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 new 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. 


Why Free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a Great Way for Writers to Learn

MOOCS don’t have to be scary. Really.

If, like me, at some point or another you’ve thought of enrolling in a massive open online course (MOOC), only to decide against it, the reasons are understandable: too many people and not enough personalized attention; the online format makes it feel impersonal; the lack of accountability outside of a non-physical classroom results in not showing up, not doing the homework, not sticking with it. The New Yorker last fall published a critique of the MOOC model of learning, concluding that the future of this approach, for all the initial buzz around it, was still uncertain. (My thought as I was reading the article was to ask what emergent approach to higher ed isn’t, especially one that’s so dependent on the internet?)

Without venturing into all that, though, I’m here to advocate for MOOCs, especially as a learning tool for busy writers dedicated to improving their craft.

By now the drawbacks of MOOCs are well agreed-upon: yes, they are big. In fact, they are often huge. I enrolled this past spring in Writers Write Poetry course through the University of Iowa; there were thousands of students in my class from all over the world. On the one hand, I loved the cosmopolitanism of studying alongside such a diverse community of fellow readers and writers; on the other hand, overwhelm was a constant. I’d spend an evening writing a poem, post it to the online forum and log onto the course website any given morning to find that my little post had been drowned out by hundreds of other poets as they also shared their homework assignments. Were it not for the site’s notifications settings, I wouldn’t have been able to find the comments people had made on my work. And when I did finally get back to my post, there were disappointingly few comments because there was simply too much homework for everyone to give feedback on, and students had to pick and choose. So a MOOC is not a place to get many and thorough critiques of your work, even as you get the community that so many lone writers need and crave. The other common criticism of MOOCs is their low rates of completion, owing to the fact that most MOOCs are free. With no financial skin in the game, students start out with great intentions and don’t finish, which affects the cohesion of the community the students formed at the course’s beginning, if one can say that it even exists at all.

But having said all that, here’s why I think MOOCs are a terrific learning option for serious writers.

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Writing Lessons from Leonardo: Taking the Road Less Traveled

This post also appears on The MFA Project, an online resource for writers seeking educational alternatives to a degree in creative writing. 

Perhaps it’s that I’m preparing to set out on the great American road trip – the first in my life, as it happens – or roads just keep appearing all over the place in my poems, prompting me to wonder whether I’ve developed some kind of unconscious obsession with the romance of wandering, pursuing wide open spaces, and getting lost. But of late, roads and the mythical journey they represent have come to figure large in my thinking about writing and my approach to a writing education. And not just any roads, but the abandoned ones, the neglected ones, or the ones most people don’t seem to be taking at all. It’s not even that I am on such a road myself at the moment, but the topic for whatever reason intrigues me, like a terrier after a scent. And I find myself rooting around in it.

This is where I warn you that my findings are irreverently and unreservedly self-serving, contrarian, and anti-creative writing MFA. What do they call it in psychology, confirmation bias?  

I owe Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings blog at least three years’ worth of gratitude and homemade pies for all the wisdom that’s come my way via her gleanings from the world of literature, covering every arts/sciences discipline and topic imaginable. One of her latest posts, entitled “Leonardo’s Brain: What a Posthumous Brain Scan Six Centuries Later Reveals about the Source of da Vinci’s Creativity,” snagged my attention earlier this week and wouldn’t let go.

Here’s what I pulled from the post that I found pertinent to the above.

The road less traveled  

Owing to his illegitimate birth, Leonardo apparently didn’t have a formal education. Banned from the liturgical schools of his time, he was entirely self-taught in Greek and Latin, the languages of the Italian Renaissance that were the portal he would later access to become the mathematician, artist, and scientist that history remembers. Long after he had established his career, people questioned his expertise numerous times on the point that he lacked the 16th century equivalent of what would have been a college degree.

His reply?  

