Trying to make a poetry school that's for everybody.

I'm Hannah Lee Jones and I began Primal School as a space to document my journey as a student of poetry independent from a graduate path in English lit or creative writing. I also wanted to leave a resource others can use: book recommendations, articles, posts on what I'm reading or learning, and most importantly, interviews with poets exploring the craft of poetry itself. Whether your path includes an MFA or not, my hope is that the knowledge that gets shared on here will help you find your own way. Learn more, or if you're interested in my writing visit the news page  

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"eternal graffiti 

written in the heart of everyone" 

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti's definition of poetry

 


 




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Primal School is a blog featuring interviews with poets discussing a single poem they have written and exploring their insights into the writing process — all presented in language that's as approachable and digestible as possible. Each interview is a kind of "teaching post" or "poetry lesson" designed for poets who are learning and writing outside of the MFA system. Browse interviews by topic using the tag cloud to the right or by name in the poet index; check out the resources page under the toolshed, and feel free to get in touch. 

Wednesday
Jul262017

The Lessons of History, Re-Envisioning Our Language, and the Mysteries of Life and Death: Tod Marshall on His Poem "Birthday Poem"

Tod Marshall

I thought Primal School must be doing something right when I got an email from Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall expressing his support for the blog and offering to connect. What I didn't expect was to receive an envelope in the mail about a week later with  Range of the Possible, a compilation of Tod's own interviews with contemporary poets from Li-Young Lee to Yusef Komunyakaa. Generosity of this kind might very well be part of his incredibly full job description as the appointed ambassador of poetry in our home state. But when I wrote to him with some of my thoughts on the challenges facing poetry in our communities, his response, which startled me with its simplicity and is also captured in this interview, seemed to cut right through the fear and rancor and divisiveness facing our country to something far more essential. Even while noting fiercely (as he does here) the importance of understanding our present problems in historic terms, "I believe, truly believe, that art and kindness are why we exist," he wrote. Everything else, as they say, is technical. — HLJ   

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BIRTHDAY POEM

My mother turned 60 this week,
deep in that stretch where anything
can happen (her mother died at 57).
I'm 42, and Dante's dark forest, well,
let's just say it continues to thicken,
and I know what you spiritual people
are thinking, muttering koans under
your ginger tea breath: it can happen
anytime, anywhere, to anyone, and
that's why the moon doesn't cling
as it slides across the sky. Fine.
Last fall, hiking near Priest Lake,
I came across a teenage boy covered
with blood, sobbing. He held
a compound bow with pulleys
that looked like they could move the horizon
or at least hurl a razor-edged arrow
a couple hundred feet through the breast
and heart of a skinny doe and out again
and into the shoulder of a five-month fawn that
still quivered. Cedar scales
covered the forest floor, a mossy quilt
to hush the pain, and so we pulled
on the shaft, but it was stuck in bone,
and the fawn mewled, moaned, kicked
thin legs, black hooves like chips of coal.
I told the kid to find a big rock. Quick. He did
and held it toward me, somehow confused, and I
tried to smash the skull but missed once,
shattering the eye socket and breaking the jaw,
before ending the pain and walking away among massive trees
that held the sound in the harsh ridges of bark.
Jesus, Mom, I'd meant to write a Happy Birthday poem.
When I'd gone a hundred yards,
the quiet beneath the looming cedars
was the quiet I felt as a child in your arms.
You were a little bit older than that kid. This
is the best that I can do. Above the ancient grove,
tamaracks lit the hillside in an explosive gold
glowing toward dusk. Close your eyes.
You can see them. Keep them closed.
We'll all blow together and make a wish.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Mar062017

Experience and The Imagination, Metaphor as Survival, and Healthy States of Flow: Patricia Colleen Murphy on Her Poem "How The Body Moves"

Patricia Colleen Murphy

If genuine healing from a difficult and traumatic past takes place in the soul and subconscious (and not the support of the world around us), it would seem that  Patricia Colleen Murphy has dedicated her path in poetry to exactly that, lifting others up the whole way. The founding editor of Superstition Review at Arizona State University won the May Swenson Poetry Award for her book Hemming Flames, a copy of which she sent to me on my request. I was opened completely by the book's rawness, an admixture of crushingly difficult memories paired with the complexities of hard-won wisdom. Here is a poet moving personal and confessional writing forward with unflinching earnestness, all the while nurturing and promoting writers into their own humanity and resilience. In every way she strikes me as such a model for writers, from her poem's empathic resonances to the way she lives her life. — HLJ 

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HOW THE BODY MOVES 

Melanie, the Siamese,

on the front porch with baby me.

In pictures, the two of us

are almost the same size.

Later my mother

bought Persians, bred them,

used the money for jewelry,

cigarettes, Drambouie.

The first time a litter came

she sent me searching the house

to find and clean the afterbirth.

I found the babies limp,

smothered in their sleep.

Only twenty more miles.

I am 15. My uncle is driving.

My mother has fled again in her

Oldsmobile, heading for Palo Alto.

We were fighting. She took

all the pills she could find.

My uncle sighs, repeats that

his mother died giving birth to him.

