Manuscript Consultation Program Alum: John Holgerson

John Holgerson, who has been making annual trips to Hydra since 1995, wrote a poetry chapbook about his beloved Greek island. After having a few presses turn down the manuscript, he decided to participate in the Black Lawrence Press Manuscript Consultation Program and worked with Amelia Martens. “After that consultation,” John told us, “and based upon many of her constructive criticisms and suggestions, the manuscript went through a number of changes.” The new version of the manuscript garnered two publication offers. One press wanted to publish the manuscript as it stood. But editors at a second press liked John’s work so much that they wanted to publish a full-length version of the  book. “There is no doubt,” John continued, “that Ms. Martens’ knowledge, expertise, and insightful suggestions not only made a significant difference in the final version of my original manuscript but also helped with its metamorphosis from an unpublished chapbook to becoming my third published collection of poems.” Interested in learning more about John’s publication journey and his collection Convictions of the Heartwe conducted the following interview…

Black Lawrence Press: Your poetry collection Convictions of the Heart is divided into sections titled “Hydra” and “Other Places”. How did you decide to create these distinct sections of the book and how are the two in conversation with each other?

John Holgerson: Originally, there was only the section entitled “Hydra” and the title of the manuscript became The Place Where I Was Meant To Be after having had a different first title. It was a chapbook rather than a collection of poems. When that manuscript was accepted by In Case of Emergency Press, the editor who contacted me was Howard Firkin. In an email, he asked me if I had other poems that were unrelated to the island of Hydra as he would like to build the volume of poetry from a chapbook into a collection. I emailed him a number of poems and we discussed how some of the poems I sent might be, generally speaking, thematically related to the poems in the “Hydra” section. The poems selected for the second section were about other people and other places and it was decided that “Other Places, Other People” would be the title of the second section.

The book opens with a section entitled “Prologue.” It contains just one poem, “Things Remembered.”  All of the poems in the book deal with memory, time and experience and “Things Remembered” sets the stage for that conversation between the other two sections. Although not done intentionally, upon reflection, the collection has a Proustian undercurrent running through it in that regard.

BLP: The first section of the manuscript, “Hydra”, is about the Grecian island for which it is named. You first visited and fell in love with Hydra over fifty years ago, but when did you start composing these poems?

JH: The poems entitled “Hydra, March 1970” and “The Monastery” were written shortly after I visited the island for the first time in March of 1970. I did not return to the island until 1995, twenty-five years later, largely because I started a career as an attorney, got married and had children. Once I went back, I vowed to return each year as there is no other place I have ever been that is like it. As I quote the American poet, George Slater, on the first page of the “Hydra” section, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wake up and wish that I was there literally…It’s just the place.” That is exactly how I feel. 

Barring the “pandemic years” of 2020 and 2021, it is a vow I have kept. So, the other poems in the section entitled “Hydra” were either written there or were started there between 1995 and 2019.

Amelia Martens

BLP: How did your work with Amelia Martens shape Convictions of the Heart?

JH: Amelia Martens’ input was crucial to the final drafting of many of the poems in the “Hydra” section of the book. The manuscript I sent to her was entitled “Arpeggios” and contained only the poems that appear in the “Hydra” section of the book. Based upon her suggestions, several poems were revised and they became sharper and more concise as a result. There is no doubt in my mind that her guidance regarding the revisions of certain poems was a significant factor in having the final draft of the manuscript accepted for publication. 

BLP: Your publisher, In Case of Emergency Press, is based in Australia. Please tell us about your experience working with an overseas publisher. Were there challenges? Benefits?

JH: As mentioned above, the editor who accepted the manuscript for publication was Howard Firkin. In the acceptance email, he made a point of telling me that, even though In Case of Emergency Press (ICOEP) wanted to publish my book, I should be aware that I “lived in the wrong hemisphere” to maximize the sale of my book as ICOEP would not be able to “drag you around to readings, festivals, etc. so you could flog your book” as ICOEP does with the Australia-based authors whom they publish. Making up for that loss would be the challenge for me. However, ICOEP did sell copies of my book at several book festivals it attended and I have received royalties each year since the book’s publication in 2021.  

I think the biggest benefit was having my book available internationally on another continent. More specifically, having my work read by people who might otherwise never have known about it. Once ICOEP published Convictions of the Heart, Firkin claimed (facetiously, I think?) I could now declare myself to be an internationally published writer. I’d like to say here that working with Howard Firkin was an absolute delight, a true joy. He put all of his tremendous talent as an editor into my book, even finding a photo of Hydra from 1970 that he used to grace the cover of Convictions. I hope someday I will be able to meet him in person.

