Interview with Hannah Jones
When I walked jet-lagged and hopeful into the 2016 AWP Book Fair, before the May haze had settled over LA, I found myself gazing over a city of ink, spines, and over-caffeinated writers. Some tiled with business cards, some strung with yarn and origami birds, the hundreds of tables coalesced into a lovefest for the literary that brought together people of all walks of life. Among them, I caught snippets of some of the ways writers, poets in particular, are living in this world: as community organizers, publishers, small presses, teachers, musicians, bloggers, preachers from rooftops. We’re all doing this writer thing alone and yet together at the same time.
Enter Hannah Jones, founder of Primal School, a blog dedicated to interviewing writers to share the love and craft of poetry with all those hungry to learn. I managed to wade my way over to her table the second day of AWP, and our conversation turned into an interview for Primal School and an ongoing discussion about what it means to be a poet living and working in the world today. Hannah is one of the most gracious and generous writers I’ve ever met. She works continuously to share the knowledge and love of poetry with readers as she builds community. She also thinks about and enacts the way we as poets will need to keep engaging with the world and each other in the future. That’s why I decided to interview her for this post.
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Kelly Weber: Let’s start off by talking about your interview blog-project Primal School, a blog that’s been such a major source of inspiration and connection for me and many other writers. What is Primal School and how did it begin?
Hannah Lee Jones: I appreciate your generous words, Kelly. Primal School is young and still evolving, but I’m very glad to see it getting read and enjoyed by people who want to read and write poetry. At the moment it’s a blog featuring interviews with poets focusing on just one poem they’ve written. The interviews explore the poet’s inspiration, their process, their thoughts on the poem’s subject matter, and I think most importantly their advice to younger poets on how to bring forward their best work. On the site there’s also a page called the Toolshed, which I update regularly with other resources: free online courses, podcasts, other blogs featuring poet interviews, reading recommendations and the like. I hope to eventually grow the blog into other areas, writing posts of my own on different aspects of the poetry craft and perhaps bringing in guest posts by other bloggers. But for now I’m just trying to keep the interviews coming (roughly every two weeks, a rhythm I occasionally break from), and putting out a quarterly newsletter offering distillations and key lesson takeaways from the latest poets I’ve interviewed.
I launched Primal School at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles, but the seed for it was planted long before that, during my partnership with my friend Rebecca Wallwork on her own blog, The MFA Project. She’d started it as a way to document her journey as a self-taught writer who didn’t have an MFA. When we met at writer’s conference at Hedgebrook, the connection was instant and I teamed up with her to interview some writers for the blog. After a time, we recognized that her focus on general literature and fiction writing and my own interest in poetry called for the birthing of a new project. We parted ways and and I started Primal School. Hindsight tells me that was one of the best things we could have done. Her blog is still flourishing, and I was able to channel my creative instincts into something I love doing.
KW: I think AWP and blog work are, in their best sense, ways for us to connect with other writers and know that A) we are not alone in the world and B) we’re all struggling to learn and get better. Some of the best ways writers learn are in conversation with others (look at all the correspondences between writers historically!) . In a multi-media/global society, writers have the opportunity to make those connections through avenues that are either fringe or haven’t been tried before. So something that I think on any writer’s mind at any given time—at least it’s on my mind a lot!—is how we can create/find a community of writers in the world when we’re not in the environment of a program. How do we make a sustainable creative environment not only for ourselves, but also for others? How can we take the hunger for poetry to all people and into all areas of life, and how can we make poetry a way of living?
HLJ: To answer it feels necessary to mention that I have nothing against the MFA or the path of programs as an institution, as an educational path for writers, and a way of finding community and the structure or discipline many people need and crave to generate new work under the guidance of the pros. At the same time, it concerns me when I hear stories about the amount of debt people are coming away with when they graduate from these programs, the bleak job prospects, the disappointment when writers don’t end up finding the mentorship and support they need. The most compelling reason to earn an MFA is is to eventually teach creative writing, and yet it seems a lot of writers are entering these programs to be validated as “real” writers. In the end, the only validation you need and which no MFA can give you is truckloads of reading and even more practice. This is not the work of a couple years of schooling but a lifetime. Rebecca at The MFA Project blog quoted Ann Patchett as saying that “the history of world literature is weighted heavily on the side of writers who put their masterpieces together without the benefit of two years of graduate school.” The MFA is such a young institution in the scheme of that history. It’s just a smear on the radar. If all a person wants to do is write, they will find models to emulate; they will live their lives, and out of the light of that living they will make time to create. The blessing, too, of this age of information is that those “models” I just mentioned are available all the time, and overwhelmingly they’re also free. The longer I run Primal School, the more that conviction grows, and the more I’d like to keep doing what I can to be a supportive presence to poets who are teaching themselves.
