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. 

Entries in Cate Marvin (2)


The Definition of Home, Keeping the Poem In the Poem, and Knowing What Moves You: Keegan Lester on His Poem “A Topography of This Place” 

Keegan Lester

The first time I ever met Keegan Lester I was a daunted rural visitor to New York in the crushing heat of a mid-July. The impromptu tour he gave me of his favorite haunts near Columbia University (his MFA alma mater), was an unexpected gift – and the introduction to a poet whose work, perhaps more than that of any poet I’d met, mirrors his character: fierce in its insistence on gentleness, conscientious through its softspokenness, and present and alive to the world. These things made me all the gladder that Keegan’s first book of poems, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all I had, so I drew it, had recently won the Slope Editions Book Prize ( available for pre-order here and due for release in the coming month). In the spirit of the new year and with Keegan’s encouragement, I’m introducing multimedia to the Primal School blog with these videos he recorded. In them he discusses his love of home as an idea as well as a place we choose -- the notion that “home”, no matter how small, can be a conduit for storytelling, for sharing, and for exploring those sadnesses, elations and struggles which make people more aware of their alikeness in a time of bitter polarization and difference. I personally feel lucky to have been a recipient of his “ocean’s newfound kindness.” – HLJ 


Keegan Lester reads his poem "A Topography of This Place".


The ocean stopped being cruel
so the sailors went home.
No one jumped from cliffs anymore.
People stopped painting and photographing the ocean
because the sentiment felt too close to a Hallmark card.
Everyone had treasure because
it was easy to find,
thus the stock market crashed.
Then the housing bubble burst
mostly not due to the ocean,
though one could speculate pirates
were going out of business and defaulting on loans.
When I say speculate, I mean I was reading
the small words that crawl at the bottom
of the newscast, but I was only half paying attention
because Erin Burnett was speaking
and she’s the most real part of this poem.
I’m speaking in metaphor of course.
The end of the world is coming
seagulls whispered to the fish
they could not eat due to their fear
of the ocean’s newfound kindness.
One of my professors spoke today.
She hates personification, treasure and linear meaning.
She hates poems not written by dead people.
She hates the ocean’s newfound kindness,
she wrote it on my poem.
Not everything can be ghosts and pirates, she says.
But that’s why I live here.
My rhododendron has never crumpled in the summer.

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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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