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




Failed Equations, Line Breaks, and the Edges of Everything: Catherine Abbey Hodges on Her Poem "An Algebra of Fifty"

Catherine Abbey Hodges

Rare is the moment when a newer poet gets approached by an experienced one with the offer of a hand with their project, and so I was grateful when Catherine Abbey Hodges gave me a free copy of her book  Instead of Sadness, expressed her support for the blog, and invited me to connect. Later over a brief phone call, I learned that, like me, she'd once considered pursuing an MFA in poetry and then opted for the alternative path. I'm quite sure that no one reading her first collection would doubt that this path has served her: in poem after stunning poem, I was treated to models for my own work, a richness of music, and a depth of field that can only come from an alertness to none other than the school of life itself. – HLJ


First off, I just have to mention that I read your poem “An Algebra of Fifty” to my husband and he loved it, and he said also that his mother would love it – someone who went back to get her master’s degree to teach mathematics in her mid-fifties. Here's a poem about someone trying to figure it out.

Well, regards to your husband! I’m gratified that the poem spoke to him. And yes, the “someone” in the poem is indeed trying to “figure it out”, using tools and formulas that worked in the past, and finding them ineffective.

But before we go any further I should say that although most of the poems I write are fairly accessible, some remain at some level mysterious even to me. “An Algebra of Fifty” is that latter kind of poem, and so though it’s mine, I don’t know that I can speak with any certainty about its meaning or intention.  Still (and maybe in fact for that reason), I welcome the opportunity to talk about it as a way of deepening my own relationship with the piece.



Out back between the marvelous
weeds and the volunteer tomatoes,
she's a windsock in mid-life's rush
hour breeze. Day shuts down
all over. One plus n equals
match strike, doorbell, hush

of the crowd. Voices through
a window across a canyon, voices
across water, crickets in the ivy.
Anise seed on the tongue texture,
then taste. Regret taste, then
texture. A letter being opened
in Lisbon. Or not being opened

in the next room. Not the idea of God,
after all, nor God's proximity,
but the light under a door.
The breeze picks up, makes a nest
of her hair, as she solves for n
with all she's got. Behind her, the moon
rises burly, gibbous. The edges
of everything whistle.


I resonate with your speaking of the poem as an artifact of mystery – I think it indicates how many poets write to explore something rather than reach firm conclusions, saying “this is how I see it". That kind of exploration can often result in a piece that isn’t going to be easy for our facile minds to understand. Who is the woman in this poem and how was she written from your life?

The woman here is disoriented and maybe even flummoxed by the failure of her life’s tried-and-true “equations” as the means to a satisfactory answer or an end-result. If one plus n equals a number, then she’ll know how to solve for n. But if one plus n = “match strike" or "anise seed” – wow, what do we do with that? Our old means of “solving” our lives, the ones we get rewarded for with good grades, jobs, promotions – well, we may reach a point when they’re not so useful. So this speaker is somewhere in the thick of her life, and finding herself unable (maybe for the first time) to figure things out, “solve” them. In fact, perhaps she’s the one, somehow, being “solved.” And as the poem ends she’s left with that gibbous moon and the edges of everything whistling. There’s the sense that maybe that’s as much as she needs…not the answers or the solutions, but the being there with the big mysteries, and giving her solution-bent brain and heart a rest.

Is the woman in the poem me? No doubt I started the poem that way. It seems to me we’re a generation (actually, a century or two) steeped in a weird, almost superstitious confidence in rational and linear thought, with a cerebral approach to all our problems. But we may, if we’re attentive and ready, come upon larger verities, ones that defy logic and are impossible to quantify. They even defy our precious words – they’re deeper than words, or on the other side of them, which puts a poet in a quandary but is also strangely liberating.  And that  takes us back to the woman in the poem, quite possibly me, who's in the process of setting down one way of moving through the world and taking up, or living into, a new one.

And I get the idea our problem-solver is summoning a kind of magic in the process of solving for the “n”: “One plus n equals match strike, doorbell, hush // of the crowd.” Then later, “voices / across water, crickets in the ivy.” These images and energies – they appear to be discrete from one other; each carrying its own meaning while remaining gorgeously opaque. Tell us a little about the spaces from which you’ve drawn them?

Such a great question, Hannah; that interests me too, and I love your phrase – “images and energies.” That feels deeply accurate. Those images and energies are layered in from far-flung times and places in my life – the voices across water, for instance, from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia where I lived with my husband and our children for eight years. And they include my mother, memories she passed on to me – the voices through the window across a canyon. She lived, as a young child, at the edge of a canyon. I never saw that home or canyon, but it’s there in my image bank, indelible. So in the center section of the poem there’s an almost lapidary thing going on – that layering.

