Houlihan describes the space poets occupy as the revitalization of language and experience. Her own body of work manages at once to be deeply human and to push the boundaries of expression. A common pronoun gave rise to her third collection, The Us, a poetic sequence spoken in the collective voice of nomadic hunter-gatherers at the threshold of language, which was named a 2009 must-read by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. “The Us is like nothing I have ever read or seen,” writes Lucie Brock-Broido,“... these poems are just extraordinary: wildly hewn, classically construed and skewed by an imagined lexicon.” The book ends with its protagonist, Ay, recovering from a life-threatening wound. In the sequel Ay (2014), the character “recovers his speech & mobility & is treated as a god.” Ilya Kaminsky praised the book’s “magnificent force,” calling it “epic in scope, lyric in texture,” while Timothy Donnelly noted that “Ay deploys its fertile idiom not only for the pleasure of it, which is immeasurable, but as a medium through which to investigate, among other things, the mechanics of subjectivity, grief, empathy, and forgiveness.” Fred Marchant wrote, “Joan Houlihan's Us and this character Ay help us see and feel and know the landscape of loss within our own psyches, deep down, in the 'primitive peoples' part of each of our beings.”
Growing up in an Irish Catholic household in Massachusetts, Houlihan's first exposure to the sonic textures of poetry came in the form of religious hymns, psalms, and parables. After earning her BA and MA degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she worked as a technical writer, reporter, editor, and driving force in the poetry community. In addition to publishing in a wide array of journals, including Poetry, Boston Review, Harvard Review and Gulf Coast, she has served as a critic and editor at a series of online magazines, most recently as contributing critic for Contemporary Poetry Review. In 2004, she founded the Concord Poetry Center, a community center that offers readings, workshops, and seminars. She is also the founder and director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference, a one-of-a-kind model that provides poets with feedback from mentor poets and editors to help set their manuscripts on the path to publication. She has taught at Columbia University and Emerson College, and currently serves on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.