The greatest and perhaps undersold value of the MFA is the potential it’s created for poetry to be carried into spaces beyond academia. Most graduates of these programs aren’t going to get those tenure-track positions, and the gift of that there’s still a very important place for them in YMCAs, senior centers, prisons, people’s living rooms – spaces of human experience where poetry can show up and where the hunger for it is often greatest. Poet-preneurs like Jason Koo of Brooklyn Poets are bringing poetry into such spaces, and our communities are richer for them.
About poetry as a way of living, though, I think that’s well said. Ocean Vuong said something in an interview with Poets & Writers a while back, which really resonated with me – about how easy it is to tie up our egos with our work, chasing that tenure-track job, prizes, fellowships, whatever. But the heat of living resides in the poem itself, an artifact of the present, carried by way of words and sentences straight into the hearts of people. And the heart is really the only true place for a poem.
KW: I love this: “the heart is really the only true place for a poem.” So true! I think the beautiful thing about being a poet is we get to live an “ampersand” kind of life, which is something we’ve talked a lot about in our Crossing Boundaries class: we can be poets in EVERY area of our life, writers AND teachers AND faculty members AND community members AND eco-activists AND tech wizards AND academics AND friends. We can bring our sensitivity, skills, and profoundly human sense of life to everything we do and are. In a big sense, too, we never really stop teaching ourselves. No MFA, group, or residency lasts forever! I think we have to maintain a lifelong practice and apprenticeship to that–there’s a certain kind of “learning at the feet of the masters” approach, tucking ourselves into libraries and the wealth of resources available on the Internet, that feels so Bradbury-esque and necessary. I know that my time in the classroom is just a small fraction of the time I spend learning. I’m always trying to read even beyond the annotations the program requires, scrolling through websites (like Primal School 😉 ) over lunch hours and practicing over long hours. And that doesn’t count the groups of us sitting around coffee tables with poem copies. For me, the MFA has been a further resource that fits where I’m at currently and provides those great opportunities to learn how to carry the love of poetry into all areas of life. It also provides introductions to literature that might’ve taken me years to find. If we expect an MFA or any short program to be a magic bullet, I think we’ll always come away disappointed. However, if we take a growth mindset to every phase of our lifetime of learning cycles and methods, of which an MFA might be just one season of new influences, I think we can start to separate our validation from whatever means we use to learn. The validation then comes in simply showing up to the page for the great love of it.
And in the spirit of that ampersand life, you manage to maintain a regular schedule while always bringing kindness and the zang to every interview. So enviable! What has your process for working on Primal School been like? Could you provide a little insight on what it’s like to run a blog?
HLJ: You are so kind, and it’s fabulous to hear a bit about how you interlock the lifelong study of poetry into your work as a teacher of writing. As for the blog, this is a tough one because I’m very much still trying to get a handle on my process, and my schedule most of the time feels anything but regular: reaching out to poets, asking if there’s a poem of theirs that they’d like to discuss (if I don’t already have one in mind — a lot of the time I do). Generally, once the ball is rolling I formulate some questions to send to them – and then, depending on their time and preference, either set up a time for a Google chat interview or simply have an exchange by email. I try to keep to a bi-weekly interview schedule, all the while thinking (as every literary production should) about the mix of voices. I try to aim as much as possible for diversity in all areas: age, gender/gender-identity, race, a poem’s subject matter. There’s the newsletter to put together every few months, though a friend is urging me to take it monthly. It’s all turning into a full-time job pretty fast, especially as the word gets out about Primal School and more poets start to approach me about doing interviews, though I still would prefer to do interviews by invitation. The reason for that is I want to highlight a good mix poets who are emerging and unknown alongside those who are more established, and I see Primal School as a place where I can shine light on all of them. Still, there are the anomalies: Washington State Poet Laureate Tod Marshall recently emailed me asking how he could help, and when a door like that opens you walk through it, no questions asked. I suppose that’s all to say that Primal School has given me so much already: a way to keep learning my craft; a built-in community of new friends who are poets. I have kept up wonderful correspondences with many of the poets I’ve interviewed, and that includes you.
I suppose the takeaway in this for others is that if you’re a writer who blogs, and you put something out there with the intention of supporting others by sharing something that they can use, the world of poets and writers is small enough that it’s inevitable the right people will come knocking. And if you don’t have that, and if you’re at least persistent, they’ll still know who you are eventually and what you’re hoping to do.
