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




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. 


Poetry as Activism, The Rhetoric of Empathy, and The Breaking of Beliefs: Emily K. Michael on Her Poem "A Phenomenology of Blindness"

Emily K. Michael

When  Emily K. Michael approached Primal School about a possible interview back in May, saying that she was interested in “the tension between performance and page, and the presence of other voices (human and non-human),” I was intrigued and embarked on a lightning tour of the work of hers that was available on the web. In her eye for the world’s beauty as well as her candor in speaking about her life as a blind person, I sensed the stirrings of a rich conversation. I suggested we talk about her poem “A Phenomenology of Blindness” (originally published in Rogue Agent), with its implicit advocacy and benign but frank exploration of  prejudice. I felt committed to exploring thoroughly the machinations of the poem’s central idea and was grateful for Emily’s willingness to go there with me. Discussing her work, Emerson's words came to mind: “It is not meter, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem, a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” — HLJ 


I don’t normally begin interviews by asking poets about their titles, but I’d like to begin there because of the truth claim inherent in this poem’s title. The poem is intended to be a “phenomenology.” How did the poem and idea arrive? 

I suspect that this poem has been a long time coming. It responds to the intense curiosity that I often sense in others, even when it's not directly expressed. People hear that I'm blind or see me traveling with my guide dog or stopping to read the braille on the elevator, and they start firing off questions: "Is it like this? Is it like that? I bet it's like this!" So, when a colleague of mine said she was having trouble writing a blind character, I sat down and wrote this poem.

I wanted to say, "Look, it's not like any of these things." Because others’ speculation and theorizing is done in my absence — or it's done as if I'm not standing there…when I am. Whether it's a portrayal of disability in the media or an actual stranger confronting me at the coffeeshop, nondisabled people seem to take hold of stories of disability without asking us what's really going on.

"Phenomenology" seemed like the right name for a catalog of experiences that weren't what blindness is at all. And that's how the poem helped me to say that blindness isn't all of these things, but it also isn't One Thing. It isn't one story. It's this wild unruly mosaic that's part of my life.



It’s not like walking through life with your glasses off.
I mean, sometimes we wear glasses, but they’re different 
from yours. Thicker, broader, darker. And they don’t
work the quotidian miracle of correctable vision. 

It’s not like getting your eyes dilated once a year, staggering
out to the car under those stiff black shades with the sharp edges,
tearing up beneath the merciless sun and wondering how you’ll manage
the drive home. Damn, someone just texted you and you can’t read your phone.

It’s not like groping in the dark when you come home late
and you can’t find your keys because you and your girlfriends
had too many pomegranate martinis. I know it was a birthday, 
but if you could think clearly, you’d know where your keys are. 

It’s not like leaving the nail salon after a pedicure, shuffling forward 
in disposable flip-flops, doing everything you can not to chip that
gorgeous raspberry shimmer polish. It’s not like that at all. 

It’s not like feeling faint because you forgot to eat lunch — you were
working so hard you couldn’t even stop for a granola bar, so you 
cling to your colleague’s arm as he guides you outside. It’s nice 
to have support, you think, nice to know he doesn’t mind helping. 

It’s not convenient, popular, or cumbersome. It’s not a filter
that you can slide over the world, not a stylish coat hanging
in your closet. I, too, am waiting for winter because I love
wearing my coats — peacoats, swing coats, blazers. I have 
so many! It’s just that blindness isn’t one of them. 

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The Missteps of the Father, Tercets vs. Couplets, and Why Community Is Important for Writers: Gary Dop on His Poem "Little Girl, Little Lion"

Gary Dop. Photo credit: Parker Michels-Boyce

I have the folks at  Rain Taxi to thank for introducing me to Gary Dop, who after shaking hands said “yes” to an interview, told me about his poetry, and within minutes had charmed me into buying a copy of his book, Father, Child, WaterRed Hen Press, 2015). As I was interviewing him, I saw how this was so. In Gary’s searching poems about fatherhood, masculinity, and history, I found the same warm, vulnerable human pulse that had thudded through our first conversation. For the speaker’s refusal to let himself off easy, for its equal parts introspection, tenderness and grappling with hazard, “Little Girl, Little Lion” is a poem for anyone who’s ever loved a child. In our unedited conversation, the child inside of Gary was also on full display: he aimed to work in the words “Tupperware," “Braunschweiger,” and “Portuguese Man-of-War”, then did so with finesse. – HLJ 


Throughout your book  FATHER, CHILD, WATER there’s the theme of parenthood, but also this wider lens on your family’s history, the world’s wars, things such as your father’s passion for hunting. Violence, or at least the possibility of violence, seems to loom over even your most playful poems. I think that’s especially true here – the poem’s last line landed cold in my spine.   

