The Country Dog Review
J.D. McClatchy
Danielle Sellers interviews J.D. McClatchy

Danielle Sellers: You’ve recently published your sixth book of poetry, Mercury Dressing, out this year from Knopf to much acclaim. How did the idea for Mercury Dressing come about and how do you pit it against your other recent work, particularly Hazmat, (Knopf 2002 ), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize?

J.D. McClatchy: I wouldn’t pit it against anything. But the book is still new enough for me to think it’s different from Hazmat. (In time, those “differences” slump into the continuity of style.) My earlier work has been more discursive than Mercury Dressing, a book I think of as more concerned with narrative and with experiment. “The Young Fate,” for instance, is abstract in a way I’d never dared to be before. And many poems in the book are driven by a story—even when that story is fractioned.

DS:  The opening and titular poem in the collection is a sonnet, one given much weight and the first of many in the book. It was originally called “The Grip of Envy” and appeared in After Ovid, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (FSG 1994). You’ve kept this poem fifteen years before entering it into a book manuscript. Why did you change the title, and how do you feel it speaks to the poems in the collection?

JDMcC: You’ve mixed up two poems. The first poem in the book is, indeed, “Mercury Dressing.” It was only when I was making the final assembly that I decided to change the book’s title to that—and then to resurrect an old translation from Ovid, and use it to start the third section of the book. I always—in a line, a poem, a book--want structure, the chance for poems to reflect on one another, the sense of control and build. To answer your question, I changed the poem’s title to make it more explicitly about Mercury, and to establish that god as the book’s tutelary spirit—the quick-change figure of theft and messages, the quicksilver condition of love and death.

DS:  Mercury Dressing is a powerhouse of iambic pentameter, in fact you’ve proved yourself a master of the five beat line in earlier works. In a letter in 1933, Elizabeth Bishop said to a friend, “I can write in iambics if I want to, but just now I don’t know my own mind well enough to say what I want to in them…if I try to write smoothly, I find myself perverting the meaning for the sake of smoothness.” Do you agree with Ms. Bishop’s assessment of metrical verse, and do you think this perversion of meaning only applies to beginning poets?

JDMcC: If I agreed with Bishop, I suppose I wouldn’t write in pentameter as often as I do. But then, I don’t think that was her final view of the matter—more like a passing mental block. (Not that she was, in any real sense, a particularly great poet in forms.) For me, and to use her terms, the meaning often comes from the smoothness. Only in working out a complicated formal scheme do meanings occur to the poem. I never want to depend entirely on myself, on “knowing my own mind.” I try to let language and verse act as prompts.

DS: I know you to be a man of strong opinions, which is why you are a good editor. What trends do you disdain in poetry now and how can they be amended? Could these two lines, taken from the first poem in the second section of Mercury Dressing, “Lingering Doubt,” be a complaint of certain tendencies in modern poetry:

“Honeybees dance and are understood,/ But their point is always and only nectar”?

JDMcC: I hadn’t thought of those lines as being about poetry, but there may be a sense in which they could be so construed. As an editor, I read thousands of poems a year—but only a few dozen do I read beyond the first three lines. Maybe I realize it’s going to be nectar all the way down! Much of contemporary poetry—or much of what I happen to see of it—strikes me as dumb and dull. Fortunately, we have a number of superb poets among us—old pros and young tyros alike—who write in the old fashioned way: sharply intelligent, with genuine and unexpected passion, and with a command of the art that is thrilling.

DS: You’re an accomplished editor and therefore an advocate of the printed page, but what advantages for poets, if any, do you see in this shiny, Facebook/bloggy era? Do you ever Google yourself, and if so, are you ever surprised or perturbed by what you find?

JDMcC: There are far too many ways of getting in touch with me. I have studiously avoided creating any more. Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and the like seem like tremendous wastes of time. I do use Google, as a convenience, not least when I am involved in an editorial job and need pesky details. On the other hand, I think Google itself—with its lust to monopolize the world’s information—is the single greatest threat to our democratic way of life.

DS: When I was a nascent poet under your tutelage at Johns Hopkins, you suggested our class keep a commonplace book of words, phrases, snatches of poems we like, or rather “a sort of ledger of envies and delights,” which is a quote from you and the first entry in my book. Since we know a person best by what they love, will you give us examples from yours?

JDMcC: I have kept a commonplace book for decades now. I don’t keep a journal, and in any case am less interested in what I did in, say, July of 1984, than I am in nuggets of wit and wisdom culled from the writings of others. Let’s see. I’ll open my book at random. Oh, here’s a passage I’ve written out from Thoreau’s 1842 journal, and it bears on what we were just speaking about: “It is hard to read a contemporary poet critically; for we go within the shallowest verse and inform it with all the life and promise of this day. We are such a near and kind and knowing audience as he will never have again. We go within the fane of the temple and hear the faint music of worshippers; but posterity will have to stand without and consider the vast propositions and grandeur of the building.”

DS: With the imminent publication of my own first book, I have been worried about what certain family members will say when, and if, they read it. Are you long past caring how you are perceived or distinguished from your writing? That is to say, do you feel at all inhibited when writing the personal?  

JDMcC: I was blessed with parents who encouraged me, but took no interest in what I was doing. Maybe that let me write, from the start, with fewer inhibitions. And yes, what I have written at times has hurt people. That was not my wish, but I thought more of the poem than I did of someone else’s feelings. Maybe right, maybe wrong. I use my own life freely, and I change details just as freely. I’ve written intimately about others—but only in a way that that one person could possibly recognize.

DS:  You have come to own many rare and beautiful artifacts. Tell us about your most prized possession, the thing you’d risk disfigurement to save in a fire.

JDMcC: I wouldn’t disfigure myself for any object I own. I have some valuable paintings—by Edward Hopper and Fairfield Porter—and if I were thinking of money I suppose I’d grab them. I have on my bedroom wall a collection of letters from artists I’d especially admire—from Emerson and Whitman to Verdi and Ravel—and I’m very fond of them. But disfigure myself? No. The one object I worry about somehow losing is the manuscript I’m working on at the moment.

DS: Say you really want to have a good night, what do you do?

JDMcC: I’m one of those people who is at his desk early in the morning, and by 7pm I feel I’ve put in a long enough day. So I rarely work at night. I watch the news, have a martini with my boyfriend, fuss over dinner, catch up with him, and watch a movie. But when I am in Manhattan, I rarely eat at home—there’s a performance and a late supper. The best feeling to have at night is the satisfaction of a good day’s work at the desk.

DS: According to the epigraph to X.J. Kennedy’s poem “Meditation in the Bedroom of General Francisco Franco,” St. Teresa of Avila is “reported” to have once said, “Life is a short night in a bad hotel.” Do you agree or not? Care to come up with your own metaphor for life?

JDMcC: Very funny, but you must be thinking of Virginia Woolf, or maybe Tina Fey, but not St. Teresa. No, life doesn’t need another metaphor. But I can say this about work. In my own life, I’ve felt blessed and generally happy. The image I paint of myself in poems is of a lonely, chastened, betrayed melancholic. Aren’t I lucky to be able to turn myself inside out on paper? That’s why I’ve always liked being a writer—that ability to make myself up as I go along.



J.D. McClatchy is the author of six collections of poems: Scenes From Another Life (Braziller, 1981), Stars Principal (Macmillan, 1986), The Rest of the Way (Knopf, 1990), Ten Commandments (Knopf, 1998), Hazmat (Knopf, 2002, a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and Mercury Dressing (Knopf, 2009). His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and many other magazines.