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. 


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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Words and Their Shadows, the Snaking Line, and the Tiny Blades of Language: Cortney Lamar Charleston on His Poem "I'm Not a Racist" 

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Some write poetry with an eye towards beauty and their own experience, but it’s a different and very necessary kind of poet who arrives at the page with the intent to unsettle, to shake others from their sleep. From the instant I discovered him during my routine reading on the web, it was clear that Cortney Lamar Charleston is that other kind of writer – in his use of poetry both as art and as path to change, of everything from our relationships to the wider social fabric. In this time of violence against marginalized groups, it feels more important than ever to shed light on those artists who prod us awake to others’ pain, who keep us from rolling over and going back to sleep. I’m grateful to Cortney for the reminder, and for taking the time to do this interview – after just getting back from a retreat at Cave Canem, no less. – HLJ


I came across “I’m Not a Racist” in  One Throne and instantly appreciated the truth-telling in it, this calling out of this country’s racial reality which is frankly a situation most people in my own experience are unlikely to discuss in “polite conversation.”  

I’m really happy that you found the poem! Interestingly, I think the unlikelihood of race ever being part of polite conversation is the conceptual foundation of the entire poem. Because people try to avoid the topic completely, it leads to a lot of “mental gymnastics” aimed at skirting around the subject, but language has evolved in such a way that different words, when strung together, can mean the same thing. I can say that I’d rather avoid going to certain neighborhoods because they’re “sketchy” – or, I can say I don’t want to go to that neighborhood because it’s full of poor people or black people, or something along those lines. Either way, whether it’s explicit or implied, the meaning is the same because the word “sketchy” does not have a clean history. I pay less attention to someone’s exact words than to the shadow those words cast on me as the listener or reader.



                            I'm a realist: if I see a pack of hoods approaching, loitering,                                                   
acting a littering of public sidewalks, I simply 

                      move to the other

side of the street, play it safe. I keep it on me at all times,                                                                                         for safety purposes. 

                                      In the event of open fire,     

                       you'd be a hazard  I told them when I, regrettably, couldn't
                                                allow the lot of them into the party.

                 We're part of the same

political party, according to all the numbers I've seen.
When I shut the schools down, I was just

                                             doing what must be done

                                 to balance a city budget out of wack. When I put what
                                                             I found in his trunk on balance,

                  it was enough to tip the scale

towards a felony. I used to be a waiter, and they never
tipped very well in my experience.

                                 While we were placing bets,

                        I noticed him tip his hand ever so slightly and there was
                                                a  ̶̶r̶a̶c̶e̶ face card in it. He didn't seem

               like much of a bluffer, so I stood

my ground. On the grounds of merit that's how I got
into Yale. I'm just not that into black 

                                             girls, personally. I mean, personally,

                                   I don't SEE color. I'm so sorry, I really didn't see you there.
                                                                  There they go, using that word again:

                                if they can say it, then why can't I?

I can't understand why everybody is so sensitive these days.
I admit, what I said sounded a little bit

                                             insensitive, but believe me, I'm not

                     a racist. I'm a realist: if I see a pack of hoods approaching, loitering,
                                        acting a littering of public sidewalks,

                     I simply move to the other side.

I keep it on me at all times, for purposes: in the event of a
hazard, open fire 
I told them, regrettably,

                                              looking at the body splayed before me.

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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.

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"Embiggening", What Is Less, and the Human Soul Writ Large: Matt Muth on His Poem "Learning a Foreign Language"

Yep. That's Matt Muth. And a scimitar.

My encounter with Matt Muth at AWP in Los Angeles consisted mostly of sitting across from him at the book fair and watching him repeatedly throw a ball in the air while hawking his Seattle-based publication Pacifica Literary Review. In what would eventually turn into an amusing experiment in meta-conversation, the raw transcript of my Google chat interview with him is shot through with bracketed wisecracks that belie a dead-seriousness over big ideas. Incidentally this would be my first contact with his expression “embiggening”: a word that sounds a lot like “beginning”, and a place I sense this poet returns to often when he’s not running a publication or headed to his next hockey game. “I am a monument,” he writes in a recent Facebook post, and not without irony, “to failing upward.” – HLJ 


Your poem "Learning a Foreign Language", recently out in RHINO, dances at the edges of everyday vocabulary. On the surface it would seem intimidating to a reader who doesn’t know what a postulate or onanism is, yet the poem as a thing is shockingly unpretentious. What triggered the writing of it?  

It basically grew out of a feeling of not being good enough for a significant other, but more specifically the feeling that when this person looked at me they were speaking a completely different language than I was when I looked at me, if that makes sense. And the poem is about that odd disconnect between who you thought you were and what you thought you were made of, compared to what an observer looks at you and sees. That was the generative emotional place of the poem.



I needed to associate like with like, object
with suggestion. I needed to be trained. I taped
index cards to my possessions: the nightstand

said onanist, the toilet said equivocator; my desk
was narcissist, and the venetian blinds
were all cowards. I had some nouns, but soon

this was not enough learning: I needed adjectives,
verbs, I needed fluency. Each pair of boxer-briefs
got a false advertising patch stamped

on the codpiece; I wrote won’t block shots
on the blades of my hockey skates in lip gloss,
each new term a wine grape in my mouth —

I burned vestigial into each rib and shaved
vapid on the side of my head. I’m getting better
with practice: soon we’ll be able to communicate —

you’ll sit across from me mouthing words
and pointing, your hands their own bright
postulates, and I’ll thrill with understanding.