KW: There also seems to be something of the law in attraction to that: put the positive vibes out there and it’ll come back to you. There’s something beautiful in being able to do that as poets, and I think that’s what distinguishes being a poet as a particular kind of human necessity. I know all genres do it, but (and I’m biased, obviously) there seems a particular need for poets to keep creating this human web of empathy. Supporting each other while holding one another to high critical standards is important. We need to listen and learn from one another as much as write the tough, critical reviews of work that might not be up to snuff, no matter what the dominant aesthetics are. Both enact poetry with a full and generous listening.
In turn, your blog really focuses on making a personal connection with the writer so that, if I may say so, they can in turn make a personal connection with you and your readers in sharing their poem knowledge. Could you talk a little bit about what your experience has been like in working with so many writers?
HLJ: To what you just said about empathy and critical reviews, while that’s a world have never touched and may never get to touch, I feel there’s a lot of integrity in a poet being willing to say, “I can’t rightly blurb/endorse/recommend this book. Here is why.” The same goes with judging contests, where an esteemed poet will do as Richard Hugo once did with the Yale Series, saying that if an entrant had been a student in any one of his classes they were out of the running. A friend recently confided in me that he thought of the poetry world as a cold place. It was disheartening to hear this. I would hope that in approaching our own work and supporting other poets it’s fully possible to do so with generosity and kindness as well conscientiousness and standards that are fierce. As with any good poem, I feel a robust life for a poet is entirely both/and.
But to go back to the blog, the beast of this work is really in the interview questions. When I first started Primal School I felt a lot of trepidation about how I’d come across as an interviewer, wondering what questions to ask; worrying too hard about the things like prosody and whether I was hitting on every aspect of a poem before moving onto other topics. And the ego once again would have me trying to impress the interviewee or your readership with questions that are killer. But it wasn’t very long before I let all that go. These days I cleave to a simple approach: a set of standard questions for every poet, alongside questions germane to the author’s specific experience. I say “experience” rather than “poem” because a poem is really a fragment or crystallization of some aspect of the life of its author. I’ve come to think of my job as simply getting the poet to coax that fragment out of its velvet case, and once they are comfortable, helping them show it off.
On the practical side, there’s definitely a period of preparation, where I do my homework on the poet and send them some questions, or if we’re doing a Google Chat at least getting them a cheat sheet of topics in advance. But once we’re on the river it’s all about flow, and listening well, and responding deeply to what each poet has to say. I’ve had so many fun conversations, and even when they veer away from the poem or the subject of poetry per se, there’s another kind of poetry to be found in the discovery of the person. On the back end there’s the editing and polishing, of course, and that can be subject to its own quirks. During my interview with Gary Dop, for instance, he proposed that we publish the full transcript of the original interview with all the hiccups and asides left in; the “LOL”s and even the typos. And though I ultimately opted not to do that, I loved that Gary’s personal style sought expression in the process. And with the urging of poets like Keegan Lester I’m now playing with ways to bring the interviews in formats other than written. I’ve had some practice with podcasts, and the “Music Barn” section of the site features Soundcloud recordings of me reading the poems I’ve interviewed people about. So pretty soon here I’ll be playing with using audio and video recordings as a way for poets to provide answers to my questions in alternative formats that are a little less static and hopefully more playful for them.
I feel lucky. Most if not all of the poets I’ve interviewed have been enthusiastic about Primal School or have helped to spread the word about it to those who might benefit from it. And my friendships with many of them have put a lot of air in my own tires on my off-days as poet. That’s been invaluable.
KW: I think, too (and I love the phrase of coaxing the crystal) we love any moment when we can hit true flow as human beings: talking with each other deeply, listening to and writing good poetry, finding the moments when we punch through to something real and something true about the human condition. Those are the moments when we’re fully awake, and as you say, having those moments and those friendships can keep us going when we have our inevitable “blah” days. There are times when just won’t be fully awake, and there’s also a stack of whatever-work on the desk making us feel guilty for even thinking we should waste time playing with words. A jolt of energy, a reminder of what matters in the midst of blahness and busyness, can often only come from that connection with others.
Speaking of busyness, in addition to running a blog and working, you also write and submit regularly (congratulations on your recent publications in Poets Bridge and Cleaver Magazine!), and serve in various residencies. That’s a lot of hats to wear! What insight can you share with us about maintaining that regular practice in the midst of what feels like, as poet Dan Beachy-Quick has said, a beautiful confusion?
