I’m leaving in a few days for the Colrain Poetry Manuscript conference in rural Massachusetts. I’ll be attending for the second time. At the conference, poets with manuscripts meet with other poets and editors to talk about putting together and publishing a book, so it’s unlike any other conference I’ve encountered.
Last time I went, I was on sabbatical and I went with the idea my book was pretty much finished and I just needed to know how to get it out there. However, after the conference, my book fell apart, in a good way. That is, I realized that my book never hung together in the first place, that it was a patchwork collection of poems of varied quality, many of which I was hanging on to just because I had them. I also found my subject.
My older son, who is 9 now, has autism. I had only just begun writing about my experience as a parent, and people at the conference responded most strongly to those poems. To get ready for the conference, Joan Houlihan asks that you prepare some exercises, one of which is to collect your top five and worst five poems from the collection and prepare copies for the workshop group, without labeling which is which. My selections met with confusion, because I put the new autism poems in the bottom five, and they liked those the most. They disliked the whiny, entitled, self-conscious MFA-era poems which I had been hanging on to for a decade, and which I had put at the top.
During the last day, book editors meet with workshop groups. We give them our complete mss. along with a cover letter, and they respond to them as if they were submissions. I thought things were going well with my group; the editor and I had chatted the night before and we had a lot of similarities in both life circumstances and our poetics. The reading was a disaster, though. He didn’t get the first two poems, and after the third said, “Honestly, I would stop reading this manuscript at this point and reject it.” Ouch. He did page through the rest of it, though, and picked out some things he liked, which were the poems I was least confident about.
That was a hard day, but it proved really valuable to my writing. I realized the world was not in love with my writing as much as I was, so I should stop being in love with my writing and stop worrying about the world. I also know poets will often, ironically, dislike poems that are close to their own work, because they seem off in some way. I also know that I go to creative writing conferences for an ego stroke, and that real criticism is hard to find. I also realized I was holding on to a certain image of a poem and a poet that hadn’t grown up at all in a decade.
So although I realize that the critique of my work was from essentially two people (the poet and the editor I worked with), and that those two people have their own biases, and that you should never write to please anyone but yourself, I took the criticism to heart, and it’s been a very productive eighteen months since then.
I’m going back with what I call my “autism collection” next week, less confident than last time, but much wiser. Last time I made some good friends that I’ve kept in contact with, so I’m looking forward to new connections too.