Click to read more ...


Humans and Nature, Page versus Stage, and Poems as Animals: Kelly Weber on Her Poem "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things"

Kelly Weber

I was a bleary-eyed and fast-fading bookfair exhibitor on day two of AWP when Kelly Weber approached the Primal School table and nearly made me spill my coffee by mentioning “the democratization of poetry education." Two possibilities occurred to me; she’d either read my mind or my personal slogan for this blog wasn’t so unique after all – a recognition that was hugely liberating. Here's what became evident to me during our interview: her love of sound and audience and language, her patience for knowing every frontier of creative possibility in a poem’s writing, a bone-deep enjoyment of the teaching process, and perhaps above all else, her reverence for the wild world. – HLJ


I've been spending a bit of time with your poems and fiction and am inspired by a thematic through-line in your writing, this occupation with the natural world. In writing your poem "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things," was there a specific trigger or memory? How did this poem come to you, or how did you come to this poem?  

There’s definitely an ecological streak to my poetry and fiction. I don't write a ton of fiction because my brain seems to groove on poetry, and so even my fiction emerges with a strongly poetic bent...but the predominant theme of animals makes its way into both, certainly. Because I discovered the same wild streak surfacing repeatedly in my poems, I decided to make that the focus of my unpublished thesis collection, "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things". On a broad scale, this group of poems focuses on the day-to-day encounter of humans with animals. What small things do we humans take for granted? What power do we assume over small things like bugs or snakes that make its way into "our" spaces: homes, garages, etc.? I think there's a lot of room to look at our faults and weaknesses when meditating on an animal or wild thing, and also when we talk about our stories and interactions. That's been the broad theme of the thesis.

So with the poetry – and major thanks to Gravel  for publishing this poem – I've been submitting my work here and there. There were actually two sources of inspiration for "Field Guide”. The first was an experience I’d had as a seventh-grader when our teacher led us through the woods, over a period of months, to record what we saw. We actually got to walk in the woods behind our school, which was a nice change from being in the classroom, but at one point we hit a creek and the teacher asked everyone to jump over it. I took one look at it and thought, "" I can't swim, and it was winter and I was pretty sure I'd slip on the ice, so I stayed behind and just tried to jot down what I could. All these years later that incident seems so emblematic of my life: I wanted to be a bio major, but I wanted to sit and observe things more than I wanted to cross the creek.

So this incident kept resurfacing in my daily freewriting and in the notes I took here and there, and two things emerged: that image of the other students fading away from me, leaving my English/biologist-wanna-be self behind, and not knowing what to do with it beyond that. When I finally put the thesis together, I had the idea for a collection with the name "The Field Guide to Small Dead Things", but didn't have the title poem written yet. It finally occurred to me to try combining those two orphaned threads of thought, and I think it ignited them both. The poem had an end and the collection had a piece that I felt captured what I was trying to do in all the poems, which was record the small and dead or harmed and wild things in our lives – while also honoring those things through poetry and careful observation of the world around us. Which I think is its own way of honoring all life.



We chart our course west across field
and tail our seventh grade teacher
from brick-scalloped science room
to woods beyond the school,
spiral-bound notebooks in hand
to practice our powers
of observation: wind, weather, February sun.
At the chain-link fence
woven into diamonds,
he slips a key into the padlock
and unhooks the magical silver stirrup
to lead us through the border
from school to woods beyond.
We crush monochrome-crusted grass
and trace the runic grooves
of haw bark, sap asleep
as filaments in unlit bulbs.
The forest teethed with silver
and carbon, where leaves
of seasons past clot beneath our feet.
Ahead, the creek zinced with ice
has thawed a little, burbles
raw live iron. One by one
the teacher helps us step across.
I sway over white-ringed stones
moss-slick and treacherous
and I refuse.
The other students move on,
their blue and green coats recede
and I linger on the other side.
While they crouch over handprints
of mysteries, what’s crossed at night
unseen so close to learning’s doorstep,
I—as fearful
of poor grades as drowning— 
fill my notebook with everything
they don’t see, not worth noticing:
rock and clay water’s chewed away,
branch-rattled cold,
all things blued and breathing
left in quiet after children
migrate toward what’s pointed out.
Another world beneath this ochre one
lidded and stirring.
And by April’s time, I’ve trained this eye
with each month’s trip, each stop
at the river’s line, I’ve twirled
the pencil’s rule and covered pages
in graphite. At deadline,
I type my log of small descriptions
and names to hand
to the teacher sailing rows.
To our mutual amazement,
he thumbs it to reveal tables
pegged and socketed with tracks,
snapped twigs, sky deceased
the common thousands
and common millions
I recorded in wire spirals.

Window after window
opens to kestrel chests
and finches plucking seed, gold—
somehow, in creating
the field guide to small dead things
I’ve catalogued the coming of the spring.

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