Seven Questions with Jnana Hodson

I began this blog without really knowing what I was doing, which is the only way you can start some things. The blogosphere is a diverse and often perplexing place, but you can meet some interesting, creative, and kind souls. It’s sort of like the “real” world that way.


One such person I bumped into is Jnana Hodson, who blogs at Jnana’s Red Barn — a Quaker, novelist, poet, and as it turns out, a retired newspaper editor. (His novel, Hometown News, captures the small Midwestern newspaper experience so well it’s a little scary.) At right is his novel, Promise, described as a romance that leaps from the Midwest to the desert country of the Pacific Northwest.

After graduating from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1970, Jnana’s four-decade journalism career took him to newspapers in Ohio, Indiana, upstate New York, Washington state, and New Hampshire, which is where he lives now. He was kind enough to be my first Seven Questions interview.

1. I read that your first name came from your time in a yoga ashram. What was it about that experience that prompted you to rename yourself?

The name was given by my teacher at a breakthrough in my training. It recognizes my underlying approach to the universe, that is, through the mind more than, say, the heart or devotion. A year or so ago, I was told Jnana is the root word of gnosis, which then leads to know in English. In a bigger sense, it’s not just knowledge itself but the way it fits into compassion and wisdom, if I’m faithful.

2. You’re the second Quaker poet I’ve bumped into in the digital universe recently. What is it about this particular faith tradition that fosters this creativity?

In the past, Quakers avoided fiction and many of the other arts, but poetry remained closer to “true things.” John Greenleaf Whittier is perhaps the best known, although Walt Whitman also ran in Quaker circles and, as far as some are concerned, can be considered one of us.

The key, I think, has to do with silence, which is a crucial element in a poem. Just think of line breaks or the need for reflection. Quakers (or Friends, in our more formal name, the Society of Friends) worship in what’s called “expectant waiting,” which can be an hour of silent meditation when no one is moved to rise to give a pithy message, hopefully from the heart.

Sometimes I measure a poem by how closely it fits this kind of utterance.

3. How do your 40 years as a newspaper professional inform your work as a poet and novelist?

First and foremost, the facts have to be right. A poem or sentence with factual errors will lose me. I want work that springs from deep observation rather than sloppy thinking.

Second, I have a low tolerance for wordiness. Every line counts, even every word. Space is at a premium in the news business.

Third, though, is a countercurrent that appears in a resistance to news style. I love being set free to explore ambiguity, multiple meanings, a richer vocabulary and sentence structure — even a jaggedness and sense of leaping between “finished” work and its more open reaches. Now that I’m retired, maybe I’ll set a more balanced course?

4. Of all the kinds of writing you’ve done, which is the most challenging, and why?

Oh, my! My wife suggests being flippant and saying a love letter. And, to my remorse, she’s probably right.

The biggest challenge — poetry or prose — is aiming straight for the heart and its emotions and staying true, regardless of outcome. My mind wants to wander everyplace else! Maybe that’s why revision is so important to me.

5. What do you miss about Indiana, especially Bloomington?

I grew up in Ohio not far from the Indiana border, and we spent many of our family vacations camping in its state parks. Later, I transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington, where I returned a few years after graduation (and the ashram) to work for Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in their Workshop in Political Theory and Analysis as a social sciences editor. Elinor, remember, later shared the Nobel Prize in Economics, so you get an idea of the scene I was in.

Much of that initial encounter forms the foundation for my novel, Daffodil Sunrise, set in the political turbulence of the late ’60s. But Bloomington was also magical for me in the richness of its classical music scene — opera productions every Saturday night and free recitals by faculty artists who would be presenting the same program two nights later in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. And I was deeply in love for the first time and working for the daily student newspaper as a critic and later columnist. You get the picture. It was a frothy time at the outset of the hippie movement.

Indiana itself — in spite of its current political and economic conditions — is a remarkable crossroads of America. I could wax long on the influx of North Carolina Quaker stock (including, it turns out, members of my extended family) or the German Baptist Brethren from Ohio and their influence — but by the early 1900s, the state had an incredible radical energy. You can turn to Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiography of his youth for an understanding of some of that, with Emma Goldman as a family visitor and Eugene V. Debs out of Terre Haute. Some of that energy was still in the air.

On the other hand, there was also a kind of — I was about to call it cultural lethargy but maybe that’s not quite right — so let’s say a lack of derring-do or verve, something that I see instead as a well-worn upholstered reading chair, in its place.

What I noticed later was how different the vibe was from Upstate New York, which felt rather jittery on its progressive edge.