This might surprise you, but the themes of violence and the darkness in the humor weren't apparent to me in the composition phase. 

On one level, I could understand that these things were happening along the way, but I didn't recognize that I was returning to them (or that they were returning to me). My life has been a regular interaction with fear and uncertainty, and the final line of the poem is a reminder of that. I remember being struck by the final line, not knowing how to make sense of it when I wrote it, knowing that it mattered as a larger statement about my daughter (the poem is born of a real experience), and about all daughters, and about me and other fathers. Humor for me has always been a way to connect with people, but when I turn to writing, I think it also became a way to say, "I, too, feel shaken in the world. I, too, need to connect with others who will not hurt me, who want to walk together.”



From the stool above our soaking dishes, she proclaims,
I can never be a poet, like it’s written on a sacred stone

In her identity’s medieval cathedral. I am her father.
She does not turn to me. Why? I ask, pulling wrinkled hands

out of the suds we share. The blue glass she’s holding slips
under the water to a hollow clank. Touching her wet elbows, 

I hear, Daddy, girls can’t be poets. I’ve never thought
about how my daughter mirrors herself in Mommy 

who doesn’t write. I say the right things, pull her away
from the sink to the floor, and bend to look in her

searching eyes, brown like her mother’s. They ask, Are you
sure? I rush away to find Bishop, Rich, Sexton, Dickinson – 

any girl on the shelves above Where the Wild Things Are.
Showing her the stack, she pulls out Plath and opens to

“Daddy.”  I snatch the book back like it’s rat poison.
Again, I can’t be trusted. Can I be trusted? How can I 

wrecking-ball the commandments she’s constructed? I read
the opening stanza which ends in a sneeze, 

and she’s satisfied. More Sylvia later, I say. Oh Darling,
you’ll be whatever you need to be, and if it’s Poet, 

the world will learn to welcome your wild words, cathedrals
will crumble, stars supernova, and nothing 

that pretends will remain – but your words are water,
your life a metaphor only you complete. I say all this, 

our backs resting against the cold oven. 

Click to read more ...


Life's Wrecked Railings, Being a Ruthless Reviser, and Finding Light in the Barrenness: Lauren Camp on Her Poem "Rail Runner Express Crash on I-25 South of Santa Fe"

Lauren Camp. Photo Credit: Anna Yarrow

AWP 2016 was my sudden and massive induction into a community of poets I'd never read and knew I needed to be reading. I was drawn in this way to Lauren Camp for many reasons: her attunement to the world's problems, her love for bringing poetry to older and younger communities outside of the academic universe, and her belief in poetry as something that isn't static on the page but dynamic and carried by all. I returned home, read her collection  The Dailiness  two times through, and took months to follow up with her about an interview in part because there were so many poems in it that spoke to me, and with an immediacy that made me care. I'm looking forward to spending time with  One Hundred Hungers,  her latest book. And check out her radio work with Audio Saucepan, as well as her recording and discussion of Jack Gilbert's "Failing and Flying" at  the Sundress Publications blog. – HLJ


My first reaction to this poem was to feel as if you’d just confessed something intensely private to me, as if over late-night drinks at the kitchen table.

That’s a wonderful reaction, and oh lord, why am I always confessing things? Lately, I’ve been writing about politics by writing about what I want to turn away from.

In my poems, I commingle analytical thought and optimism. I always want (somehow) to reach the beautiful—and if not a beautiful resolution, at least an emotionally responsive (and therefore beautiful) poem.



One summer day, I witnessed the murder
of speed and money, a train
and armored car twined beneath a pockmarked sun.

I missed the tire squeal, but sat
In the nervous framework of vehicles
that bloomed down the Interstate. An ambulance
had been dispatched. We all gawked
as an EMT tended the scrapes and whispers
flung against the road – in this same threadbare spot
where a gasoline truck toppled, then exploded
several months before, metal
melting to its unsuspecting driver.
Even now I fear the whack, the severed bodies
swallowing thready air.
How much easier it is to be looking over
what has rolled over through light fragmented
on the underside of someone else’s car.
We continue driving forward, frantically strategizing
details and errands until we meet tomorrow’s headline. 
But this is my bend in the road,
my wrecked railing.
A personality test defines me as lemon-sour
so I take the test again, changing answers.
Forgive me.
This time it calls me blue
And I become a river of blue, flowing back and forth
on the Interstate in my beat-up Subaru,
never putting my compassion down,
never leaving the road with my imperfect eyes. 

