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. 


Advice for Poets: an Interview with Tomas Q. Morin

This interview with Tomas 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 had been a distant admirer of Tomás Q. Morín, but the award-winning poet from Texas finally entered my orbit several months ago when he taught me it’s indeed okay to “friend” a writer you admire on Facebook and enter a conversation. With that gesture of kindness a door was opened to the interview below, a treat for all you practicing poets out there. And be sure to check out his poem “Nature Boy” at the Poetry Foundation website.  — 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?

I’m a graduate of the MFA program at Texas State University. When I was mulling over whether to pursue an MFA or not I was a first year PhD student in the Hispanic & Italian Studies program at Johns Hopkins. I was spending a lot of time writing poems. A friend encouraged me to write a poet whose work I idolized, a story I recount in an essay in Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, and after some reluctance, I did. Levine wrote me back and asked me to send him some poems I had faith in with the promise he would tell me the truth. His response was positive and gave me the courage to jump ship at Hopkins and try to learn everything I could about making poems.

I think if you feel you still have a lot left to learn, and we should all feel that way, then you should get an MFA if you don’t have one. The biggest benefit of one, to me, is that it saves you time. In a good MFA program you can learn in 2-3 years what it might take you 10 to learn on your own. There are exceptions of course, but I think this is generally true. Being in an MFA program is like becoming an apprentice to a cobbler. By the end of your apprenticeship you won’t be a master cobbler that makes the best shoes in the world; rather, it means you know how to make shoes. What you do with those skills and how far you take them is up to you. The same goes for writing stories and poems and what not. One challenge to getting an MFA that I haven’t seen go away is navigating all the self-doubt and anxiety and fear that so many students feel. When a lot of people who all feel like that get in one place for a few years it can create a tough atmosphere for everyone. This is where teachers and mentors and administrations need to step in and be supportive and encouraging.

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A Writer’s Make or Break Moment: a Lesson in Attention from Paul Jarvis

Every writer must think about it, the make or break moment of their career – when they go on their first radio interview, for instance, or hold their first book signing, or some other such pivotal event that indicates that they have “arrived” in the eyes of the public.

But this is not the pivotal moment Paul Jarvis is talking about. In his book Everything I Know, the Canadian designer, musician, author and freelance guide describes something much more elemental – the proverbial terror of the blank page, which he identifies really as an avoidance of the truth and authenticity in ourselves.  In a culture and time when we hear much discussion about the tech-driven “crisis of attention,” he offers a simple antidote, veined with other insights on tapping into our aliveness through our work.  


Among thoughts and stories illustrating the importance of vulnerability, fearlessness, taking a stand, risk, and dealing with rejection as well as straight up being wrong about something, Jarvis astutely describes that pivotal moment, the creative moment when one sits down to write and a familiar feeling sets in:    

You panic. You breathe more rapidly. You probably grab your phone and refresh Facebook instead of pushing through the fear.

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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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