The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference

Learn how to polish your poems. by Linda Formichelli
Publish date:

WHEN: Feb. 20-22, 2009
WHERE: The Brandt House, 29 Highland Ave., Greenfield, Mass.
HOW MUCH: $1,295 for double occupancy; $1,395 for single occupancy. Includes all meals.

If your poetry collection is collecting more rejections than raves, you can keep sending it out and hope to somehow break through, or you can consider attending the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. Since the first conference in 2006, more than 20 poets have had their manuscripts accepted for publication as a direct result of their time at the event.

The Colrain conference isn’t a networking forum designed to put you in touch with editors. “It’s not a talent scouting operation,” says conference organizer Joan Houlihan, founder and director of the Concord Poetry Center in Massachusetts. “It’s a way to educate poets about the publishing world. They get so much information and practical ways to present their manuscripts from the editors who are there. They go on to publish, but with other publishers.”

Ten to 20 poets typically attend the conference, and to even be considered for admittance they must have a complete or in-progress manuscript, book-length or chapbook-length. “I like to see that the work gives evidence of a finished quality,” Houlihan says. “We’re not workshopping individual poems.”

If your application is accepted, you’ll get pre-conference assignments to prepare you for the work to come. The assignments are divided into sections, such as determining which 10 percent of a manuscript the poet can eliminate and which 10 percent is essential to the larger work. Houlihan says these assignments push writers to examine their manuscripts objectively, which is, of course, how editors will approach any unsolicited submissions arriving on their desks.

The conference includes a manuscript preparation workshop in which poets learn to winnow their manuscripts to make them as publishable as possible—advice that they’ll almost never receive from editors.

“No editor at a press is going to be able to spend any time with these manuscripts because they receive hundreds of them,” Houlihan says. “So poets get a rejection slip back with no information, and they don’t know what to do to improve or change the manuscript—or even if they should—and they end up doing random things to it. They’re in the dark about how they could improve it, so we help them with that.” With this workshop, writers learn how to order their poems and decide which ones should stay and which ones—as hard as it may be—should go.

On Sunday, two editors (who are yet to be determined) participate in a panel that includes a presentation about their publishing houses and a Q&A. This panel is followed by an editorial consultation.

“The heart of the conference is really the editors processing the manuscripts as if they were receiving them in their offices,” Houlihan says. “The editors speak their thoughts out loud as they go through manuscripts and come to a determination about whether they would read ahead, put it aside, or not read on and why. They give people the kind of feedback they just cannot get from an editor.”

While each editor focuses on manuscripts one at a time, the critiques are presented to poets as part of a small group, which allows them to hear and learn from other attendees’ consultations as well.

Past faculty at the Brandt House—where attendees sleep and share their meals—has included Houlihan, Frederick Marchant (Suffolk University), and Ellen Doré Watson (Smith College) for the manuscript workshops, and Jeffrey Levine (Tupelo Press), Martha Rhodes (Four Way Books), Peter Conners (BOA Editions), and Jeff Shotts (Graywolf Press) for editorial consultations.

But the conference isn’t all work and no play: On Saturday night, faculty members give readings of their work, and conference attendees get a chance to show off their own material on the final evening.

If you plan to attend the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, be sure to do your homework to get the most out of the manuscript preparation workshop, editorial consultation and panel. Have a complete or in-progress manuscript that you’re eager to work on, and don’t forget to finish the pre-conference assignments. “The pre-conference work is critical to the success of the conference,” Houlihan says. “I think the more time you spend in preparation, the better the experience will be.” 

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