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  



"eternal graffiti 

written in the heart of everyone" 

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti's definition of poetry




On Pleasure, Devotion, MFAs/PhDs, and Self-determination: an Interview with Caitlin Doyle


This interview with Caitlin is one of three posts on the site that were written for The MFA Project in fall/winter 2015, prior to the start of Primal School. 

The poetry of Caitlin Doyle has received wide praise. Michelle Aldredge of Gwarlingo says of her work: “Caitlin Doyle writes highly original poems…steeped in both meaning and musicality…Doyle’s poems are serious and complex, but also witty and playful, and it’s this tension that makes her writing so innovative.” One of the benefits of our online format is the opportunity to occasionally feature long-form interviews. I got to talk with Caitlin about her work, her MFA experience, her journey as a writer and teacher, and topics relevant to writers and poets on both sides of the MFA divide.  — Hannah

Your voice as a poet is very distinctive and I’m thinking of what sets your work apart, such as your skill with rhyme and other formal elements, and your blending of narrative and lyric modes. What do you think of the frequent criticism that MFA programs end up producing voices that sound the same?

It’s important to enter an MFA program with this central understanding: There’s a difference between challenging your aesthetic values in meaningful ways and letting your pen become a conduit for trends buzzing in the air around you. The workshop environment can sometimes spur writers, consciously or unconsciously, to seek immediate pay-offs in the form of peer approval, rather than pursuing the harder-won rewards that come with creating work that operates entirely on its own terms. Though writers have long depended on feedback from others, the idea that truly strong writing can take shape via group consensus is a potentially dangerous one for emerging writers to absorb. It’s necessary for MFA-seekers to cultivate openness, but it’s just as crucial for them to resist pressures that push them too far away from idiosyncratic self-determination.  

Which reminds me of your advice to beginning writers in your interview with Words With Writers: “Take your time to develop arduously, painstakingly, and privately, rather than throwing your writing too hastily into the universe for recognition. Be a homemade writer rather than a world-made writer—only then will the world truly want and need your work.” Can you talk more about what it means to be a “homemade writer”?

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe in England”, a poem in the voice of Daniel Dafoe’s most famous fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, who spends years shipwrecked on a tropical island. I keep coming back to the part of the poem where Crusoe recounts playing a “home-made flute” that he has crafted out of materials found on the island. Remembering the instrument, which seems to have possessed “the weirdest scale on earth,” he says:

“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”

I’ve always read this line as embodying an essential truth about creative work. The most powerful and lasting art has the quality of feeling “home-made” like Crusoe’s flute, built from whatever available, disparate, and often unexpected materials its maker can gather from the reality in which he or she has been “shipwrecked.” I love how Bishop’s use of a casual and tossed-off tone (“But aren’t we all?”) heightens, paradoxically, the line’s profundity. She’s talking here not just about how humans make art but also about how we create our identities, and I think this line must have been buzzing in the back of my mind when I made the statement you quoted above.

So what’s meant by “home-made writer” is one whose art arises from the materials of their particular world and imagination.

Yes. When I encouraged beginning poets to strive toward being “home-made writers,” I wanted to point to this idea: The making of strong poetry is something that ultimately happens in a private and ineffable place, an inner realm with roots that reach down to one’s earliest encounters with language. It can’t be taught in a classroom or workshop setting, though it can be recognized and encouraged there. If you want to enter that realm, you have to do these three things, on your own, with obsessively fierce devotion: read, write, and live.

You were the George Starbuck Poetry Fellow at Boston University, which means you got to study with stars like Robert PinskyRosanna Warren, and Derek Walcott.            

I feel blessed to have studied in the BU program. All three professors enhanced my understanding of language’s capacities. Robert’s class illuminated the tonal complexity that a writer can achieve through blending different diction registers. He helped me develop a stronger ear for the qualities inherent in words possessing Latinate roots, usually associated with elevated diction levels, and words with Anglo-Saxon roots, commonly used in colloquial speech. Rosanna’s poetry workshop and translation seminar, two of the most unforgettable classes I’ve ever taken, emphasized the relationship between tradition and innovation.

Because Derek wanted us to experience poetry as an echoing sound-chamber, he often stressed memorization and recitation. We spent a class period chanting Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain” as a group, over and over, an experience I’ll always remember because it brought me closer to a visceral understanding of how poetry does its work within the body.

Do you have a favorite memory or experience from studying with these three figures during your MFA?

What I loved most were those moments when the trappings of typical classroom convention fell away and we glimpsed the poets behind the professors – when we felt ourselves in the presence of three people whose bone-deep passion for language comes from a place beyond what notions of schooling can fully encompass.