Very rich. And I’m very interested in the “letter being opened / in Lisbon. Or not being opened // in the next room,” a phrase that straddles two stanzas. In this poem each stanza seems to function in the literal sense of the word stanza, as a kind of “room.” Did you intend it that way from the outset, or did you come upon its structure in revision?

Structure for me is definitely the product of revision. I worked on this poem for a couple of years before I sent it out, layering in and rearranging images (especially in what turned out to be the second stanza) as well as experimenting with overall form. I was happy to arrive at an incremental, steady opening out as the stanzas increase from six to seven to eight lines – for me, it works with the hope that this woman may be moving toward letting some of that solving work go. She’s trying to solve for n, but her deeper revelation is suggested by the structure. The light under a door and that burly moon in the final “room” suggest something else at work, something she doesn’t have to figure out before it’s real or true – something that may happen after the poem closes.

At this year’s AWP I attended a panel on revision and was taken by John Hoppenthaler’s notion of the poem as something that takes place on a stage. He says we might think of the page as a kind of stage, on which something has happened before the curtain opens, and where something further will happen after the curtain closes. Perhaps that thinking is useful with this poem: it intimates a shift that isn’t realized “onstage.”

As long as we’re talking about revision, I’ll also say that the poem as it appears in Instead of Sadness is a revision of the version that was published in The Southern Review  (Nov. 2009) and on Verse Daily  (Jan. 2010). I would hope that the changes reflect my growth as a poet. For one thing, in earlier versions I’d been meticulous about the words that started each line but less thoughtful about line endings. The first line of stanza 2, for example, ended with the article “a": “Voices through a / window…”. So I made a number of small but I think important revisions to line breaks to honor the value of line-end “real estate”, as poet Molly Fisk puts it.

But the biggest change was ending the poem sooner. It used to end: “The edges of / everything whistle. They almost sing.” Over time I realized that “they almost sing” lets us off a little too easy, is perhaps a little too leading. So now it’s just “the edges / of everything whistle.” The whistle around the edges does it for me. I’m happy with the mystery, the intimations.

And I hope that last line brings us back to the beginning of the third stanza and the “nots” – “not the idea of God, / after all, nor God’s proximity, / but the light under a door.” This is true to my experience of the divine, which has moved away from an idea (that of something that can be figured out, something “gettable”) to an unfolding experience of something just out of view, throwing a wild, gracious, and startling light that’s familiar and not at the same time. When I'm writing well, I'm listening and feeling for that and writing towards it.

That is so well said. On reading your book of poems, Instead of Sadness, I’m most taken with the recurrence of certain images that feel universal: the sky, the natural world, morning and night, dawn/dusk.

The natural world, its rhythms and cycles – that’s my way into almost everything. When I was growing up my parents used to stop and stare at the sky, and I thought everybody did. One of my earliest memories is of them waking me up during one of our vacations and getting me out of the car to look at a wheat field at sunrise, blowing in the wind like waves on a lake. All the ocean images in the book come from a combination of my childhood in a beach town and a month I spent alone in 2011, in another beach town, writing poems. During that month, the poems I’d already written (including “An Algebra of Fifty”) and the new ones set up a conversation with each other, and I realized that they probably belonged in one collection.

Can you tell us a little about the role of music in your life and poetry? I know you collaborate a lot with musicians, and that other kind of music is a presence I feel strongly in your poems.

I grew up with a lot of music in my home, and I married a man who did as well and who is himself a 'cellist and vocalist. Although I'm not conscious of the role of music in the first drafts of my poems, if I follow myself around in the revision process, I find myself consistently revising toward sound and meter that will support what I’m trying to get at in the poem. Again, though, it’s not particularly conscious.

Thinking of music another way, I’ll say that the publication of Instead of Sadness has brought with it some wonderful reading opportunities, and my husband Rob and I have collaborated for many of those. Marie Howe talks about the “unsayable center” of a poem. Rob and I are experimenting with trying to give that unsayable center a little more room, a little more air time, by following a set of poems with an improvisatory ‘cello response – and it’s not music as performance, but sound and music as a room, a kind of space for those poems to say or hint at something further. It’s been fun and invigorating, and we’ve had warm responses.

Catherine on her process: "For me, a poem rarely gets its start when I’m sitting at my desk. Give me something like this: tatters, a bee, a suggestive background blur (because I’m holding out against bifocals a little longer)."

That “unsayable center” surely finds other ways to be expressed, and music is such a great vector for it. You’ve succeeded in publishing and writing incredible poems without the community and support of an MFA. What advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?

Thanks for your kind words about my poems, Hannah. My formal education in poetry to date has pretty much consisted of five weeks spread out between 1999 and 2013. Over that time I’ve attended the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference four times, and the Blue Flower Arts workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts once. These are week-long conferences with intensive workshops, craft talks, and swaths of time to write. They gave me instruction and insight, reassurance, an intensely nourishing if temporary community, and a number of long-term friendships with other poets. It’s worked for me, though frankly not something I think of as a modelit’s just how my story has unfolded. But most of my life, and my growth as a poet, has happened in the time between these workshops.

