John Hodgen lives in Shrewbury, MA. He is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College, and also teaches at Mount Wachusett Community College and the Worcester Art Museum. He is the author of Heaven and Earth Holding Company (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010); Grace (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), winner of the 2005 AWP Donald Hall Prize in Poetry; In My Father's House, winner of the 1993 Bluestem Award from Emporia State University in Kansas; and Bread Without Sorrow, winner of the 2002 Balcones Poetry Prize, Lynx House Press /Eastern Washington Unversity Press, 2001. He has won the Grolier Prize for Poetry, an Arvon Foundation Award, the Yankee Magazine Award for Poetry, first prize in the Red Brick Review poetry competition, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Finalist Award in Poetry in 2000.
FOR THE MAN WHO SPUN PLATES
On the old Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights,
before Top Gigio, the dancing mouse,
before the Beatles and the Mersey Beat,
before we all knew all we needed was love,
someone to kiss us goodnight,
there was a man who spun plates on long slender poles,
running from one side of the stage to the other,
the crowd calling out to him when a plate started wobbling,
the man so intently spinning plates in the air,
a little like Jesus before the Last Supper,
keeping his disciples’ haloes from falling,
the crowd like the masses with the bread and the fishes,
crying, Judas, watch Judas, his halo is falling,
Jesus too busy holding up the whole world.
And sometimes he’d miss one and we’d all see it fall,
shatter like crystal all over the stage,
and we loved him even more then because he was real,
working as hard as the devil for us.
But we didn’t know then that our lives would break too,
my good friend whose daughter just drowned in Brazil,
his plates all come down like a crockery sea.
He tries to lift her up again, get her life spinning,
as if he could raise her from under the waves,
the waves that keep falling, one after another,
like shimmering plates on the sea.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem probably began when I was a boy watching Ed Sullivan on a black and white Philco my father bought back in the day, the whole family in utter and absolute thrall, Ed, in his distinctive, nervous mumble, introducing the plate spinner, the master of all our nervousness. I think it was the very first time I actually spoke to the TV, a barely hidden yet heartfelt whisper, expressing fear (what else?) that one of the myriad number of plates the man had set spinning on the tops of long slender sticks had begun to wobble so precariously that it was surely going to crash to the stage if someone didn’t tell him. So I did. Now I think that’s what every poem is, that whisper against the world that might be breaking at any minute, the world that calls for us to speak in order to be saved.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
The poem came together when I received word that a dear friend and fellow poet, Chris Howell, had lost his daughter, who had drowned in Brazil. I couldn’t help but think there was a parallel in how one keeps plates spinning and how one goes on after something so unspeakably devastating, how we try to hold our children up, how profoundly fragile they are, and how we hold up each day after the world has broken and shattered. I struggled a bit with the ending, trying to compare the white tips of the waves to the plates before they crash.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, think we receive moments all our lives and simultaneously wait to connect them to another moment as we experience it. I think we receive those moments fully only if we are paying attention. I know as well that I am unworthy to receive them, yet I truly think that that is what is asked of us. We can call up a memory, even one as mundane as having been moved enough to speak aloud to a TV, for example, when we are receiving another moment, that deep grief and concern for a friend’s tragic loss. It is the image that suddenly parallels, the momentary picture of an Everyman trying to hold up the world against grief and loss.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The only technique was to let the initial image take me where it wanted, to trust it, follow it with whatever associations came to mind. The memory was a distant but fairly clear image of a man on a brightly lit stage with all the fragile plates. Suddenly I was thinking of Jesus and the Last Supper. All those plates. Then, just trusting the image, I thought of the haloes in all the old paintings, like plates in the air behind all their heads. Additionally, it seemed to me the poem was about the audience as much as anything else, the Ed Sullivan audience, another kind of Sunday church audience, and then the audience we all comprise, an aesthetic audience, perhaps, thinking how we all see those famous paintings of the Last Supper, especially da Vinci’s, but even Dali’s too, as a kind of cathartic tableau, a staged presentation, the audience already knowing the trouble brewing, the impending disaster, the clear danger to Jesus, the greatest plate spinner of them all. And there is that compulsion, as with any great art, to be moved to speak, to cry out.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any hard and fast rules about how long to let a poem sit. A friend said once to let a poem breathe for three days and then go back to it, and the mistakes will be obvious. I trust that, trust my workshopping friends, and trust that no poem is perhaps ever completely finished. I don’t obsess about revision. The next poem is always calling.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I’ve workshopped in Cambridge and the environs for nearly thirty years now with a fine group of poets called collectively Every Other Thursday, which might very well on any given night be the best writing workshop in the country.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Regarding whether this poem is fact or fiction, this poem consists of two juxtaposed facts, the childhood memory and my friend’s terrible loss. The fiction, if it is fiction, comes in the associations that are there to be made, primarily the comparisons that exist between the plate spinner and Jesus. Comparisons are there as well, hopefully, concerning the audience, the one for the Ed Sullivan show, the other being the audience of those considering the image of the Last Supper and all that it entails.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s a narrative poem, two closed stories, yet the hope is that the juxtaposition creates a third ongoing, open-ended narrative within the reader, the stories asking the reader to reflect or engage in his or her own unfinished story.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
Every poem has its own prism of morality, a single voice registering its sense of what is just and valuable. One of the reader’s tasks is to sound out that voice, to align with or against it. If the poem isn’t about something right or wrong, if it doesn’t try to help or heal in some way, even in its anguish, humor, irony, or even rage, it doesn’t really ever fully become a poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
As far as an ideal reader, I think it was Donald Justice who had a poem about riding on a train through the Midwest and seeing someone’s light on at 3 a.m., a farmhouse, I think, someone up at that hour, weary and conflicted, or just beginning another long day. That’s the person I’m thinking of as my ideal reader.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Influences include: everything by Shakespeare; everything by Keats, including the letters; and everything by John Donne; James Agee’s Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with the unforgettable Walker Evans photographs; Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry, where I discovered Lorca and Machado, and the Russians Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko, and Voznesensky; Hayden Carruth’s anthology of 20th Century American poets, The Voice That is Great Within Us; Bly’s edition of Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems; two books by Frank Stanford, who loved Lucinda Williams and then shot himself, You and Crib Death, both out of print now from Lost Roads Press; Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Towards God (which I let someone borrow and never got back); Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, just for “The Colonel” which I still teach every year; Philip Larkin’s High Windows; Billy Collins’ Picnic, Lightning; and B. H. Fairchild’s The Art of the Lathe. Great book. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. I’d grab Huck Finn, Sound and the Fury, Waiting for Godot, Gatsby, Farewell to Arms, To the Lighthouse, my daughter’s Jeweler’s Eye for Flaw, and Hello, I Must Be Going, and the collected screenplays of Charles Bogle, a.k.a. W. C. Fields. Add the Bible, some Robert Frost and Bob Dylan, and I’m good.