts from Graywolf Press (who comes two or three times a year and never fails to impress), Peter Covino from Barrow Street, an astonishing editor and teacher, Gabriel Fried from Persea Press, another brilliant young editor and, more recently, the incomparable Rusty Morrison from Omnidawn and Stephen Motika from Nightboat Books. In New Mexico, Richard Greenfield from Apostrophe Press and Hilda Raz from University of New Mexico Press are the stellar editors. Other top-notch editors I've invited include Susan Kan from Perugia Press, Jan Freeman from Paris Press, Carmen Gimenez Smith from Noemi Press, Peter Connors from BOA Editions, and Henry Israeli from Saturnalia Books. The list also includes appearances by Guggenheim winner Daniel Tobin, and Director of the Lesley MFA program Steven Cramer, both accomplished poets and teachers.

Besides the hope of getting a book published, what other advantages does Colrain offer?

The biggest advantage Colrain offers is that of receiving realistic feedback from seasoned  press editors and publishers. Poets do not have the advantage of knowing what an editor thinks of their manuscript because they receive minimal to no feedback on their submission (s). If they do receive feedback, it isn’t the kind that helps them know what to do. Other advantages include the opportunity to work with top-notch poets and teachers, and to make contacts with advanced poets at a similar stage in their career.  The “hope of getting a book published” is translated at Colrain into solid knowledge poets can’t obtain elsewhere in the poetry world or in academia. Such knowledge is, to use a cliché, empowering.

How has Colrain changed and developed over the years?

I began Colrain with the idea that it would take place a few times a year and enroll up to 30 or so participants each time. After organizing two large events like this, I realized I needed to bring it down to a more manageable size and to instead hold it more often. It became a 12-14 people conference (divided into two groups) held about once a month (it is not held in December or February). I ask for feedback from participants after each conference, and I’ve tinkered with the pre-conference work until finding the right combination. I've also invited a variety of editors and teachers, and I have added new venues so that people have a choice of location and types of accommodation. I haven’t changed the original design of the program—it just works.

Since this conference assumes the poet has a manuscript, what are the other requirements for application? 

Applicants who have accumulated a lot of poems that reach a certain page count but whose individual poems obviously need a lot of work are turned away. I look closely at the work samples applicants submit. There is a level of skill implicit in having a manuscript, but sometimes I get applications from poets who have been writing without benefit of workshops or critical feedback and have lots of work to do on individual poems. I don’t accept these applicants. This program is not designed to workshop individual poems. Not only that, Colrain is not the place to come for your first experience in getting critical feedback. In fact, one change I made early on was not to accept anyone who hadn’t been through some kind of workshop/critical feedback experience—the two times I did (thinking poets who wrote on their own and just wanted knowledge of the book publication arena should be able to come if their work qualified them) were disastrous. For them. I had forgotten how strange and disturbing it can be to have your work held up in a critical light for the first time and these people were defensive, unable to take in the information, and generally unhappy. They had not yet developed any critical distance from their poems. It just didn’t work. So, experience in a workshop-type environment, or with a rigorous mentor, or with an MFA program, counts.  They need to be able to hear what’s being said.

What do you expect poets to enjoy most about the conference?

Our meals are lively, filled with excited talk, and we all eat together, three meals a day, faculty and students, at the same time, same place, every day. The venues are all lovely, gracious and with an option for a private room. The food is fantastic. The surroundings at all locations create a sense of unity and these poets working at a high level share a sense of purpose. Our Sunday evening readings come at the end of two days of intense work and we have great fun that night. But after every conference, the observation made most often is about the thrill of receiving useful knowledge, how that translates into a clearer sense of direction, and, especially, a renewed confidence in working on and submitting the manuscript.

Here are some direct comments from participants: Participants Speak

Thanks, Jacquelyn, for these great questions and for giving me the opportunity to tell people about our conference.