You returned to Boston University a few years after graduation to teach as a Lecturer in Creative Writing. In 2014, you were invited to share the stage with the program’s faculty as the Featured Poetry Alumna in the Boston University Faculty Reading. Can you reflect on some of the ways your ongoing  relationship with Boston University has impacted your trajectory as a writer?

Returning to Boston University as a Lecturer in Creative Writing proved a most revelatory experience in my life as a teacher. The freedom I was given allowed me to test out new approaches and expand my teaching in different directions. I designed a multi-genre Creative Writing course with a particular emphasis on examining the similarities between poetry and film, and I discovered that drawing parallels between the two art forms helps students unlock poems in a fresh manner. The insights I garnered that year laid the groundwork for the course I would later teach at as the Emerging Writer-In-Residence at Penn State, a class focused on the ways that poetry and film evoke meaning through the juxtaposition of carefully chosen images.

Appearing as the Featured Poetry Alumna in the Boston University Faculty Reading gave me a jolt of vital encouragement at a crucial juncture in my writing life. I felt immensely honored to receive the invitation, and the actual physical experience of sharing the stage with the faculty – speaking my poems aloud in the same auditorium where I’d attended many literary events as a student – can only be captured with one word: goosebumps.

The BU MFA Program is famously one year in length as opposed to the usual two. In an interview with The Young Arts Foundation, you said: “You work so hard in such a short period that your evolution as a writer takes on the same quality as a time-lapse video of a flower blossoming.” What are some of the benefits and/or pitfalls of a condensed single-year MFA program?

In contrast to the majority of MFA programs, which last for two or three years, the BU department packs multiple years of master’s level work into two intensive semesters. One downside of a condensed MFA experience is that it allows less time for the careful shaping of individual poems, while programs with lengthier trajectories often feature a thesis year during which students focus almost exclusively on generating and revising a full-length manuscript. Yet a rigorous, highly concentrated, and passionately charged single-year MFA program like the one at Boston University can lead you to make significant craft discoveries far sooner than you may have done in a longer program.

The fact that BU requires fewer years than other MFA programs also offers your work another kind of nourishment. Because you’re in school for a shorter period, you spend a greater amount of time living and working in the non-academic world during the early stages of your literary journey. This pushes you, at an important phase in your development, to absorb more experiences outside of academia while navigating the challenge of building a writing life beyond the classroom.

Tell us a little bit about building a writing life after receiving an MFA.

This question makes me think of the scene in The Graduate when Mr. McGuire approaches Ben, a recent college graduate, and offers him the “one word” that will help him figure out the rest of his life: Plastics. He believes that Ben will find a lucrative future if he pursues plastics as a career path. In my experience, building a life as an emerging writer in contemporary America, with or without an MFA in hand, also frequently orbits around a single word: Applications.

It’s a word that can be as uninspiring as “plastics.” Ben didn’t exactly grow up with starry-eyed dreams of the future Mr. McGuire suggests. Most poets, in the first giddy love-throes of their affair with language, don’t envision spending their prime years writing “statements of intent” and “project descriptions” on applications for fellowships, awards, scholarships, conferences, residencies, grants, and writer-in-residence positions. Yet the support offered by such opportunities can make a critical difference in a writer’s ability to place artistic considerations above practical matters for long enough to get some poems written.

Of course, there are ways a writer can build a productive creative life outside of the application-submission whirlwind and without support from literary institutions or organizations. But the nuts-and-bolts reality of obtaining time and space to do creative work, particularly for writers in the early stages, often comes down to submitting application after application and waiting for a positive response. This means cultivating a willingness to pick up and go wherever an application might land you.

And you’ve succeeded admirably on that front. Since graduating from BU, you’ve traveled around the US on numerous Writer-In-Residence teaching posts and fellowships. In an essay of yours that appeared in The Cork Literary Review, you wrote about the experience of making one’s way as a young poet in America today. Can you talk about that journey?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve unpacked my suitcase over the past few years. I’ve lived and written in numerous places, including Michigan, Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. There’s a thrill in tossing one’s work into the world and seeing where you might end up. I have relished the opportunity for my imagination to absorb such a breadth of landscapes, and I’m grateful for the people I’ve met along the way – writers, students, visual artists, musicians, weirdos, and word-lovers of every ilk. In between fellowship-supported writing opportunities, I’ve held a number of jobs to pay the bills. I’ve taught at the high school and university level, and I’ve worked as a copywriter, a real estate assistant, an editor, a waitress, a nanny, a web content developer, and a screenplay assistant, among other things.

To draw from the Cork Literary Review essay you mentioned, I’ll say this: On days when I feel dragged down by the uncertainty of following poetry as a calling, I remind myself of a central truth about the making of poems. The form’s general freedom from market pressures allows poets to shape their work according to motivations outside of money. To wish for the possibility of garnering significant profit from writing poems would be to willingly subject poetry to the kind of commercialization that shapes so many other aspects of public life. The fact that poets throughout history have largely had to seek financial security from means other than the writing of poems has been greatly beneficial to the art form.