One tenth her weight, he came

screaming from her pelvis on the

coldest Minnesota day in history.

The freeway slips under us like night.

From here I think the hills are

impoverished sisters huddled for warmth

under green mohair blankets.

Seventeen of them: stomach to knee,

buttock to backbone.

We glide past their ankles.

Once I dreamt I was nine months pregnant.

When I went to the bathroom

the baby slipped out like a miraculous

bowel movement. She had blond hair,

and a T-shirt that said French Countryside.

A neighbor saw the birth through the window.

He smiled, continued mowing the back field,

and I hung a bell.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jan172017

The Definition of Home, Keeping the Poem In the Poem, and Knowing What Moves You: Keegan Lester on His Poem “A Topography of This Place” 

Keegan Lester

The first time I ever met Keegan Lester I was a daunted rural visitor to New York in the crushing heat of a mid-July. The impromptu tour he gave me of his favorite haunts near Columbia University (his MFA alma mater), was an unexpected gift – and the introduction to a poet whose work, perhaps more than that of any poet I’d met, mirrors his character: fierce in its insistence on gentleness, conscientious through its softspokenness, and present and alive to the world. These things made me all the gladder that Keegan’s first book of poems, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all I had, so I drew it, had recently won the Slope Editions Book Prize ( available for pre-order here and due for release in the coming month). In the spirit of the new year and with Keegan’s encouragement, I’m introducing multimedia to the Primal School blog with these videos he recorded. In them he discusses his love of home as an idea as well as a place we choose -- the notion that “home”, no matter how small, can be a conduit for storytelling, for sharing, and for exploring those sadnesses, elations and struggles which make people more aware of their alikeness in a time of bitter polarization and difference. I personally feel lucky to have been a recipient of his “ocean’s newfound kindness.” – HLJ 

===

Keegan Lester reads his poem "A Topography of This Place".


THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THIS PLACE 

The ocean stopped being cruel
so the sailors went home.
No one jumped from cliffs anymore.
People stopped painting and photographing the ocean
because the sentiment felt too close to a Hallmark card.
Everyone had treasure because
it was easy to find,
thus the stock market crashed.
Then the housing bubble burst
mostly not due to the ocean,
though one could speculate pirates
were going out of business and defaulting on loans.
When I say speculate, I mean I was reading
the small words that crawl at the bottom
of the newscast, but I was only half paying attention
because Erin Burnett was speaking
and she’s the most real part of this poem.
I’m speaking in metaphor of course.
The end of the world is coming
seagulls whispered to the fish
they could not eat due to their fear
of the ocean’s newfound kindness.
One of my professors spoke today.
She hates personification, treasure and linear meaning.
She hates poems not written by dead people.
She hates the ocean’s newfound kindness,
she wrote it on my poem.
Not everything can be ghosts and pirates, she says.
But that’s why I live here.
My rhododendron has never crumpled in the summer.

Click to read more ...

Friday
Nov252016

Standards of Beauty, Decolonizing Our Language, and Poetry as a Dialogue With Our Contemporaries: Katelyn Durst on Her Poem "Curl" 

Katelyn DurstIn this season of tumult and deep psychic unrest for our country, it hardly seems a coincidence that I'd been pondering bringing in new interviews with poets whose work is inseparable from their activism. Incidentally I'd also been aiming to feature younger voices. By the time of our interview, Katelyn Durst  had impressed me not just with her poems of struggle and identity and longing and resilience, but her highly visible and participatory commitment to the social justice that inflames her writing. From a distance of months – I'd interviewed Katelyn back in August – it occured to me while putting together this post that "Curl" is not merely a poem about race or identity, but love. Self-love of the kind Katelyn embodies here, a kind that is so easy to forget in times such as this: just one gift of the many which poets can offer as utterances of comfort in a hurting world. – HLJ

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So you and I first met at Grunewald Guild back in May, and I was sitting with you in the lounge area by the kitchen, and you read me this poem and I remember thinking, this girl is fearless. Tell me a bit about this piece what began it for you and how you wrote it.

It’s so great to hear that, because the truth is I often feel afraid. This poem came out of a homework assignment that was given to an international baccalaureate (IB) 11th grade English class I was TA-ing for this school year. The teacher assigned the poem "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid, and the poem really resonated with me, with its fractured repetition. If there’s one thing people talk to me a lot about, it’s my hair. So I went home and wrote down the things I remembered people saying to me about it – as it turns out, they were overwhelmingly negative and hurtful things – and wrote them verbatim into what eventually became this poem. 

