Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference:
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Like a lot of poets, I’ve been honing and chiseling a full-length poetry manuscript for a few years. I keep sending it out to contests and publishers, and sometimes it comes close—it’s been a finalist and semifinalist, short-listed and long-listed. But so far, no ring.
       So when my friends Laura LeHew, Judith Montgomery, and Anita Sullivan said they had signed up for a four-day Colrain Conference—the only writers’ conference in the country devoted solely to poetry manuscripts—I decided to scrape together the $1,200 tuition and give it a try too. For me, the main attraction was that Colrain puts your manuscript in front of an editor from a respected poetry press, who looks through it and offers you their professional opinion and advice for improving it. That alone seemed worth the price of admission.
       So now I’ve done it: In early June, I spent four days at Buckhorn Springs, a beautiful, rustic* resort here in Southern Oregon, in the company of 17 other poets from around the country, watching my precious manuscript get turned inside out and picked apart. And how did it go?
       In a nutshell: I had one bad day and one good day, and it changed the way I look at poetry. It was totally worthwhile, but it was not without its bumps.

How much work can a workshop shop?
That one bad day is the only bone I’m going to pick with the Colrain Conference. After a very short Day One—with most of us just arriving and getting settled in—the real work began on Day Two, when we broke into small groups and workshopped our poems with a Colrain faculty member. (This was not the “editor day”; that came later.) I won’t divulge the format of the workshop day, since that seems like proprietary Colrain information. But suffice it to say that it was a long day—nine hours of workshopping, which, in my opinion, is more than the human body can endure. MFA students and veterans of big workshops like Sewanee and Bread Loaf may be used to that, but I was exhausted by lunchtime and completely worthless by 3 p.m. And we still had hours to go—we went straight through until 7 that evening. I felt sorry for the people whose work we looked at late in the day; some of us were so tired that I don’t think we gave it a fair, focused read. And by then, some snarkiness had started to creep in, a few thoughtless comments that were not very useful and that of course I remember vividly.**
       One thing I did like about that workshop was the breakneck speed of it. Surprisingly, though it was such a long day, it was paced quickly. We’d take a few minutes to speed-read a handful of poems, and then we critiqued them in broad strokes, concentrating on titles, themes, tone, and generally whether the poems felt strong or not. Does it work? Does it interest you, bore you, puzzle you? Explain why, but make it fast. Then boom, on to the next poem. I found that refreshing and fun, in a downhill-skiing, car-chase sort of way. I wouldn’t mind getting a group together and trying that at home.
       But that long, long day reminded me of two reasons why I don’t go to big summer workshops anymore: 1) I just get so tired, and 2) workshopping with random strangers is kind of a crapshoot. If you’re lucky, a few people will have great insights, delivered with a detached honesty that you can’t get from your workshop buds back home. But inevitably, not everyone’s a good fit for your work. And in that “high-level” Colrain workshop, I found that I gave the negative comments more weight than I normally would have. A lot of that, I’m sure, was just because I was falling-down tired.
       So I can’t say that first day was all that useful. Really, it was just another workshop—a really long one, with not enough snack breaks or coffee.
       I was beat that night, cranky and out of sorts and wondering if I’d paid $1,200 to be abused. As I drifted off to a restless sleep, I hoped the next day—“editor day”—would be better.

Starting over
On Day Three, we again broke into small groups and headed off to meet with one of the three editors who’d joined us for that day: Rodger Moody of Silverfish Review Press, Jeffrey Shotts of Graywolf Press, and Carolyne Wright of Lost Horse Press.
       As the Colrain organizers were careful to point out, this was not a pitch session; no one was going to be accepted or rejected by a press that day. The three editors, as much as we wanted to wow them, were there as educators only. They would give our books a cold read and offer us an insider’s look at how they judge the piles of manuscripts that come across their desks.
       I don’t know how they determined who went with which editor, but my small group got assigned to Jeff Shotts. For me, this was an enormous stroke of luck. Jeff’s aesthetic turned out to be similar to mine, and as a veteran of the Colrain conferences, he knew how to do this part: He was kind and even-handed but also very, very honest. At nine a.m., the six of us sat down with him at a table and, over the course of the day, we watched him leaf through each of our manuscripts, reading out loud and stopping to comment on what he was thinking. He scrutinized the cover letter, table of contents, and acknowledgments page first, and we could see how much information he was already gleaning from those. From the title, he expected this kind of book. From the cover letter, he began to think it was maybe that kind of book. From the TOC, he could see that it was divided into sections, or not. That the poem titles were intriguing to him, or not.

