House Under Construction

Photo on 5-20-14 at 5.22 PMYou step out your door for a moment to go to the mailbox, and boom. Your sturdy house that one moment ago was right there, is gone in a poof, as if zapped by a miles-high, space invader somewhere above the clouds.

So it feels sometimes for the poet whose manuscript has been rejected by a press.

And maybe a week later, zapped again. And then again.

But it’s not only the zap! that stuns. It’s the note in the mailbox, which, in most cases, is impersonal, if not a form rejection slip. There you stand amidst the rubble, beginning to pick up the pieces (if you’re insanely dogged and haven’t gone fetal) and you have no clue why, other than that you just purely suck and have no artistic future.

It’s got to be the order of the thing. Maybe I should move the last 5 poems to the beginning.

I bet that opening poem is just too new.

I haven’t published enough individual poems in journals. I knew it. 

The cover letter must be off-putting. 

I bet the judge knows the contest winner well. Or wants to. 

This editor just doesn’t like poets with names like mine. 

The manuscript shouldn’t be 51 pages. I should make it 52 pages. Even numbers are better. And 5 + 2 = 7, and that’s my lucky number. 

Maybe My Funky Pajamas is the wrong title. 

Fact is, we just don’t know, in most cases. We’re left to wonder (okay, obsess) about what is obviously so GodAwfulWrong with our poems, with our manuscript, with us. And if we’re not careful, these initial frustrations may lead to deeper emotional traumas, a crushing lack of confidence, even conspiracy theories of every imaginable kind about the cruelty of editors, the incestuous poetry publishing world. (Or so I’ve heard. Of course I would never sink to such levels of irrational postulating.)

Well, if you’re standing on a pile of rubble scratching your head, allow me to recommend the Colrain Manuscript Conference. Started and facilitated by poet, editor and teacher Joan Houlihan, this conference meets multiple times a year in varying (but always beautiful) locations. The goal in these brief but busy conferences is, of course, to help poets tighten the screws of their hopeful books-to-be.

Having a manuscript that I felt confident in but that been zapped a few too many times, I was excited to attend, and having just returned, I must tell you: it was well worth it. I knew the conference featured top-notch editors; I knew we’d be working on making our manuscripts better. But I wasn’t sure just how. Well, let me tell you—the work began a few weeks prior to the conference. I’d already been in deep with my manuscript, cutting and slashing, moving poems around, re-ordering. Then came the “pre-conference assignments,” that involved getting in much deeper by isolating what were, in my mind, the best and worst poems in the collection, considering the order, listing titles, writing in prose about the aims of the collection, and more. By the time the day of the conference came around, I was already exhausted, and holding a far better manuscript in my hands.

Then came the conference (!)—where for two days on gorgeous Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, my manuscript was scrutinized by the brilliant faculty, and the other poet-participants, and yes—by me, watching as new good holes opened in clumped-up sections, as poems I thought were less-than-great rose higher due to better placement, as weak poems fell away. The environment was good-edgy, everyone eager to get their money’s-worth, to trim and cut and slash and rattle their manuscripts into collections en route to publications.  The participants were an exciting range of styles and experience, some newer to the art and/or publishing, others who had a book under their belt and were trying to publish a second, others who were veterans of the conference, but all of whom were passionate, hard-working poets engaged and persistent, hoping for a boost on the long road to publication.

And as for conspiracy theories about wizards behind the curtain or cruel editors with flamethrowers torching piles of manuscripts and laughing? Pure bunk. Here were editors and poets, in the case of my conference faculty (it changes conference to conference), who, prominent as they are, were some of the friendliest, most down-to-earth and most passionate readers of poetry I’ve ever witnessed, offering us a rare and pure transparent glimpse into their editorial process and the thinking they do—while reading our manuscripts aloud to the group—a process poets aren’t often privy to. They could be tough on the poems, on the manuscripts, yes, and thank goodness(!), but their insight was so staggeringly dead-on, their critical connections so complex and instantaneous, that, frankly, I caught myself gasping a few times. I gained a great deal as a teacher, too, and can’t wait to bring some of these new skills back to my students.

It was a terrific experience: editors at the same table with poets and busy with a mutual task—doing the micro-work of the poetry workshop on a more macro-level, widening (and narrowing) the lens, helping us to get a clearer picture of the book inside the manuscript, while also offering their insights and wisdom about publishing trends and giving advice related to the highly competitive world of poetry publishing.

I returned home with a manuscript that had been twisted and jostled, cracked and tweaked, but whose spine is now much better aligned. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more editing to do, so I can get this latest draft in the mail soon.

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