BLP: What advice do you have for authors who are currently shopping for publishers? What should they look for?

JH: As with trying to publish individual poems, read some of the publisher’s books to get a sense of the work that it likes to publish. Then, ask yourself, “Would my poems likely find a home there?” It has also been my experience that many publishers like to see some theme or concept that runs consistently through most of the poems in the  manuscript. 

Finally, please persevere! I submitted a chapbook manuscript containing the Hydra poems to 14 individual small presses from the summer of 2020 through the winter of 2021 and received 12 rejections before getting 2 acceptances within a week of each other. (One was from Finishing Line Press that had published my second book and the other was, of course, In Case of Emergency Press.) 

BLP: Do you have a favorite book or essay on the craft of poetry?

JH: A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass

BLP: Who are your favorite living poets?

JH: First and foremost has to be the American poet John Matthias. He was the professor who taught several of the poetry courses I attended at the University of Notre Dame in the mid to late 1960s. He also conducted student poetry readings and discussions at his home off campus on Friday nights. He became my mentor and then, over the years, he became my friend. He turned my desire to write into a need to write, a life gift of immeasurable value. Also, Ada Limon, Ted Kooser, Margaret Atwood to name just a few others.


Interested in participating in our manuscript consultation program?

Learn about this month’s consultants right here.



Selections from Convictions of the Heart


Hydra, April 2019 

         -for Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

I stood outside 

your old home today

as I’ve done in years past.

The tangled vines from the roof

terrace stretched down the wall

toward me, a thin, green, leafy rope,

inviting me to grab its strands with

both hands and pull myself up.


If I was a younger man perhaps;

but my wall scaling days ceased long ago.

Instead, I looked for the wire and the bird.

I saw the former: a tightrope, taut and thin,

pole-tied between red-roofed white houses.

There was no sparrow, but I’m still here

listening for what cannot be heard. 

I put my hand on the wall of your house


hoping the lingering remnant of a once

strummed guitar riff or the clickety-clack

of your old, olive green Olivetti would

course through my fingertips, run the 

maze of jagged lines on my smooth palm, 

up my willing arm to the area of the brain,

or whatever part of the soul, sends messages

to the Muse assigned to a scribbler of verse.


But it doesn’t work that way does it, Leonard?


That singular Muse here for you then isn’t mine. 

Although I’d like to think they may be sisters

or, more likely, cousins once or twice removed.

At Douskos Taverna, I dined on fresh xiphias

under the huge old pine tree where, once

upon a time before fame and fortune fell

upon you, you sat, sang and played guitar

for Marianna and all your Hydriot friends.


I’ll come by tomorrow. You never know,

someone or something may be at home.  


Hydra, October 2010


The fishing boats scuttle daily

in and out of the horseshoe harbor,

wooden and fiberglass crabs,

seeking a shoal of squid or sponge. 

Tourist shops are bringing in their 

postcard sentry stanchions and 

wobbly wood tables with multi-color 

tee shirts bearing the island’s name.


Old timers stroke sweat from

bearded chins as they play 

pinochle and backgammon for beer

and sausages in the old bars behind

the yacht-lined harbor front. The air 

has become burdened by the thick

weight of an alien humidity. It clings

to the linings of the lungs like the 

sudor-soaked clothes on our bodies.


And like the ancient rapacious 

pirates buried unceremoniously in 

unmarked graves, this bullying son 

of global burning has stormed the 

island’s pine forests and seaboard

drying the groves to tinder while

pushing up the beaches’ sandy skirts

so the Aegean can take by force areas

once beyond its greedy tidal grasp.  


Tavernas and bars along the harbor front 

will soon shut their double doors until 

April when the poppies and tourists will

both bloom again and the winter winds

from Egypt and Israel will have blown this

bastard mugginess westward along with 

some sudden, yet expected, Sahara sand.



John L. Holgerson is the author of three books of poetry, Convictions of the Heart (In Case of Emergency Press 2021), Unnecessary Tattoo (Finishing Line Press 2016) and Broken Borders (Wasteland Press 2012). He has published poems in small literary journals; is listed in the Poets & WritersMagazine Directory of Poets and Writers and is the co-host of For the Love of Words, a one hour program on Easton Cable Access Television. Visit

Photographer: Issey Gladston