From what I observe at a distance, I’m cheered to see Bloomington has grown more into a Bohemian mecca than it was when I first arrived — more balanced, perhaps.

6. What are you working on now?

My big project is a novel springing from the last chapter of my Subway Hitchhikers novel, where the protagonist lands in a Greek-American family. Whatever reasons intuitively prompted me at the time to envision them this way have since expanded. How do our identities shape our actions? How much do we chose to embrace family — or turn away from it? How does faith — whether chosen or inherited — focus our lives? It’s been a fascinating project, especially as it opens my awareness to a vibrant part of the community where I now live. I might add, we Quakers could use something akin to Greek dancing, where I feel ever so more welcome in taking part.

7. Where do you see the writing world heading, especially as digital publishing grows?

When I look at the Internet, I keep remembering the time when hitchhiking opened new horizons. You could go about anywhere on your thumb. And then it all came crashing down.

I’m left wondering how long this open road will last and who’s paying for all our free rides. That’s the downside.

On the other hand, as the commercial publishing world’s contracted, we finally have an opportunity to let loose wave after wave of otherwise stifled voices. That’s incredibly exciting. The biggest challenge is in connecting these voices with a supportive audience or readership.

I don’t have a crystal ball but at least my work’s getting out there, to be discovered, if I’m lucky.

* * *


When it rains gold hoop earrings, I keep
returning to adolescence, to seek you
in a sock hop I never attended. When it

rains calculations the wild geese know,
I reach into nettles. My fingers and wrists
sting. When it rains upon my parents’

denominational traditions, we sleep as we do,
alive with points of departure. When it rains
on a muddy reservoir, you, slender lover,

remain a cipher, a case of perhaps, maybe,
what if. When it rains glances during outdoor
concerts, the past holds our future. When it

rains the skills to negotiate social intricacies,
this is not the first time you have been here.

From the Blue Rock collection by Jnana Hodson, available as a free ebook.

Another view of freedom

Photo credit: bertknot / Foter / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: bertknot / Foter / CC BY-SA

Being in the company of a messiah, according to Richard Bach’s Illusions, is as natural as a couple of guys talking and bonding over their antique biplanes.

One of the guys is the author himself, burned-out writer and itinerant barnstorming pilot Richard Bach. The other is Donald Shimoda, mechanic and “a master come unto the earth, born in the holy land of Indiana, raised in the mystical hills east of Fort Wayne.” He was a product of the public schools but had learnings from “other schools” and other lives he’d lived. His strength, easy manner, and healing presence drew others to him — in increasingly desperate crowds. Then he quit. Now he’s flying around the Midwest like Richard, offering $3 plane rides.

The two pilots travel together for a time. Richard, who thought he had nothing left to say after Jonathan Livingston Seagull, finds not only a learning curve but his own voice and volition. Flying, as they both do, is all about freedom and finding perspective, and Richard realizes his consciousness has been stuck on the runway.

Don is often maddeningly cryptic with his answers, but he teaches a skeptical Richard to walk on water and swim on land. Yes, you can, he urges his friend — if and only if you choose. He even shares his “master’s manual,” a book with no page numbers, because wherever you open the book is where you find what you need. One of the first passages Richard encounters is this: “Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah.”

Of course, being a fake messiah, and a dangerously radical, smart-ass one at that, is how Donald Shimoda ends up being viewed. As a guest on a radio talk show, he enrages callers by dismissing talk of evil and the necessity of suffering. “We see just one little fleck of the whole that is life, and that one fleck is fake,” he tells one woman. “Everything balances, and nobody suffers and nobody dies without their consent. Nobody does what they don’t want to do. There is no good and there is no evil, outside of what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy.”

The way I see it, Jesus — Christians’ capital-M Messiah — came to get it through our heads that, yes, it all comes down to loving God and loving one another the best way we know how. We put ourselves and one another through hell in the name of doing what God wants — but much of that is about us, not God.

Intellectually, I get that. Putting it into practice is something else entirely. When I judge myself harshly, I know deep down this is not what being a good person is about. But those proverbial old habits are hard to break. Besides, if we subscribe to the theory that life is a bitch and we have to suffer because that’s what we deserve, we can maintain some illusion of mastery.

But it is, according to Don Shimoda, indeed an illusion. Even the way Don’s story ends in this lifetime is, in many ways, an illusion, as Richard learns.

This book, first published in 1977, is billed as a spiritual classic. I had not read it before, and it will continue to sink in. In the meantime, can anyone tell me where the “mystical hills east of Fort Wayne” are?