They will say that because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to treat of. Do they not know that my subjects require for their exposition experience rather than the words of others? And since experience has been the mistress, to her in all points I make my appeal.

Experience as mistress? Is he saying that the hours spent reading and writing at my desk is experience enough without an advanced degree? That I’m getting the “book learning” he too missed back in his day, by reading writers I admire, analyzing their works and seeing how they do it, which is maybe an education in its right? These are genuine questions, but that’s the drift I got from it.  


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Reading (& Copying) to Write 

One of a series of bi-monthly posts for The MFA Project, a resource on the web for writers seeking a minimal-cost writing education. 

Great fiction writers, it can be argued, are made out of good readers. And readers of everything: poetry, novels, nonfiction, magazine articles, and, if you’re like Sherman Alexie, the backs of cereal boxes. Just about everything can be fodder for the creative process, and every serious writer knows this, seeking out that special material to throw in the reptilian story processor of the mind for future deployment in the form of a short story, a poem, a novel of his or her own.

Every time we read a book, the flow, the cadences, the rhythms of sentences implant themselves in the brain. Later, and scarcely with our awareness, they eventually get shaken up, scrambled, and tossed back out, only this time as unique and fully formed expressions we’ve created ourselves. After about a week of reading a lot of books I always scratch my head in amazement when I find myself saying things in conversation, for example, that I never would have thought it in me to say. Eloquence rarely comes easily for most of us, except by spending time with words, bathing in them; and, whether you’re a poet or not (and especially if you’re a poet), putting them in your mouth and tasting them, observing their texture, noting their umpteen different shades of meaning.

In case you think that’s a little overkill, in a recent interview, renowned novelist David Mitchell expressed in the nerdiest manner possible how much he loved the language. “The best part, the part you begin with, is the sentence. Say you’re working on a sentence,” he said. “And you’ve got these ideas. Use subject, verb, object. Then, let’s make it a little Yoda-like; rearrange it a little. Someone described my character Hugo Lamb as an ‘Oxbridge Huckster.’ Lovely! Never seen those two words together, so let’s combine those. But let’s not end there, let’s have a comma – and tack on an adverb at the end. Badaboom, ch-ch-boom! It’s just GREAT.” The geekery of this comment drew laughter from his audience at the Wheeler Centre. But if you dig down, past Mitchell’s memorable characters and his innovative storytelling, it’s his enthusiasm and energy for bringing his language alive on the page that makes his writing so sublime, and why his novels have drawn such an audience.

So how do we cultivate that same Mitchell-esque passion in hopes that his brand of genius will eventually osmose into our own brains?  

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On Living and Writing With Two Rabbits

The story that inspired this post is brought to you by Jenny Heishman and Andre ten Dam, my new friends who are currently afield in the Netherlands!

I still can’t believe my luck: on the heels of the social storm that was VORTEXT, I’d been thinking how perfect it would be if I could get just three weeks to disappear from the world and produce some new writing. (I am an avid editor and polisher, but first drafts are like blood from a stone every time). “If I could have just three weeks,” I said to Phil. Not three days after that, I received an email from artist Jenny Heishman on Bainbridge, asking whether I would be available to do a house-sit for three weeks while she and her partner Andre visited his family in the Netherlands. No more; no less. Furthermore, would I be willing to take on the cuddly task of caring for their two Rhineland bunny rabbits, Jacco (M) and Koos (F) (pictured below in all their long-eared lettuce-munching glory)?

Yes, yes, and yes! 

Jacco (left) and Koos (right)

I’ve been here three days, and Jenny and Andre’s cottage is love itself. Nestled in seaside woods on the southeast shore of Bainbridge Island, the place has turned out to be the perfect spot to wander, brood and bang out those constipated first drafts. Even more so, truly, for what the rabbit people have taught me so far about how to be a good writer (the appellation seems to suit, given how very much they act like people, a trait that’ll hopefully become evident in their lessons to me, listed thus):  

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