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"Is-ness", Throwing Sonic Daggers, and the Nature of Power: Phillip B. Williams on His Poem "Of the Question of the Self and How It Never Quite Gets Answered"

Phillip B. Williams. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

I first met Phillip B Williams at the Best New Poets reading at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis, after being moved immensely by his poem “Do-rag”. It’s a pleasure to interview him for the blog over a year later, having seen the release of his book  Thief in the Interior, which could not be timelier reading in the wake of recent police violence in this country’s ongoing war on black bodies. With this poem, Phillip explores the workings of a mutable and constantly uncertain identity. Emotive as well as smart, probing as well as generous, the language in his poems carries both music and the invitation for the reader to look and think deeply. This one of Phillip’s is previously unpublished, and I thank him for entrusting me with it. — HLJ    


Reading this poem puts me in mind of the Talib Kweli line you quote in your book  Thief in the Interior: “But I never write to remain silent.” There’s a recurrence in your work of this theme of silence, from silence as coping mechanism (“If I don’t speak then maybe I won’t die”), to the silencing of the other (“no one listens”). How does this particular poem of yours connect to that silence?

I think in this poem silence operates as both an identifying marker for the powerless but also an omen; the quiet before the storm, so to speak. There’s a kind of puppetry that happens when power is wielded in the way this poem is critiquing. But what happens when the puppet decides to speak for itself and to act on its own accord? What happens when the puppet behaves outside its true nature and acts fully human, rage and all?



In the poem, figure A is distilled to shadow and floor-looking.

Figure B musics crane-necked, anticipatory for the nih-nih.

I’ve always been a sucker for nomenclature.

The many ways I nigger without knowing.
I’m so Black I’m somebody’s mama sewing

her eyes to the ground. Shamecracked. Akimbo in exclusive gaze.

Lawd, Lawd, Lawd—who is I talking to and where is I? One must
prepare to be seen at all times astounded into erasure, ill-imagined.

Some of us eat watermelon in the closet, breath fermenting
and vulpine, to be able to, at all, eat without being eaten.
Safe in the umbra room dancing ensues, uncaricatured O.

Figure B sniffs figure A. Figure A is hips and textile. Puppet-pulled.
History yawns from the Os of likely weapons, a viper in the shade.

I know because in me the dark is alive and the dark makes plans.

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Choices and Traumas, the Single-Stanza Poem, and the Ghosts We Carry: Joanna C. Valente on Her Poem "Marys of the Sea"

Joanna C. Valente

“People aren’t comfortable with being proven wrong, or realizing that a great person can say things that aren’t always right,”  Joanna C. Valente  said to me during a warm-up Google chat prior to our interview. The topic of our conversation: the idea of “safe spaces” for marginalized groups or victims of trauma. Such spaces are great in theory but practically impossible, she argued, because they negate the possibility that victims can also make mistakes. I’d found this judicious view of human nature rare, but there it was. “I’m in favor of neutral spaces over safe ones,” Joanna said. “Put people in a room together and allow them to respectfully disagree. The result won’t always be ‘safe,’ but at least people are talking.” I’d like to think of poetry as this kind of room for important conversations, and here is a writer who’s using hers. – HLJ


As someone who loves the idea of a life before and after this one, I found a lot to appreciate about this section of  Marys of the Sea. But because it's a long/book-length work, could you give us a bit of context, maybe tell us more about the work as a whole? 

The book is based on my sexual assault and subsequent abortion (I became pregnant after it happened). I began writing it about two years afterwards, and so the experience was still fresh in my memory though I’d managed to gain some perspective on it. I wrote it through the personae of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene -- partly because I wanted to explore the idea that women are rarely seen both as maternal figures and as sexual beings. But because I’d attended a Catholic school for 14 years, the two women were characters I’d been obsessed with and kept returning to.

The story of mother Mary is strange in that she becomes pregnant without her knowledge or consent, which always troubled me. After going through my experience with the assault, I couldn't help thinking back to the creation story of Jesus, what it says about the denial of women’s ownership over their bodies throughout history. These poems became a way of reclaiming my body and mind through that season of hopelessness and powerlessness. And I should add that the persona helped me write about my experience more objectively, which then made it more enjoyable because I wasn't simply myself, and easier because I didn’t have to be me, if that makes sense.



            Looking for voices on paper

            feel red all over his gummy mouth

            starts to take form in my belly

            hunger stops when grief replaces

            my stomach lining two bodies

            in one body sprouting brambles

            & birds in my ears becoming deaf

            to one history becoming two

            histories two souls repeating

            the lives of all the souls before this

            one there was poetry before this

            life lodged between both of us

            without the dead I would lonely

            be in eastern standard time

            when I didn't change my name

            two bodies need two names

            & how does abandon form

            in building how does a human

            form in another human give

            away another human to no one

            sorceress tongue spews

            spells for dead hands to throttle

            what I could not inverting

            empty on its head X-ray of terror

            there were no repeated lives

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