HLJ: As the project grows it’s become a lot harder to set aside the regular block of daily hours to write. My Submittable log at the moment, case in point, shows two lines in circulation, which sadly means that it’s been a while. It feels more necessary now for me to periodically get away, and the residencies have helped me with that a lot. My employment is freelance and and unlike many of my peers I don’t have children, and so that gives me a lot of extra bandwidth for my writing, but I’ve really come to appreciate that notion of giving oneself permission – to show up daily if possible, to make a royal mess, and to fail – often. You may remember Kelly how in your own interview your advice to younger writers was to take as many runs at a poem as they want until the right form for it is found. The “beautiful confusion” requires patience. And regular reminders to oneself about why you love creating, which is what the blog has been for me.
KW: Those regular reminders are so important. I know one way we can find that, in addition to someone who’s already gone before us and can offer us as advice and reminders, is to find mentors. Could you talk a little about mentorship and the process—and importance—of finding mentors beyond the school environment?
HLJ: If we were to define mentorship as a connection between an experienced writer and a younger one in which there is steady contact and “long-term investment” in the younger writer’s growth over time, I’ve had no poetry mentors. If I were to go looser with that definition and say that a mentor is a poet who is a few steps ahead of me in their career, perhaps, and is someone with whom I can correspond, exchange ideas and the occasional poem, or contact at any time with a question or idea – then, well, I’ve had dozens. This brings me to echo the advice Joseph Fasano gave in his interview, which is to not be shy about reaching out to your favorite poets. It helps if you approach them with a specific question, something beyond just “I’m seeking a mentor.” The word “mentor” is freighted with so many expectations that it’s bound to send writers running for the hills. I often tell younger writers to start off by just being real and expressing their admiration, then seeing how the correspondence unfolds from there. Sometimes it’s going to dead-end; writers have busy lives. But then, there’s still your law of attraction: if you keep putting your signal out there, someone is eventually bound to pick it up. And sometimes if you’re resourceful and simply doing what you love to do, others will even come to you and offer their support.
Beyond that, there are wonderful resources for writers seeking more structured guidance on specific projects, whether that’s just generating new poems or putting together a manuscript. AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program is a wonderful way to connect younger writers with established writers who want to give something back by serving as a mentor. And Poets House and PEN America both have fellowship programs for emerging writers who are working outside of the literary establishment.
Setting all that aside, though, the sobering truth is that as writers we’re all ultimately on our own. Some of us poets sing for our suppers; others of us sup elsewhere and write our songs on the side. Either way it’s a lonely voyage. I don’t mean this to be a downer, but to bring the focus back to what’s most important, which is the work. And if you’re serious about your work, your nearest mentors will be the poets you love whose books you keep beside you at your desk and reach for time and again.
KW: Truth! It’s true that no matter how much community we find and build, it’s ultimately still us sitting down at the page every day. I know something that’s helped me in those moments is looking at my own growth so far as a poet, in addition to looking at how even the best writers failed several times and got better over the years. If you had to briefly timeline your growth as a writer on your journey so far, what would that timeline look like? What has your experience been in creating/finding such a community?
HLJ: This is almost impossible to do since I’m so poor at remembering what happened when. It’s probably more accurate to just describe my growth as a writer over the last four or so years as a kind of thrashing in the ocean which turned into dog paddle which has only recently broke out into a full swim. Occasionally I’ll look through old poems of mine, even ones that have been published, and I’ll wince either because they’re just plain bad or because my work has changed. When I’m stuck on a poem or feeling like I’m running in place, these occasional glances backward are helpful reminders that I’ve grown.
My journey has been twisty and challenging and tremendously rewarding because of I’ve had the opportunity to connect with many terrific people. I mentioned Jason Koo earlier. I’ve cut my teeth critiquing and working with writing groups through Inked Voices, the amazing online community run by my friend Brooke McIntyre. I wouldn’t have discovered Inked Voices without the online courses I took through The Gotham Writers Workshop. Because I live on a rural island, my life is more solitary than for most, and my trips into the city to attend readings and other cultural events are few and far between, and a lot of my community-building has happened online. Many writers like to disparate social media and email, but for some of us, these are indispensable tools. I continue to be grateful for organizations that serve poets and writers of all backgrounds and persuasions, and for the means we have available to stay connected with others and keep on learning.
KW: Words of wisdom as we head into a future with increasing opportunities, and necessity, for poets to connect in just that way. Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
Hannah Lee Jones founded and edits Primal School, a blog resource for poets who are pursuing their craft without an MFA. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Superstition Review, Cleaver, Cider Press Review, Literary Orphans, Apogee Journal, Orion, and elsewhere. She lives on Whidbey Island in northwest Washington.