===

CURL

Straighten your hair just once. Blow dry it or somethin’ and it will be down to your shoulders. Fix your hair. Tie back your hair. Wear a hat over your hair. I knew that was you because of your big hair. Your hair looks like the Medusa’s snakes. Why do you have just one dread lock? Can you go back and look in the mirror. Sit still while I’m braiding your hair. Sit in this chair so I can see the top of your head. Sit outside so that your hair doesn’t get all over the kitchen floor. How do you make black hair look so nice? You should straighten it. Texturize it. Don’t brush it. Brush it with just your brown fingers. You need to buy an actual brush and a comb. Your hair is so dry it would soak up a whole tub of moisturizer. Your hair is so big. Wow, your hair is so beautiful. Can I touch your hair? Have you ever washed your hair? Is that your real hair? Can you do that to my hair? You should straighten your hair. The back of your head is a kitchen. Twist out your hair by sectioning out single sections and twisting small parts of hair together, like a two-strand braid. Make the twists stretch around your head andwear a silk cap at night to help your kitchen from getting poof or static. Long bouncy curls are cute. I saw a guy who had hair like you, so I assumed he was homeless. Men don’t like curls; they don’t want their hands to get stuck when they run their fingers in your hair. Straighten your hair. Natural is the new black, get your weave here. Put flowers in your hair. This hay will never come out of your hair. You have paint in your hair. That braid makes you look like Pocahontas. Cornrows make you look like a boy. Long braids and gym shorts make you look like a boy. Put curlers in your hair to get a more succinct pattern. Bantu knots. Sculpted Afro. Jerry curls. Did you wake up like that? The less black you look, the less likely you are to questioned by police. Don’t put wool hats on your hair, it will mess up your kitchen. How to get your most defined Wash N Go. How to make DIY Clay Wash. How to make natural, black, curly hair look elegant: Pin it up. What’s wrong with your hair? Why does your hair stick up like that? Your hair looks like a lion’s mane. Are you from Africa? Are you from India? What are you? You look like you just got here. I can’t wait to get home and see your beautiful curls...Daddy. Here is a link to several different wigs you should try. It will make you look much prettier. Straighten your hair. Just get your hair wet so it doesn’t look so dry. Is that a stick in your hair? Do you have green beetles in your hair like Bob Marley did? What kind of hairstyle is that? The straighter your hair, the more likely you are to succeed. So, just sit still. Let this heat press away your curls, your kitchen, your blackness. Let it warm you like the love you are sure to soon have. 

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Oct132016

Life's Great Lies, Thought Made Flesh, and the Ritual Possibilities of Form: Joseph Fasano on His Poem "Hermitage" 

Joseph Fasano

When I initially contacted  Joseph Fasano  for an interview in late July, I had several poems in mind as possibilities to discuss. But when he suggested "Hermitage" I felt in that choice something of a predestiny; it was the first poem of his I had ever read, and when we had our interview I was reminded what about it had so commanded my attention and drawn me to all of his work: lines of unusual breath and music, cultivated from language of the kind his teacher Mark Strand described as "so forceful and identifiable that you read [these poets] not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply to saturate yourself with their particular voices." Rilke's "inner wilderness", twined with Fasano's bracing intelligence, were strongly in evidence throughout this exchange. — HLJ 

===

It strikes me that the subject on which this poem turns consists in its final two lines: "the great lie // of your one sweet life", that thing at the poem's opening that was once "too much." The speaker's address to a "you", the reader, seems to presuppose that at one time or another everyone will have to reckon with such a lie in their own lives. So let's begin there and work our way backwards…tell us a little about the great lie that began this piece. 

All I know is that it's different for everybody, that great lie. It's a platitude to say that we all lie to ourselves in some way to live. Maybe we tell ourselves things are fine when they're not. Maybe we need to believe they're not fine when they are. In any case, of course it's true that a certain falseness in the way we live might protect us from a radical truth we're not ready for. Maybe we need an actual, practical change in our living situation. Maybe we need a change in our way of seeing things. Whatever the case may be, it's terrifying to face the nakedness of a new truth–or perhaps I should say an old truth, an ancient truth that has been living inside us – especially when we hardly have a language to talk about that truth.

I see this poem as the speaker's way of beginning to saying 'yes' to certain things that he had previously rejected–things perhaps in himself, things perhaps in the world. But what interests me most is the silence after the last line. It's clear to me that the speaker of this poem has yet to find a language in which to say that 'yes,' in which to live it to its fullest. I see the final question as both confident and desperate: What would you have done? What should I do? Everything we say asserts our deepest beliefs, even when we're unaware of those beliefs. But what happens when those beliefs change, radically and even perhaps without our knowing? What steps forward to fill the new silence of our lives then?  

===

HERMITAGE

It’s true there were times when it was too much
and I slipped off in the first light or its last hour
and drove up through the crooked way of the valley

and swam out to those ruins on an island.
Blackbirds were the only music in the spruces,
and the stars, as they faded out, offered themselves to me

like glasses of water ringing by the empty linens of the dead.
When Delilah watched the dark hair of her lover
tumble, she did not shatter. When Abraham

relented, he did not relent.
Still, I would tell you of the humbling and the waking.
I would tell you of the wild hours of surrender,

when the river stripped the cove’s stones
from the margin and the blackbirds built
their strict songs in the high

pines, when the great nests swayed the lattice
of the branches, the moon’s brute music
touching them with fire.

And you, there, stranger in the sway
of it, what would you have done
there, in the ruins, when they rose

from you, when the burning wings
ascended, when the old ghosts
shook the music from your branches and the great lie

of your one sweet life was lifted?

Click to read more ...