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

 


 




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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 Rainer Maria Rilke (2)

Thursday
Oct132016

Life's Great Lies, Thought Made Flesh, and the Ritual Possibilities of Form: Joseph Fasano on His Poem "Hermitage" 

Joseph Fasano

When I initially contacted  Joseph Fasano  for an interview in late July, I had several poems in mind as possibilities to discuss. But when he suggested "Hermitage" I felt in that choice something of a predestiny; it was the first poem of his I had ever read, and when we had our interview I was reminded what about it had so commanded my attention and drawn me to all of his work: lines of unusual breath and music, cultivated from language of the kind his teacher Mark Strand described as "so forceful and identifiable that you read [these poets] not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply to saturate yourself with their particular voices." Rilke's "inner wilderness", twined with Fasano's bracing intelligence, were strongly in evidence throughout this exchange. — HLJ 

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It strikes me that the subject on which this poem turns consists in its final two lines: "the great lie // of your one sweet life", that thing at the poem's opening that was once "too much." The speaker's address to a "you", the reader, seems to presuppose that at one time or another everyone will have to reckon with such a lie in their own lives. So let's begin there and work our way backwards…tell us a little about the great lie that began this piece. 

All I know is that it's different for everybody, that great lie. It's a platitude to say that we all lie to ourselves in some way to live. Maybe we tell ourselves things are fine when they're not. Maybe we need to believe they're not fine when they are. In any case, of course it's true that a certain falseness in the way we live might protect us from a radical truth we're not ready for. Maybe we need an actual, practical change in our living situation. Maybe we need a change in our way of seeing things. Whatever the case may be, it's terrifying to face the nakedness of a new truth–or perhaps I should say an old truth, an ancient truth that has been living inside us – especially when we hardly have a language to talk about that truth.

I see this poem as the speaker's way of beginning to saying 'yes' to certain things that he had previously rejected–things perhaps in himself, things perhaps in the world. But what interests me most is the silence after the last line. It's clear to me that the speaker of this poem has yet to find a language in which to say that 'yes,' in which to live it to its fullest. I see the final question as both confident and desperate: What would you have done? What should I do? Everything we say asserts our deepest beliefs, even when we're unaware of those beliefs. But what happens when those beliefs change, radically and even perhaps without our knowing? What steps forward to fill the new silence of our lives then?  

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HERMITAGE

It’s true there were times when it was too much
and I slipped off in the first light or its last hour
and drove up through the crooked way of the valley

and swam out to those ruins on an island.
Blackbirds were the only music in the spruces,
and the stars, as they faded out, offered themselves to me

like glasses of water ringing by the empty linens of the dead.
When Delilah watched the dark hair of her lover
tumble, she did not shatter. When Abraham

relented, he did not relent.
Still, I would tell you of the humbling and the waking.
I would tell you of the wild hours of surrender,

when the river stripped the cove’s stones
from the margin and the blackbirds built
their strict songs in the high

pines, when the great nests swayed the lattice
of the branches, the moon’s brute music
touching them with fire.

And you, there, stranger in the sway
of it, what would you have done
there, in the ruins, when they rose

from you, when the burning wings
ascended, when the old ghosts
shook the music from your branches and the great lie

of your one sweet life was lifted?

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Tuesday
Sep202016

Poetry as Activism, The Rhetoric of Empathy, and The Breaking of Beliefs: Emily K. Michael on Her Poem "A Phenomenology of Blindness"

Emily K. Michael

When  Emily K. Michael approached Primal School about a possible interview back in May, saying that she was interested in “the tension between performance and page, and the presence of other voices (human and non-human),” I was intrigued and embarked on a lightning tour of the work of hers that was available on the web. In her eye for the world’s beauty as well as her candor in speaking about her life as a blind person, I sensed the stirrings of a rich conversation. I suggested we talk about her poem “A Phenomenology of Blindness” (originally published in Rogue Agent), with its implicit advocacy and benign but frank exploration of  prejudice. I felt committed to exploring thoroughly the machinations of the poem’s central idea and was grateful for Emily’s willingness to go there with me. Discussing her work, Emerson's words came to mind: “It is not meter, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem, a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” — HLJ 

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I don’t normally begin interviews by asking poets about their titles, but I’d like to begin there because of the truth claim inherent in this poem’s title. The poem is intended to be a “phenomenology.” How did the poem and idea arrive? 

I suspect that this poem has been a long time coming. It responds to the intense curiosity that I often sense in others, even when it's not directly expressed. People hear that I'm blind or see me traveling with my guide dog or stopping to read the braille on the elevator, and they start firing off questions: "Is it like this? Is it like that? I bet it's like this!" So, when a colleague of mine said she was having trouble writing a blind character, I sat down and wrote this poem.

I wanted to say, "Look, it's not like any of these things." Because others’ speculation and theorizing is done in my absence — or it's done as if I'm not standing there…when I am. Whether it's a portrayal of disability in the media or an actual stranger confronting me at the coffeeshop, nondisabled people seem to take hold of stories of disability without asking us what's really going on.

"Phenomenology" seemed like the right name for a catalog of experiences that weren't what blindness is at all. And that's how the poem helped me to say that blindness isn't all of these things, but it also isn't One Thing. It isn't one story. It's this wild unruly mosaic that's part of my life.

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A PHENOMENOLOGY OF BLINDNESS

It’s not like walking through life with your glasses off.
I mean, sometimes we wear glasses, but they’re different 
from yours. Thicker, broader, darker. And they don’t
work the quotidian miracle of correctable vision. 

It’s not like getting your eyes dilated once a year, staggering
out to the car under those stiff black shades with the sharp edges,
tearing up beneath the merciless sun and wondering how you’ll manage
the drive home. Damn, someone just texted you and you can’t read your phone.

It’s not like groping in the dark when you come home late
and you can’t find your keys because you and your girlfriends
had too many pomegranate martinis. I know it was a birthday, 
but if you could think clearly, you’d know where your keys are. 

It’s not like leaving the nail salon after a pedicure, shuffling forward 
in disposable flip-flops, doing everything you can not to chip that
gorgeous raspberry shimmer polish. It’s not like that at all. 

It’s not like feeling faint because you forgot to eat lunch — you were
working so hard you couldn’t even stop for a granola bar, so you 
cling to your colleague’s arm as he guides you outside. It’s nice 
to have support, you think, nice to know he doesn’t mind helping. 

It’s not convenient, popular, or cumbersome. It’s not a filter
that you can slide over the world, not a stylish coat hanging
in your closet. I, too, am waiting for winter because I love
wearing my coats — peacoats, swing coats, blazers. I have 
so many! It’s just that blindness isn’t one of them. 

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