The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference: Interview with Poet and Founder Joan Houlihan

by Jacqueline Malone

In case you missed it the first time around, we’ve brought back and refreshed this great interview from the archives. All information is up to date.

What are the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conferences and how long have they been going on?
The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference is a weekend (four-day) program, held seven to nine times a year, that focuses exclusively on poetry manuscripts. Renowned poets and poet-editors from established presses work with a select group of participants who have book-length (and chapbook-length) manuscripts with the goal of publication in mind. The first conference was held in Colrain, Massachusetts in 2006 (thus, the name). Since then, I have developed a smaller “Intensive” Colrain Conference for returnees and/or those with manuscripts close to publication (finalist, semi-finalist, etc.), The Intensive is held in Greenfield, MA. Colrain holds conferences in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Mexico, and Whidbey Island, WA.

Why did you decide to concentrate on poetry manuscripts?
As a poet myself, I learned from personal experience that virtually no guidance exists for poets who have gone through long periods of solitary writing; have gone through workshops; have studied with mentors; have finished MFA programs; or 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); or for poets who have many unanswered questions, such as: Is this a “real” manuscript and if so, what are the publishing options? Poets have additional questions such as: 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.  First, second, third book, or beyond.

So, the venture began as both a personal and an intellectual challenge: how can a poet get substantive feedback on one of the most important milestones of his or her poetic life from the people who matter most to that publication—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 Barrow Street, Four Way Books, Graywolf, Nightboat, Omnidawn, 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 per se, not a craft lecture and not a “working vacation.”  It is a 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 seen before—one that is both practical and that honors the creative process.

What has been the success rate of attendees getting a manuscript published?
Over a period of 11 years and nearly 1,000 attendees, there have been close to 200 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 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 through a solicitation some time after the conference. In other words, the point of the Colrain 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 2,000 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.

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 and awards 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 who 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 the first group leader I hired. 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 no longer works for Colrain.) Martha Rhodes, a powerhouse editor with Four Way Books, and an outstanding teacher and poet, supported and encouraged me in starting this venture. She took to the idea immediately and has been instrumental in its success. Renowned poet, translator, editor and educator, Ellen Dore Watson, completed the original "core."  I then branched out to include the brilliant, nationally-known editor Jeffrey Shotts from Graywolf Press; the always-insightful editor and passionate teacher and poet, Peter Covino from Barrow Street; Gabriel Fried, a fabulous poet and an editor with an exceedingly sharp eye from Persea Press. More recently, I’ve had the pleasure to invite the incomparable and inspiring Rusty Morrison from Omnidawn and the always-insightful, Stephen Motika from Nightboat Books. Richard Greenfield from Apostrophe Press and Hilda Raz from University of New Mexico Press, both stellar editors, join us in New Mexico. Other top-notch editors I've invited over the years 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.

More information on current faculty:

Colrain Faculty

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  poets, press editors and publishers. Poets do not have the advantage of knowing what an editor in the publishing business 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 transformed at Colrain into solid knowledge about their own manuscript and about the publishing landscape that 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 seven times a year.  After a few years, it became clear that holding a smaller “Intensive” would also be useful (especially to alums of the original conference), so a smaller Intensive is scheduled three times a year. For the Intensive, only alums or poets with manuscripts that have reached finalist or semi-finalist status may apply.

Over the years, using feedback from participants post-conference, 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 well-designed, comfortable and 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, all 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 for giving me the opportunity to tell people about the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference!

Joan Houlihan is the author of five books of poetry including Shadow-feast, forthcoming from Four Way Books (2018).  Her other books are: Ay (Tupelo Press, 2014), The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009), The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press and Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (Del Sol Press, 2003). She is contributing critic for the Contemporary Poetry Review and author of Boston Comment, a series of critical essays archived online and she has served as judge for numerous poetry awards and contests including the Louise Bogan Prize for Poetry (Trio House Press), the Jane Kenyon Award for Poetry (New Hampshire Literary Awards), and Massachusetts Center for the Book Award, among others. She has taught at Columbia University, Emerson College and Smith College and serves on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also Professor of Practice in Poetry at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Houlihan founded and directs the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.