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. 


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.

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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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Obsession, Writing Sequences, and Not Reading Poetry to Write Better Poetry: Niel Rosenthalis on His Poem "Placed"

Niel Rosenthalis

I recently met Niel Rosenthalis at AWP in Los Angeles at the Deadly Chaps Press booth, by chance after missing an author signing (something that seems to happen to me a lot at these kinds of events). We got to talking about poetry and agreed to keep in touch. He wrote me after the conference offering to help out with Primal School, and the more we spoke and I got to know his work, the more honored and grateful I felt for having met this force of a poet. I’ll let the interview serve as proof, but I’ll add that just this week, Niel has been offered the Third Year Fellowship in Poetry at Washington University in St. Louis. — HLJ


In your recent interview with Joanna Valente for Luna Luna, you described how in writing your first chapbook collection, TRY ME, you saw “trees, grammar, the mechanical goings-on, etc. as […] a struggle with each other.” That struggle interests me as a reader of your poems; could you tell us more about it?

In that interview I think I was making a point about how I don’t distinguish, really, between the mechanical and the natural, and how that group of nouns came from the process of writing via erasures mostly of nonfiction books and novels. ERASURE is the practice of making a new text out of an existing one. You look at a text, say, an article or a novel, and you decide to whiten out all the words you don't want, so you're left with the words you do want – and the idea, for me, is to make a poem out of those words. Basically, it's like an enormous ready-made word bank.

In the way that I use erasure (other poets use it very differently), the poems sound the same as poems I might write without erasure.  My subjectivity shows through whatever I do. Sometimes the process exposes me to new words that excite me in a new way, and sometimes I use the words I would use anyway, but because I’m working within this formal restriction, only using the words before me, something in me is reoriented. Trees, grammar and the mechanics of the way things work form a part of my Image Bank, I guess — which I’d define as that group of images I find myself obsessed with. Every poet has an Image Bank. And out of this bank, I try to work out whatever is agitating me about my perception of experience.

So I take you keep a notebook to aid in storing that Image Bank? Or do these images come to you in your writing, like a daydream? 

Good question – I keep a notebook and write pretty often. Sometimes I sit in a public place and just observe what I see. I take notes when I'm reading poems, essays, scientific articles, books on the history of ancient Rome (or whatever it is I'm doing – I read pretty widely and sometimes deeply and sometimes not, haha). I copy down great sentences and wonder how they work what makes them pleasurable to me, and so on. I find that I do have a set group of words that comes to me when I’m just free-writing, and so just to push myself, sometimes I'll open up a book (say a book of poems or a random nonfiction book I have laying around the house), and pick ten words that really stand out to me just because I like them. They don't have to be especially complicated, they just need to excite me. For instance, if I turn to the word bank I started recently, I see the words: extension, forward, expanse, proof, rapprochement. I don't think I finished building that bank, but sometimes when writing I say, “Okay, let me see if I can get that word into the poem because I like how it sounds.” I don't have to keep the word, but if it gets me excited on the page, it can generate a few lines that do work well (and often I'll have to go back and cut the word I pulled from the image bank because the line it was in didn't end up working). Which isn't to say the Image Bank makes or breaks a poem! What really makes a poem exciting to me is the tension in it – and poets have different ways of generating this tension. Some use really elaborate syntax, i.e. the way the words in a sentence or a line come together over time. Others simply have a funky Image Bank. Still others prioritize using the page as a kind of field, skipping around and building arrangements of words that challenge one’s sense of how one word follows another. And all poets use some combination of these three tension-generators, because syntax, word choice, and page space all can be manipulated. They form the technical stuff of which poems are made.

Affirming to know I’m not the only one who approaches writing in this way; seeing what words call to me in my reading and finding a home for them in my poems . So many poems are really just houses built of stolen lines, words, ideas… there’s nothing contraband about it when you’ve made something new out of them. And your playfulness with syntax does intrigue me, so let’s talk about “Placed.” Fascinating story behind it: you say the poem was cut from 40+ pages of observation in a time and location? Tell us about that process.



An Intersection

 I was sitting at a table outside in the night. The people around me ate and drank in comfort, a few notches below bliss. What else is hammered. Watch your tone. I can’t, it’s like the back of my head.

                 One house lit-up with a birthday banner
                 in the foyer; the sneezing dogs on their
                 evening out; a semi-present wish
                 to stop all this.

Some people pose for a picture. “Wait, guys, let’s get one of us laughing at each other.” Laughter is a form of what kind of thinking. What’s worse: the people or the reclamation of want the people bring out in you.

                 I kid myself.
                 I say, “I like my sweetstop tongue.”
                 I can’t look
                 to be a part of all this.

An Exchange

On a tour of the city, I was hit by the sight of white dahlias (“Always place description in the present tense.”)

The dahlias were in a toss from last night’s flash flood. The hill they were planted on made them lean. And then I remembered what it was like to see something for the first time.

“What would it look like?”
                              — A woman with a braid down her back, to her friend at the café.

“I wanted to know what a poodle cut looks like on a person, a kind of mullet…with a tight bun at the back.”

Pausing to fill in, one said, “Well at least it will grow back,” to which (he’d missed the point) she said, “no, no, it was great, glad we did it.”

Be absorbed by minutiae.

He’s aside of this now so if he wants to leave he can leave without walking through a door.

A Separation

The couple in green sat at the table with fries, which their hands went to, then to their mouths, then down to their laps. At times one went for it while the other waited, or both went, or neither. One touched the other’s knee. The other had arms closed together and turned her head this way and that. What they were was how they were. To that end, I watched from my box. (Around me the people sat in theirs such that they could look at or to the street, where the people passed.) Pass the salt, please. One did.

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