You recently began your doctoral studies as an Elliston Fellow in Poetry in the University of Cincinnati PhD Program in English Literature and Creative Writing. Can you talk about the role of the PhD in relation to the MFA in the context of the contemporary literary world? What led to the decision to pursue a PhD in addition to an MFA?

Emerging writers who wish to find employment as teachers of the craft often move between various adjunct teaching positions and other temporary gigs. Frequently, they land in situations with low pay, no job security, and zero health benefits. Because of this, it has become more and more common for them to remain on an academic track beyond the MFA degree, pursuing additional master’s level work or seeking a PhD.

Book publication may expand the job options available to beginning writers, but the economic realities they face often remain arduous. Staying in school can allow them to obtain some stability away from the uncertainties of the oversaturated academic job market, while they work toward earning credentials that may ultimately enhance their future employment potential. These are the forces behind the increasing number of young writers who have chosen to pursue a PhD, usually in Literature, Creative Writing, or another related humanities field, after earning an MFA degree.

Though some of these factors shaped my own decision to pursue a PhD, what compelled me most were the specific qualities of the University of Cincinnati program. I felt drawn to the fact that the program emphasizes the traditional study of literature as much as the pursuit of creative work. Another major motivating factor in my decision to apply was the variety of graduates whose work I’ve come to know and admire over the years, including Josh BellErica DawsonCaki WilkinsonJaimie Poissant, and Cate Marvin. Above all, I sensed that the program’s structure would enable me to devote my most productive energies to what I care about most: the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry.

What are the most compelling reasons for a writer to pursue an MFA?

Most emerging writers in America eventually face a Shakespearian moment of sorts: To MFA or not to MFA – that is the question. The quandary is as insoluble as the one that haunted Hamlet, and it’s doubtful that even The Bard could have attempted to resolve it. I don’t believe that the pursuit of an MFA is anywhere near necessary for the production of strong writing. Talented and ambitious people throughout history produced remarkable work before the MFA era, and writers will continue to do so, with or without the degree. When it comes to actual skill and range on the page, there’s nothing an MFA will teach you that you can’t learn through impassioned reading, writing, and living.

If your goal, however, is to eventually teach writing, the degree comprises a necessary qualification for many jobs in that arena. Entering the MFA milieu also gives emerging writers a chance to connect with literary peers and mentors in enriching ways. In addition, the degree frequently increases your viability when you apply for opportunities in the writing world outside of academia, such as fellowships, conferences, writer-in-residence positions, and grants. Another significant boon of the MFA experience is that it can allow you to study directly with some of the strongest writers alive today, many of whom happen to teach in graduate programs. Though somebody’s brilliance on the page doesn’t guarantee that he or she possess equal acuity as a teacher, there’s still great value in having the chance to observe and absorb the passions of rarified literary minds.

Any drawbacks to the MFA?

Just as I don’t believe that obtaining an MFA can guarantee that a writer will produce strong work, I don’t agree with criticisms that go too far in the other direction. If an individual is truly talented, focused, and driven, studying in an MFA program isn’t likely to homogenize or ruin his or her artistic abilities.

I do think that students entering MFA programs need to be on guard against false notions about what it means to be a writer. Since the MFA system operates, for the most part, in traditional academic environments, the degree’s progression often mirrors that of other academic subjects. Novice writers can too easily develop the notion that fulfilling the degree’s requirements means that one has “mastered” the subject. Completing and excelling in graduate-level workshops and literature classes doesn’t mean that one is a good writer. It’s possible, in many instances, to do the former without achieving the latter.  

This aspect of the MFA system isn’t the fault of anyone in particular. It strikes me as a somewhat unavoidable byproduct of the relationship between the MFA system and the academic world. None of the accomplished writers who frequently teach in these programs sat down together at some point and said, “let’s propagate a system that may end up giving students a false sense of what it means to be a writer.”

Would you elaborate further on that?

In order for MFA programs to be considered degree-granting tracks within the academic world, there are certain structures, timelines, and measurable requisites that need to be met. It’s hard to evaluate literary quality in a concrete way, so what often happens is that programs end up having to place a larger emphasis on quantity than on quality. It’s common for students to be expected to produce one or more drafts per week, and then to revise the drafts in a portfolio of “finished work” at the end of a semester.

This structure establishes an aura of quantifiable productivity, but risks giving students an unrealistic sense of the kind of time and intensive labor that it takes to create good writing. It’s not a framework that allows for the type of painstakingly slow composition and re-drafting that often leads – over the course of weeks, months, and even years – to the production of a truly strong piece of writing. My worry is that the structure can lead beginning writers to believe that writing is a relatively fast and seamless process, and that a piece of work is “finished” long before they’ve tried pushing it to its fullest capacity.  

