What Do Poets Talk About?


In Memoriam

J. D. McClatchy with his husband, Chip Kidd.


J. D. McClatchy, one of America’s foremost men of letters, died in his home Tuesday at the age of seventy-two. He was the author of eight volumes of poetry and a string of acclaimed opera librettos. He also was a prolific editor, anthologist, translator, critic, the longtime editor of The Yale Review, and the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won too many awards and fellowships to list with brevity here. His poems appeared frequently in The Paris Review, and his Art of Poetry interview appeared in our Fall 2002 issue. I first met him when I was twelve or thirteen years old. He sat down next to me on my parents’ couch and complimented my dress, pinching the fabric between his fingers to feel it. I jumped up, ran to the kitchen, and breathlessly told my mother that one of her friends was being inappropriate with me. She laughed warmly—Sandy, as his friends called him, was both very gentle and very gay. I last saw him two years ago at the Miami Book Festival. A mutual friend asked if, now that I had published a book, I considered myself a writer. I found myself flustered, unsure how to respond. Luckily, Sandy stepped in. “A writer is only a writer when they are writing,” he said firmly, then winked at me. It’s an answer, an understanding, a confidence that I have carried around in my pocket ever since. —Nadja Spiegelman


As the spouse of one of my closest friends, Chip Kidd, I got to know Sandy McClatchy as one might know, well, a friend’s spouse. Chip and Sandy met in the early nineties, Chip and I having been friends for a few years before and I first learning of Chip’s infatuation when he mailed me a color-xeroxed eight-by-ten-inch publicity photo of Sandy with the words PROPERTY OF C.K. written diagonally in red across its lower quadrant like bubble letters on a school spiral notebook. Though I felt like I’d been passed a secret note in math class, I offered up my heartiest of congratulations because Chip had been single for a while. Privately, however, I was worried: Chip and I really only talked about comics and dumb stuff; this guy was a poet and opera librettist. What do poets and opera librettists talk about? What was I going to talk about if I ever met him? 

Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry; Sandy didn’t talk down to anyone. He treated you as if you were a genuinely interesting person with whom he’d longed to converse—which of course made you try to actually act like one. Fortunately, I was still in the thrall of reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when we did meet, so I had something I could semicredibly grind on about. Looking like something of a silvery hawk, his nose curving over a mischievous ten-o’clock-shadow smile, Sandy always seemed perched to toss some quip or withering aside from his beak, and as the cliché goes, he was not one to suffer fools gladly (though with Chip as his husband and therefore a parade of cartoonists muddying their threshold over the years, he must have suffered plenty). After our first meeting, I was sure I’d made an ass of myself, but a few days later, in the mail arrived a large brick of a package, James Merrill’s personal copy of the first printing of Nabokov’s Ada, which Sandy had inscribed to me, adding that of all people he knew, he thought I’d appreciate it most.

After that, I relaxed, he and I engaging in conversations about books and writers and classical composers we both admired, and even if he did find me a tiresome dummy, he never let on. I always assumed him to be unfailingly proper, but he was also something of a prankster. One night, in the early aughts, he met up with Chip, another cartoonist, and me for dinner while the three of us were in the middle of a book tour; we’d all spent the morning and afternoon doing interviews, yet here I was on the phone with a publicist politely trying to accommodate the request for another—which would’ve chewed well into our dinner hour. Sandy, annoyed, took the phone from my hand, amplified his already imposing well-educated accent, and, introducing himself as our “handler,” insisted that there was simply no way “the authors” would be able to accede to any further interviews that day, thank you very much. Then he hung up.

I was horrified.

“Now,” he said, pleased. “Shall we go to dinner?”

He invited me to contribute to The Yale Review, regularly sent along kind birthday greetings to me and my wife and gifts to our daughter (sharing godfatherly duties with Chip), and somehow thought I’d be qualified to design the sets for his opera based on Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. Most memorably, on one visit to New York, he and Chip invited me over to meet Shirley Hazzard, whom he knew I’d appreciate not only for her own notable literary achievements but also for her marriage to Francis Steegmuller, who’d spent the better part of his life as the English-speaking world’s preeminent Flaubert scholar. I was genuinely wowed, if one can say “wowed” in the same paragraph as “Shirley Hazzard.”

Even if we didn’t see each other that often in person, we wrote back and forth every year, usually around our birthdays, and his notes were chatty and elevating, though always with some devilish taint to them. He delighted in dragging Chip to see some erudite play or opera just as Chip regularly dragged him to see the latest Iron Man. In 2011, in response to my emailed birthday wishes, he wrote:

“When, decades from now, you too reach the venerable age of 66, you’ll understand why I chose to celebrate the occasion by going to a performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Because it was my birthday, Chip felt he HAD to accompany me—and sat there writhing! So I made myself melancholy and ruined Chip’s day. Ta-dah!”

So I guess that’s what a poet-librettist is like. Or at least the one I knew. And the one whom I’ll greatly, greatly miss.


Chris Ware is the author, most recently, of Monograph and Building Stories.