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. 


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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Poet Interviews Launching This Week at Primal School 

photo by Robb North

Writers! Greetings again from Primal School, where I’m spooling up on my first clutch of interviews with poets as diverse and enlivening as my time was at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles.  In the last two weeks I’ve connected by email and phone with a number of poets across the country, traded work with others, conducted three interviews, and have just been inspired over all by the enthusiasm and response to Primal School from poets of every age, background, and level of experience. If you stopped at the Primal School and Inked Voices table in LA, thank you – and if you joined our newsletter recently or have been following the blog, I hope that the content that gets shared on here is useful in your growth and explorations in the world of poetry.

In launching this project I’ve learned a lot of things – for one, how genuinely diverse as well as huge the universe of poetry is (ignoramus that I am, I didn’t even know until AWP what a poetry comic was). The field of possibility around what makes a poem a poem seems elastic and dynamic and changing all the time, and it’s broadened my own scope in terms of thinking about what's possible in an online experiment such as this. Another surprise for me has been the level of interest in the democratization of poetry learning — a notion that I thought was somehow fringe, but which turns out to be shared and advocated for by many. Not only have those others who believe that a life of poetry and serious practice of it are entirely possible outside of the MFA system been willing to engage me when I approach them; they’ve appeared out of the woodwork to talk to me. Those people have included everyone from professors in creative writing programs to editors of literary journals to poets who have been practicing for years without a degree. The give and take of the whole process has energized me both as a blogger on this site and as a writer.

There’s another human piece to all this: in only the first month of working on Primal School I’ve been humbled by how much I have to learn from all poets, not just the poets who are known and have several books out, but anyone who loves poetry and is passionate about the craft. That is to say that whether the subject is an interview or feedback on the site, I want to hear from everyone, from the rock stars with plenty of press attention to those with only a publication credit or two to their name. This is because I think poems should be carried by all, and because no one who seeks to be the conduit for the song that is a poem should be excluded from the privilege of sharing that music because they never connected with a community that could help them grow. I’d love to help expel loneliness from the world of poetry writing as much as possible; the life of writing and publishing is tough enough without courting it.

Anyway, I’m still working to get on a schedule with posting interviews, but look for a first interview this week, with the whip-smart and talented Niel Rosenthalis. With the grace of time I hope to hit a steady biweekly rhythm. In the meanwhile, happy poetic trails, and here’s a great video of Taylor Mali, who puts the primal back into poetry like no one else I’ve heard read. Enjoy.  




On Starting Over: Welcome to Primal School 

Woodshedding? Let this be your place.

Every so often, life’s rhythms take their course.

Back in May 2015, a chance encounter at Hedgebrook VORTEXT connected me with Rebecca Wallwork and her blog The MFA Project, where up until last week I’ve been contributing as an interview editor. Initially started by Rebecca as a quest to earn an MFA in creative writing without the sticker shock of a degree, the blog was my practice in talking to writers, asking for “homework assignments” on behalf of “students” who are trying to write without the structure and support of an MFA program, and mining for the writers' wisdom on the creative life. After a time, as my particular interest in poetry grew and I began exploring ways to support my own learning as a poet, Rebecca and I arrived at the clarity that I needed to launch my own project.  

And so welcome to Primal School, where the work I began at The MFA Project continues in its poetry incarnation, and if you’re visiting here because of AWP, thanks for taking time to check out a site that’s still in its infancy. I gave AWP the below description of Primal School, an abbreviated version of which will appear on their FB page:

Primal School features online interviews with established and emerging poets in which they discuss a single poem they have written, shedding light on that poet’s process and artistic vision. Inspired in part by Poetry In Person, Alexander Neubauer’s collection of Pearl London’s conversations with leading poets at the New School from the 1970s-1990s, the blog seeks to be a home on the web for students of poetry who are not affiliated with an MFA program or are otherwise self-taught. Additional content on the site includes audio clips, posts on the craft of poetry, interviews with poets about their educational journeys, reading recommendations, and their advice about the writing life.

As an online resource, Primal School’s vision is to democratize access to poetic education by bringing tools and learning opportunities to the web drawn from the MFA or writing seminar, but repackaged for a wider audience. Its mission is to spotlight poets of all backgrounds and styles, explore the inner workings of their poetic process in accessible language, and uncover the multitude of a ways a poem comes into being.  

For a more detailed (and still-evolving) overview, you can visit the site's About page.   

I'm still in the early phase of ideas with Primal School as I seek out other poets and students of poetry and ask what they would like to see offered on the blog that would be useful to them and that isn’t being done elsewhere. And as part of that process, I’ll be at tabling at the AWP Bookfair in Los Angeles March 30-April 2, 2016. If you’re at the conference and interested in what’s happening here, come by Table 116, where I’ll be camping out with Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices, the online community for writing and critique groups.  