My best advice is to read a lot of poems. Find poets you love. One practical way to do this is to listen to The Writer’s Almanac, or read Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. When a poem grabs you, track the poet down and read more of his or her work. Buy a collection by that poet and study it. Become an autodidact. I chose my conferences on the basis of that approachafter immersing myself in their poems, I knew I wanted to work with Jane Hirshfield and Marie Howe, for example. And of course if you do attend a workshop, maintain a few connections with other participants, keep exchanging work, try to meet up physically for other opportunities, and rejoice in the opportunities the Internet provides for such exchanges.

There’s a website for writing and critique groups called Inked Voices, which I’ve been part of for some time, and I highly recommend it to readers looking for an online community. I’ve connected with and learned from some wonderful people because of it.

Way leads on to way, right? One year – 2006, I think – I met a poet named Susan Cohen in a NVWC workshop with Stephen Dunn. We stayed in touch off and on, and Susan told me about Molly Fisk’s Poetry Boot Camp. Susan and I participated together in a Boot Camp of Molly’s one May (it’s a five-day, poem-a-day online workshop). And it was Molly who got me thinking about line endings, which many months later influenced my revision of “An Algebra of Fifty.” I recommend the experience. Molly’s a skilled guide and a fine poet.

Ten years or so after we met, Susan and I remain friends, though we live hours away from each other. In fact we’re reading together for the launch of her second collection of poems, A Different Wakeful Animalon June 12 in the Berkeley/Oakland area.

So exciting and I wish you lived closer so that I could attend. Any “homework” you would like to assign our classroom of readers?

Getting back to our earlier conversation about line breaks, here’s an exercise I often give my students at Porterville College, a community college in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I actually came up with it as an alternative for those who wish to write something other than a sonnet, but it yields surprising results and I've begun using it as its own assignment and playing with it myself when I feel a little stale. It’s simple:

  • Choose a prose passage of six to sixteen lines. It should be a passage that interests you but not one you know well or have any kind of special commitment to. News stories, how-to articles, and things of that ilk work well. It shouldn’t be anything overtly “poetic.”

  • Type it out.

  • Paste it into another document, and then start breaking lines. Just have fun. Don’t think too hard about it. When you’re done, give this “poem” a title –really, it’s a found poem, isn’t it? Give it an epigraph that cites the original passage.

  • Cut and paste the original again, breaking the lines in different places.

  • Do it several more times. Experiment with stanzas. Experiment with one to three word lines (a long, skinny poem) and with lots of line length variation. Each version gets its own title. The titles should reflect the differences achieved by the line (and stanza) breaks.

When I do this with a class, I ask students to hand in the three versions they find most interesting and write up a reflection on the process, on what they view as the strengths and shortcomings of each version, and on their broader take-away about line breaks. I like the playfulness of the exercise; it involves language that you’re not invested in while giving you authority within the parameters of a specific set of words that fall in a particular order. So it’s open, yet it’s constrainedand it’s a surprisingly powerful way to learn about the relationship between lineation and meaning.

For more on lineation, there’s a good article by Rebecca Hazelton at the Poetry Foundation website, with exercises that involve working with poems rather than prose passages.

Thank you so much for all these links. Now share with us a poem you love, and tell us why you love it.

I return often to the poems of Peter Everwine, and in particular his poem “Drinking Cold Water” (first published in The New Yorker in 1972 and later in From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). The poem’s speaker addresses his grandmother, 20 years dead. It’s a relatively short poem in which, about mid-poem, he appears to himself as a boy. The spare language and perfect sounds of this haunting poem shimmer with what’s gone. It’s one of those intimate poems – an intimate subject, with details specific to a particular life – that I find myself inside. I’m the boy, the grandmother, the aging man far from his childhood roots – and I’m me, somehow addressed directly. When I read it, every time I read it, I feel something large that could be joy or could be grief, but is most certainly wonder.


CATHERINE ABBEY HODGES's debut book of poems is Instead of Sadness, winner of the 2015 Barry Spacks Poetry Prize from Gunpowder Press. Paulann Petersen says, "Catherine Abbey Hodges offers us inside each musical line, within each vibrant trope a luminous wisdom. Each poem gives us a world 'replenished like a well // in blues and greens and wings.'" Also author of the chapbook All the While, Catherine teaches English at Porterville College, where her students have been astonishing and inspiring her since 2001. Most days she likes to be outside before dawn, and every day she agrees with Stanley Kunitz that "to choose to live as a poet in the modern superstate is in itself a political action."

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