Pearls from the Colrain Poetry Conference
I am just back from the Colrain Poetry Conference, this one held in Truchas, New Mexico. The conference is unique among poetry workshops in that it is an intensive weekend devoted to honing a manuscript of poems as a whole, rather than working on individual poems.
Two teachers and two editors of poetry presses lead the workshops. The conference is open to a maximum of 14 participants. We had ten in our group, and then were divided into groups of five each day to work on the manuscripts.
We stayed together in a big, beautiful, adobe house in a remote village at 8,000 feet in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. High desert ringed by the dramatic Truchas Peaks, incredible sense of deep quiet and the magic New Mexico is known for.
The days are long. We started at 9:00 a.m. and went until 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. each day, starting Friday evening and ending with a session Monday morning. By the end of each day, my head felt like it would explode from taking in so much.
The experience was wonderful—encouraging, inspiring, enlightening, humbling (in a good way). I learned so much, and I came home eager to dive into my manuscript again with new eyes and ears.
I’ll share a little of what I learned here.
How poetry editors read a manuscript
The over-riding lesson is your poetry manuscript must be deeply cohesive as a singular work and not simply a collection of wonderful poems. It was thrilling to witness how deeply the editors engage with every aspect of the manuscript, and they expect all of those aspects to make sense to the book as a whole.
The editors began by looking at the title and the table of contents as a map of the terrain of the manuscript—what the key themes, preoccupations, voices of the book will be, what the through-line or arc will be, how that line rises and falls throughout the manuscript, creating interest.
After looking at the title and table of contents, the editors thumbed through the manuscript, looking at the various forms used on the page, the use of white space, the visual effect of the poems, independent of content, and what that might suggest. In other words, they looked at how the poems looked without reading them initially. Are there poems in couplets, poems in a singular small block, ones that use white space inventively, ones with long lines, short lines? Do these forms recur? They look for both a variety of forms and a repetition of similar forms threaded throughout to give the book interest and coherence.
Then the editors read the first few poems in depth, looking to those poems as a guide to the book as a whole, how to read this poet, what the themes will be, what the voice(s) will be, what the approach will be. Those first poems need to be stellar and significant to the book’s themes. Many editors will read the first five poems, and if those poems don’t totally knock their socks off, they won’t read further. Often, they will turn to the final poem, as well.
These editors then read one or more poems from the middle of the manuscript, choosing those poems based on titles that intrigued them and/or titles that seemed important to the themes of the book or poems that were visually interesting on the page. And then they read the last poem of the book, which needs to both be a really stellar poem and one that works as a summation or final statement for this collection.
Little pearls to make your poetry book gleam
- Every poem must be very strong, edited to its finest, and any weaker poems removed or any that don’t fit with this manuscript’s themes, voices and preoccupations. A leaner manuscript is definitely preferred to a longer one.
- If you have many poems on the same theme—say about your mother’s death—each poem needs to approach the topic differently and arrive at a different place. Otherwise, choose only a few to include and sprinkle them through the manuscript, rather than place them one after another.
- One teacher gave an example of a manuscript (not one at the conference) that was full of one fantastic poem after another, but they all progressed in the same way—thesis, exposition, epiphany—and had a similar form. The book didn’t work as a whole because there wasn’t enough variety. One editor said what she looks for is a “constellation of difference”—constellation suggests the poems belong together, but difference means there are various stars orbiting in the same galaxy.
- Ask of each poem why it belongs in the manuscript and what it is doing there. What is this poem’s relationship to the title? What are the ambitions of these poems together?
- Form is as important as content. Formal decisions are as important as content decisions.
- The titles provide a map to the manuscript. Be careful of titles the feel pedestrian—will they draw the reader in?
- Let the image do the work. Cut away explanation that is already inferred in the image. Trust your readers.
- Always submit poems in PDF form, not in a Word doc, as formatting can get wonky.
- Watch out for glosses rather than specifics, not “aging parents” but “my father’s arthritic hands gripping the bed rail.”
- Once a voice is established, it sets the bar for the rest of the manuscript, and editors look for that voice and quality throughout. Voice combines who is speaking, how are they speaking, and who are you speaking to?
- When writing about the natural world, locate the reader in a specific, particular place—not just any tree or river.
- What’s at stake for the poet/speaker in these poems? One editor stressed the need to see the poet’s culpability in the topics being addressed, to see self-criticism, if there is criticism of our world, and in general to see the speaker’s vulnerability and responsibility. For instance, I write a lot about the limitations of language to describe experience. She said she wanted to read how language has failed me specifically.
- Keep a rubble pile, a file of lines you love that you have had to cut from your poems (to make the poems stronger) to draw from for new poems.
And finally, a wonderful quote that was shared with us from Annie Dillard (from her essay, “Write Till You Drop”:
“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”