The heart of the matter
Then Jeff began reading the poems. If there were red flags right off the bat—and there often were—he said so. If he felt the urge to edit the first poem…red flag. If he didn’t see some variety, some movement in tone or form or subject matter by the third or fourth poem…red flag. If he just wasn’t getting what you were doing by the third poem or so…red flag. He kept reminding us that this was his aesthetic, that not every editor felt this way. But he was voicing opinions that I’ve held, consciously or unconsciously, for years. I was astonished that he could articulate them so quickly on a cold read of all this material he’d never seen before.
       In most cases, he only read the first five to ten poems. That was as much as he would read if he were sitting in his office, reading this manuscript that had just arrived in the mail. His job was to decide whether to hand it off to another staffer for further consideration or pack it up and send it back to the poet. So in this exercise, as in the real world of most publishing houses, “I’d continue reading” was a thumbs-up, or at least a foot in the door. “I’d stop at this point” was a no.
       Jeff spent about an hour and a half with each manuscript, with lots of time for discussion. He took care to walk each of us through his thought process and offer advice tailored to our own kind of writing. He kept coming back to certain ideas and techniques, but again, I hesitate to give away Colrain secrets. (You could pry them out of me with a beer and a good dinner.)
       By the end of that day, I felt buoyant. Sitting next to an editor of Jeff’s caliber and watching him think out loud made the whole Colrain weekend worthwhile; it was something I couldn’t have experienced anywhere else. I probably got more out of seeing him read other people’s manuscripts than my own, since I could listen more objectively then. (When he looked at mine, I was a nervous wreck.)
       I’d like to think that regardless of how my manuscript “did” that day***, I would have come away feeling pretty good, like I’d learned a lot and that was enough. But I’m not sure. When all 18 of us conference attendees sat down to dinner that night, fresh from our sessions with Jeff or Rodger or Carolyne, a few did not look happy. Some felt their editor wasn’t a good fit; others were struggling with a “thumbs-down” verdict. But the thumbs-up/thumbs-down business was not black and white; a “maybe” was the best score you could get that weekend, and a “no” might only mean the manuscript needed some reordering or minor work. Still, at times it was hard to remember that.

The wish list
So that “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” business brings me to one thing I would like to have seen: I wished we’d had another day to do it again with a different editor. Having each of us consult with only one editor put an awful lot of pressure on that one thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If we’d circulated among the editors instead—even just two—it would have reminded us that there’s more than one opinion, and that no one person should be the arbiter of what we write. I would happily have given up half (or all) of that long, grueling workshop day for that.
       I also wish they hadn’t held the conference at such a gorgeous place as Buckhorn Springs. It seemed like a waste of a beautiful location, and a frustrating tease outside the windows; our schedule was so packed that I had no time, not even a single minute, to explore its woods and hiking trails****.
       Similarly, other than mealtimes, there wasn’t much time to hang out with the other conference attendees; there were people I never got to meet, even though it wasn’t that large a group. Again, I would rather have taken some time out of that workshop day to—I don’t know, go swimming or something. Play ping-pong. Say hello.

Taking it home
Day Four was another short one: a morning wrap-up and discussion about publishers and contests, full of good information. And then we all headed out on our separate ways. I drove the 20 minutes home, vegged in a daze all afternoon, and then stayed up late that evening working on my manuscript. So the Colrain effect was positive and immediate: I now had a much clearer idea of how I wanted to order the poems, and I was ready to slash and burn a few that had never felt right.
       In the weeks since, I’ve felt like I have new eyes. I see poems differently, books differently, even my own work differently. I do feel a little less patient with my own workshop groups now; I feel burned out on critiquing and get restless with it more quickly. How that will pan out remains to be seen. And I’m not anywhere near done with editing the manuscript. But I do think that some of the insights I gained in that weekend will last me a lifetime.

Out of the fire
The bottom line is that I recommend the Colrain Conference—with a couple of major caveats. First, it's not for beginners or anyone who hasn’t been tempered by many, many workshops, unless you have skin made of steel. If I’d done that conference back in my 20s, I think it might have soured me on poetry. Certainly on workshops.
       And it’s not one of those vacation conferences where you can dip into one class and dip into another, and then sit on your hotel balcony writing in your notebook, inspired by all you heard. (Remember those? Aren’t those great?) No, this one was work—hard work that dredged up some stuff that I wasn’t always happy to taste. Thank goodness there was wine at the end of each day to wash it down. (That was a definite Colrain plus. Now I’ll want wine at all writers’ conferences.)
       I do feel like I’ve been through some sort of crucible, and ultimately I think it will make my work better—much better than any of those softer vacation conferences would have. It was also a great bonding experience with my friends Laura, Judy, and Anita, who were right there with me the whole time. We’ll be talking about what we did on that summer vacation for years to come.

*Part of our visit included a lecture on ticks.

**At some point we talked about that very phenomenon: how we tend to remember the negative things people say about us, and not the good things. I’d never thought about it much, but it happened several times over the Colrain weekend: Someone would come out of a workshop thinking they’d just been slammed, when the rest of us didn’t hear that at all and thought their work actually fared pretty well.

*** Jeff gave my manuscript a tentative “I would keep reading”…if I made some changes, including a drastic edit on the first poem and resequencing the early part of the book. I considered that a win.

****I did manage to peek at Buckhorn’s organic garden as I walked out to my car one afternoon. It’s a huge wheel-shaped planting area surrounded by a tall post-and-wire deer fence. It had some of the blackest, most luscious loam I’ve ever seen, and their bean teepee—a good 10 feet high, constructed of 20 or 30 thick bamboo poles—is now stuck in my mind as the image of a perfect bean tower.

[Title is with apologies to Kelly Clarkson. Photos by Mummelgrummel, Loty, Graphophile, David Benbennick, and snty-tact.]