Whether you’re a poet who teaches or a newcomer to poetry who's looking for your tribe, I'm excited to connect with you. And thanks again for your interest.  



On Pleasure, Devotion, MFAs/PhDs, and Self-determination: an Interview with Caitlin Doyle


This interview with Caitlin is one of three posts on the site that were written for The MFA Project in fall/winter 2015, prior to the start of Primal School. 

The poetry of Caitlin Doyle has received wide praise. Michelle Aldredge of Gwarlingo says of her work: “Caitlin Doyle writes highly original poems…steeped in both meaning and musicality…Doyle’s poems are serious and complex, but also witty and playful, and it’s this tension that makes her writing so innovative.” One of the benefits of our online format is the opportunity to occasionally feature long-form interviews. I got to talk with Caitlin about her work, her MFA experience, her journey as a writer and teacher, and topics relevant to writers and poets on both sides of the MFA divide.  — Hannah

Your voice as a poet is very distinctive and I’m thinking of what sets your work apart, such as your skill with rhyme and other formal elements, and your blending of narrative and lyric modes. What do you think of the frequent criticism that MFA programs end up producing voices that sound the same?

It’s important to enter an MFA program with this central understanding: There’s a difference between challenging your aesthetic values in meaningful ways and letting your pen become a conduit for trends buzzing in the air around you. The workshop environment can sometimes spur writers, consciously or unconsciously, to seek immediate pay-offs in the form of peer approval, rather than pursuing the harder-won rewards that come with creating work that operates entirely on its own terms. Though writers have long depended on feedback from others, the idea that truly strong writing can take shape via group consensus is a potentially dangerous one for emerging writers to absorb. It’s necessary for MFA-seekers to cultivate openness, but it’s just as crucial for them to resist pressures that push them too far away from idiosyncratic self-determination.  

Which reminds me of your advice to beginning writers in your interview with Words With Writers: “Take your time to develop arduously, painstakingly, and privately, rather than throwing your writing too hastily into the universe for recognition. Be a homemade writer rather than a world-made writer—only then will the world truly want and need your work.” Can you talk more about what it means to be a “homemade writer”?

Recently, I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe in England”, a poem in the voice of Daniel Dafoe’s most famous fictional character, Robinson Crusoe, who spends years shipwrecked on a tropical island. I keep coming back to the part of the poem where Crusoe recounts playing a “home-made flute” that he has crafted out of materials found on the island. Remembering the instrument, which seems to have possessed “the weirdest scale on earth,” he says:

“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”

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On Getting a Poetry MFA: an Interview with Michele Bombardier


This interview with Michele is one of three posts on the site that were written for The MFA Project in fall/winter 2015, prior to the start of Primal School. 

I first met Michele Bombardier at the recent Poets on the Coast conference with Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon in La Conner, WA, an event in which time slows for art, women gather with their words, and poetry is a nymph dancing wildly on the Skagit River for three packed days. She was glowing so brightly I asked her out to lunch…and this interview happened. — Hannah

Tell us a little about your MFA experience. Specifically, let’s talk about pros and cons: what are some good reasons to pursue an MFA in creative writing? What are some of the challenges?

It was an agonizing decision. I have a perfectly good graduate degree and career, so I was not interested in an MFA to become a teacher; my goal was, and still is, to deepen my craft. I also felt the pressure of time. I am 55 years old, and even though I have been writing for a while now, I am relatively late to the party. My hope was that an MFA program would compress my learning curve to a steep incline.

The con is pretty simple: money. I have three college-age kids. We put one through, one just started, and one stopped but hopes to return. We are middle class. This is hard stuff. We ended up taking a loan against the house. Call me crazy.

If I didn’t get an MFA I would have continued doing what I have been doing for the past five years: taking classes at Hugo House, the community writing center here in Seattle, meeting with my writing groups, working with editors/teachers I’ve hired to review and critique my work, and attending conferences where I could, though those can get pretty spendy.

What advice would you offer to poets and students of writing who aren’t part of an MFA program? How might they structure and self-direct their writing education?

Find mentors. I took David Wagoner’s Master Poetry class multiple times at Hugo House and was incredibly grateful for those experiences. I’ve also studied with Tara HardyKelli Russell AgodonGary Copeland Lilley and Wyn Cooper. I think it’s also important for writers to attend classes and form writing groups. The classes and groups come and go, but over time, you find your poet-siblings who will help raise your work. I love working with my friends Lillo Way and Ken Wagner, whom I met in David Wagoner’s course, and they still kick my poetic ass. 

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