This isn’t to say that remarkable work can’t sometimes take shape quickly, but that usually only happens to writers who have already laid the groundwork through years of dogged literary labor. Here’s another way of looking at the situation: While it wouldn’t be possible to graduate from most MFA programs if you produced one or two brilliant poems in your time there, it would be possible to earn the degree if you turned in dozens of underdeveloped poems. So it’s important for students to understand that they’re enacting a somewhat artificial version of the creative process while pursuing an MFA. Otherwise, they may end up forming methods and beliefs that short-circuit their potential as writers.

What advice would you offer to poets and students of writing who aren’t part of an MFA program? How might they structure and self-direct their writing education?

I believe that there can be no meaningful writing education that isn’t essentially self-directed, so I would give the same advice to non-MFA-seekers as I would to those who have chosen to participate in the MFA system.

Fight as hard as you can to make sure that you protect your writing time from the swirl of life’s constant demands. Recognize the importance of reading trenchantly and widely. Find mentors and peers whose literary sensibilities you trust, so that you can receive (and also learn to give) fruitful artistic feedback. Participating in summer conferences, enrolling in non-degree-granting workshops, attending readings, spending time at writers’ colonies, and taking online Creative Writing classes taught by accomplished writers are some solid ways for non-MFA-seekers to start building a community. If there’s a writer you really admire, you can usually seek an opportunity to learn from that person because so many of today’s most talented literary figures teach in various short-term capacities, outside of the MFA classroom, around the country.

My other advice, when it comes to structuring your own writing education, is to follow your impulses. Pursue what gives you pleasure. There’s a poem by Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, in which readers encounter these lines:

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds

Throughout the piece, Yeats makes clear that the airman hasn’t taken to flight because of law, duty, public admiration, or a sense of conviction about the war in which he’s immersed (“Those that I fight I do not hate” / Those that I guard I do not love”). What drives him is something stranger, less discernible, more private. I encourage all beginning writers to generate work from “a lonely impulse of delight” rather than drawing too much motivation from external forces.

I couldn’t agree with you more regarding that lonely impulse. So on to the last bit, “teach” us! Assign us some reading and/or homework, maybe a writing prompt.

Here’s a prompt that I’ve found useful in helping student writers move beyond safe material into areas of exploration that involve greater risk, emotional complexity, and self-revelation.

Read these three poems: “Desert Places” by Robert Frost, “Dinky” by Theodore Roethke, and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz. Each piece deals with the idea of confronting shadows that live within oneself.

Think about these questions and scribble your thoughts as you read:

Frost writes “I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.” What are some of the “desert places” that exist within you? How and why do they scare you?

Roethke’s Dinky is an elusive and darkly comic figure who undermines order, certainty, and happiness. The poem ends with these lines: “You’re part of him; he’s part of you / - You may be Dirty Dinky.” Are there any parts of yourself in which you can see the presence of “Dirty Dinky”?

The speaker of Delmore Schwartz’s poem describes his body as a creature separate from his inner self. In his view, the appetite-driven physical form he occupies is “an inescapable animal,” a bear who “moves where I move, distorting my gesture, / a caricature, a swollen shadow.” Do you ever feel as though you have a “heavy bear” walking beside you, an aspect of yourself that “perplexes and affronts” you with its “darkness”?

Using these three pieces as jumping-off points, draft a poem examining something about yourself that frightens and unsettles you. You’ll notice that these poets manage to explore dark inner realms without engaging in straightforward diary-like confessions. None of them say “this is what’s wrong with me” or “this is something from my past that I regret.” They use a variety of means – rich figurative language, haunting sonic effects, and complicated tonal layers, for example – to evoke the darkness rather than to spell out its sources in a direct manner. Keep that in mind as you shape your draft. The purpose of the prompt is to help you push your pen into territory that you might normally, often unconsciously, avoid when you sit down to write.

Caitlin Doyle’s poetry, reviews, and essays have appeared in The AtlanticBoston Review,The Threepenny ReviewBlack Warrior ReviewThe Cork Literary Review, and others. Her poems have also been published in various anthologies, including The Best Emerging Poets of 2013The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Best New Poets 2009. Caitlin’s awards and fellowships include Writer-In-Residence positions at the James Merrill House and The Kerouac Project, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship through the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship through the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching posts at Penn StateSt. Albans School, and Interlochen Arts Academy. Caitlin received her MFA from Boston University, where she was the George Starbuck Fellow in Poetry, and she is currently pursuing her PhD as an Elliston Fellow in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati.

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