John Hodgen lives in Shrewsbury, Mass., holds a M.A. in English from Assumption College, and teaches at Mt. Wachusset Community College, Assumption College, and the Worcester Art Museum.
He has won the Grolier Poetry Prize, the Yankee Magazine Poetry Prize, and most recently the Donald Hall Poetry Prize.
He has been widely published both in magazines and anthologies. His most recent poetry collection is titled: “Grace.”
I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Both you and your daughter Christie Hodgen are the recipients of prestigious writing awards. Is there a run of writers in your extended family?
John Hodgen: Christy as far as I can see, is the only one to win the AWP in fiction, and has an old man who won one in poetry. I know there is something there; there is some kind of connection. She’ll send me something she is working on, and I will feel there is some kind of flow, a rhythm. Some things she has written I feel I could have written too. She’s a pretty talented writer. I don’t know how she does what she does. She started writing for me. I was her advanced placement teacher in high school. Now she is a novelist and even writes essays. I don’t know any other writers in our family’s ancient past. My dad wrote a few things in high school that were published.
DH: Some say the writing life is a curse, some say a blessing. What’s your take?
JH: I’ve heard that you grow up with that awareness. Depression, alcoholism, and suicide are something we attach to poets. There is a curse and blessing. If you are a gifted kid, you are looking at things with eyes wide open---which most of us may not be looking at. You have to look at the hard things—it could put you in danger—but you have to be able to pull back.
DH: Many of your poems dealt with your father, who died suddenly at a factory he worked at during the night shift. Did his untimely demise spur you on to be a poet?
JH: I foolishly told my father at age fifteen, to go to hell. It turned out that he died a week later. And we hadn’t said a word to each other since I told him to go to hell. I struggled with that. At the time I thought I killed him. As he had that heart attack, and lay on that boiler room floor for four hours, I often tortured myself with the thought that this was the last interaction he had with me. I thought the weight of that he took with him. You start looking for words to heal, bring something better. You look for words that are not a curse but perhaps a blessing.
DH: If your father could read these poems you wrote about him; how would he receive them?
JH: I think he would be proud. That’s easy to say. He was proud of the papers that I brought home as a kid. He valued writing—he would be proud. He read all the time. He urged me to read Carl Sandburg’s trilogy for instance.
DH: In your poem “Forgiving Buckner” you use the fateful fielding error Bill Buckner made in the ’86 series between the Mets and the Soxs. You write:
“The world is always rolling between our legs,
It comes for us, dribbler, slow roller,
humming its goat song, easy as a pie.”
Do you always have the sense that things slip away in life, just before you realize their beauty, their significance?
JH: We are all Buckners. We lose that every day. We should smell the coffee and the roses, but we don’t—we rush—we miss them. There are poems I haven’t gotten to yet, but I better get to. I know the clock is ticking. There are some poems from basic training that I want to write.
DH: Why do so many writers have a fascination with the game of baseball?
JH: It has it all. The dream, the heart break, the beauty. The beauty of a well-made play. I know more and more writers who have something to say about the game.
DH: In your poem “The Sound that the Earth Makes” you write:
I do not know where the old men go
when they walk out alone in the night.
I know they must carry the weight of their lives
in the curl of their sullied and empty hands…
that they stand by themselves in the darkness
That they hold what is in them for as long as they can…
to where they are going, to where they remember,
to the endless river of stars.”
When did you write this poem? Is this a young man’s poem for an old man? Now that you are closer to that “endless river of stars” does this poem ring true?
JH: It’s an old poem. I know I felt at the time that was what an old man’s pain must be; or what he dreams. The poem sounds right. I remember my father going out on the lawn, looking up at the sky, and telling me about all the constellations. His silences were as important as anything he was saying. I had a sense how strongly my father was drawn to the sky.
DH: You went from teaching high school to teaching college. How was that transition?
JH: The kids were just wonderful in high school. I used to go up to Gardner, Mass. to teach one college course a week because my mother was living up there. I wanted to find out what it was like teaching at that level, and I just kept doing it. When I retired from teaching I joined a writer’s group in Worcester, Mass... The head of the English Dept. of Assumption College was a member of the group, and asked if I could teach. So I did. It has been great.
DH: Can poetry writing be taught?
JH: I think you can encourage anyone with talent. You can tell them what you know.
DH: What is the poetic life for you?
JH: I think we have a sense of even through our suffering we are given a gift. The poetic life is to find the gift and give it back
Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/ Feb. 2007/ Somerville, Mass.