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



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. 


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?  



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?

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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. 

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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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