Going to a writing conference for the first time? Here's what to expect based on my experience with two distinct conferences.
The first conference I attended was the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop as an intro to poetry student. I was an undergraduate at Ball State University, and I used a loan to pay for the tuition, which was a solid $2,000+.
This type of writing conference, where the focus is on generating new material through daily challenges, is very rewarding. At the time, I had taken the poetry courses available at my undergraduate institution, and I can honestly say that I learned more about writing poetry in one week than I did in my previous semesters of study. However, do not confuse that statement with the belief that I had not learned anything before, or that the classes were poor. Essentially, while my previous classes had taught me about what poetry is and can be while introducing me to new poets, the Kenyon Review workshop forced me to learn how to craft, to hone, and to scrutinize my own work. The intensity of instruction and the time spent building new poems for workshop the next day was invigorating.
For conferences like Kenyon's, you can expect an early morning rise for breakfast and coffee followed by workshop and new craft readings. Then, in the afternoon, you are expected to read those craft items and to produce writing for the next day. Your day will be a mix of 2-4 hours on, 1-3 hours "off," where off means you are reading and writing.
The most recent writing conference I've attended was the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. I attended this in November of 2016. This type of conference is meant to take the collection of poems you have and to find a way to make them work more cohesively as a collection. Instead of building new poems, or having your old poems workshopped, this conference is all about understanding the poetry market and finding where your collection might fit in that landscape.
There will be some discussion of what works or does not work within individual poems, but the main focus is on if your collection works. However, this feedback is very quick, with an editor of a major press opening your manuscript blind and offering their impressions to the room as if you were not there. It's unsettling, but the feedback you get from this is invaluable: you are hearing how an editor thinks.
Overall, the conferences like Colrain are meant for more seasoned poets and provide less of the rejuvenation found at more generative places. Still, you will be energized to reenter the weeds of your manuscript, finding gaps or unlocking an ordering that teaches the reader how to move through your work.
Attending a writing conference is a leap of faith. Will the benefits outweigh the costs? You will spend hundreds to thousands of dollars for a week or multi-week writing bootcamp of sorts, and the ability to work with and learn from poets at all career stages is exciting. What will make it worthwhile for you, though, is to understand what happens at your particular conference. If you want to build new work, look for those conferences; if you want to receive feedback on older work, find those; if you want something in-between, dig, and don't forget to email the leaders of the conference for a better idea of what will happen.