Questions of Faith: J.D. McClatchy

"Questions of Faith" is a selection of excerpts from interviews that Dianne Bilyak has conducted over the past decade. The interviews began as her master's thesis for The Institute of Sacred Music & Arts at Yale Divinity School. The poets were queried about their religious upbringing, current practices, and how these may or may not have influenced their writing, as well as general questions related to faith, doubt, and meaning, and more specific questions related to each poet's work.

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Dianne Bilyak: What role did organized religion play for you growing up and what role does it play now?

J.D. McClatchy: I grew up in a Catholic family. My parents were nominally devout but not overly pious. We went to church and observed the rules—and in the 1950's, you could trip over them, there were so many. More to the point, I went to Catholic schools—really, all the way through college. First the nuns, and later the Jesuits, gave me a good education that didn't view everything through a narrow religious lens. But the Catholic culture of those schools—from making floral wreathes, as a ten-year-old to crown a statue of the Virgin to the study of Teilhard de Chardin in college–was pervasive and influential. And the ritual of confession and redemption was a crucial melodrama as A Young Boy Discovers the Joys of Sin. By the time I was a sophomore at Georgetown, my religious life was over, but undoubtedly a religious sensibility had replaced it—and has remained.

Dianne Bilyak: Would you elaborate on the ways that that Catholicism has influenced your writing process or the subject matter of your poems? 

J.D. McClatchy: I think the "melodrama" I mentioned—the cycles and pleasures of sin and guilt, atonement and forgiveness—has been a strong influence on the way I search out and shape material for poems. A good deal of my work has been autobiographical—or calculated to seem so—and I have mined that rich seam. Because of my background—fortunately or not—my body itself became a "religious" arena.

Dianne Bilyak: Was it difficult process to let go of Roman Catholicism?

J.D. McClatchy: Everything is "difficult" for a twenty-year-old. The emotions are too muscled and distracted to allow for any disengagement. But finally to abandon Catholicism was easier than to give up, later on, a lover. I think that was because so much of my Catholicism has already, and permanently, been internalized—and too deeply to be easily recognizable—that "letting go" was merely a matter of rejecting as absurd any number of tenets, rituals, prohibitions, and allegiances.

Dianne Bilyak: In Scenes from Another Life the poem, "The Tears of the Pilgrims" seems to typify the trajectory of losing one's faith; have you ever searched for another religion to practice?

J.D. McClatchy: One was enough. Having once relaxed its grip on me, I have felt entirely comfortable in an unfabled world. A creator, an afterlife, salvation, ex cathedra, rosary beads—how was I ever so impressed? That said, a more acute sense of one's own mortality can make one restless. I hope I have the strength to stay calm, my eye steady on the fate of all life in the world.

I would call myself an unbelieving Christian. I admire the teachings of Jesus, and try to follow them. I find organized religion mostly abhorrent. Funny, the gods of ancient Greece, say, seem more "real" to me that the idea of a Personal Savior. That may be because the Greek gods are merely themselves—emblems of power—unencumbered with small or outsized tactics of humiliation.

Dianne Bilyak: Do you believe that there is still a living tradition of religious poetry? Which poets do you see manifesting this, if any? Furthermore, do you think it is important that a tradition of religious poetry be alive in the world?

J.D. McClatchy: If there is such a tradition—and certainly there is a stream of anthologies being published that insist on it—I haven't followed it closely enough to comment intelligently. The bad religious poetry when I was young went on about "Wonder bread." Nowadays, it seems to have a Zen-like aura. All of it strikes me as sapless, hollow, sentimental yearning; not as poetry. I don't care if it exists or continues, though my life has been immeasurably enriched by the work of a poet I would call "religious" (in the modern, Godless manner)—Wallace Stevens.

Dianne Bilyak: There is the sense that you had to choose between Science and Classics. An interest in botany and astronomy is prevalent in your poetry, if you had gone into the sciences what discipline would you have focused on and why?

J.D. McClatchy: Incredibly, in the second year of the Jesuit prep school I attended, every student was forced to choose between a curriculum in Science and one in Classics. For me, that was an easy choice, and as a fifteen-year-old I was parsing Homer. To my shame, that meant I never took mathematics past algebra and geometry; never took a course in biology or chemistry or physics. In college, we all had to take one science course, and I chose the most glamorous I could find—astronomy.  (The glamour soon faded when I found it had more to do with graph paper than with telescopes.) At the same time, as an adolescent I wanted to be a doctor. Maybe it was just diagnosis that attracted me.

Dianne Bilyak: "That, like any religion, risked mocking / What it worshiped." is from your poem, "Ouija." I guess I don't have a question so much as a curiosity about if you "believe" that the Ouija board can bring legitimate insights and messages from beyond.

J.D. McClatchy: Legitimate insights and messages, yes. From beyond, no. Unless you mean from beyond normal consciousness. The paraphernalia of the Ouija board carries with it a sort of Victorian silliness. But at one time—no longer, I should add—I fell under its spell. What it resulted in, I assumed even then, came from parts of myself I usually overlooked or repressed. Isn't that where dreams come from as well? The things we dream on an average night . . . how much stranger than our waking lives! How obviously it points to a part of our lives we are most of the time blind to. We should be thankful. Who could live life at that pitch? I prefer the daily routines, and then a pinch of poetry.




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