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 Rita Dove (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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"Is-ness", Throwing Sonic Daggers, and the Nature of Power: Phillip B. Williams on His Poem "Of the Question of the Self and How It Never Quite Gets Answered"

Phillip B. Williams. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

I first met Phillip B Williams at the Best New Poets reading at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis, after being moved immensely by his poem “Do-rag”. It’s a pleasure to interview him for the blog over a year later, having seen the release of his book  Thief in the Interior, which could not be timelier reading in the wake of recent police violence in this country’s ongoing war on black bodies. With this poem, Phillip explores the workings of a mutable and constantly uncertain identity. Emotive as well as smart, probing as well as generous, the language in his poems carries both music and the invitation for the reader to look and think deeply. This one of Phillip’s is previously unpublished, and I thank him for entrusting me with it. — HLJ    


Reading this poem puts me in mind of the Talib Kweli line you quote in your book  Thief in the Interior: “But I never write to remain silent.” There’s a recurrence in your work of this theme of silence, from silence as coping mechanism (“If I don’t speak then maybe I won’t die”), to the silencing of the other (“no one listens”). How does this particular poem of yours connect to that silence?

I think in this poem silence operates as both an identifying marker for the powerless but also an omen; the quiet before the storm, so to speak. There’s a kind of puppetry that happens when power is wielded in the way this poem is critiquing. But what happens when the puppet decides to speak for itself and to act on its own accord? What happens when the puppet behaves outside its true nature and acts fully human, rage and all?



In the poem, figure A is distilled to shadow and floor-looking.

Figure B musics crane-necked, anticipatory for the nih-nih.

I’ve always been a sucker for nomenclature.

The many ways I nigger without knowing.
I’m so Black I’m somebody’s mama sewing

her eyes to the ground. Shamecracked. Akimbo in exclusive gaze.

Lawd, Lawd, Lawd—who is I talking to and where is I? One must
prepare to be seen at all times astounded into erasure, ill-imagined.

Some of us eat watermelon in the closet, breath fermenting
and vulpine, to be able to, at all, eat without being eaten.
Safe in the umbra room dancing ensues, uncaricatured O.

Figure B sniffs figure A. Figure A is hips and textile. Puppet-pulled.
History yawns from the Os of likely weapons, a viper in the shade.

I know because in me the dark is alive and the dark makes plans.

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