J.D. McClatchy is the author of three collections of essays, six books of poems, and 13 libretti. Winner of the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served as the institute’s president since 2009. McClatchy has taught at Princ- eton, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, where he is editor of the Yale Review.
You can’t live without …
Music — though my tastes are rather highbrow. Opera is a passion, and the moment before the Met’s gold curtain parts — well, that moment is my drug of choice. I should add that my favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald.
Writing today needs more …
If you could ask President Obama one question, what would it be?
“Why have you made your re-election so difficult?”
The last thing you ate/drank was …
A stingingly cold martini.
If you could meet one character from a novel, who would it be?
Julien Sorel. (And if I could meet an author, it would be Tolstoy. Better yet, if I could sleep with an author, on the theory that I could thereby learn more about his imagina- tion, it would be John Keats.)
What is the most difficult piece you’ve ever had to write?
Whatever poem I am working on at the moment always seems the most difficult, because I am never sure I know where I should be going to get to the right ending. Right now, I seem halfway through a poem about a collection of hands I have assembled over the years — little reproductions, or things chopped from statues. A few months ago, I held my mother’s hand, a few hours after she had died. I want to link these, and right now that seems difficult.
If you could go to college right now, what would you do differently?
I never had sex while I was in college.
How do you take your coffee?
Every morning I have a double espresso with a dol- lop of half and half.
Do you have a Facebook account? Why or why not?
No. There are too many ways already for strangers to contact me about things I have no interest in. Why add another? Finding solitude … is there an account for that I can sign up for?
The most embarrassing moment of your career was …
Finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Award are asked to schlep out to LA and sit in the audi- ence while some stooge announces the winners in various categories. Some years ago, I made the effort because I was certain my book would win. It didn’t, and watching the winner flounce to the stage — the author of a much inferior book, but she was a woman with women judges in the majority — galled me. At least I learned never to show up at such an occasion ever again.
What advice do you have for Yale students?
They already know what’s best — discipline, curios- ity, an unrelenting devotion to excellence, and a strong moral conscience.
Most importantly, why is Yale better than Harvard?
Harvard has always gloated about the sense of privilege it confers. Yale is proud of the sense of responsibility it instills.