Interview by Jon M. Sweeney
Poet Mary Karr came to national attention with her bestselling 1995 memoir The Liars' Club and its sequel, Cherry, five years later. Jon M. Sweeney talked with her about her new memoir, Lit, shortly before its publication last November.
There seem to be two distinct aspects of your writing, and they may not really be connected. You write bestselling memoirs and award-winning poetry. Do you find it tough to do both sorts of work at the same time?
I don't do both at the same time. The memoir writing is a very punishing kind of work. Prose favors information, and it is more baroque and bulky, though some prose is easier than memoir. I can always write a piece of journalism in a pinch, or read and critique a dissertation, but poetry doesn't work that way. Poetry is different for me—much harder aesthetically speaking. The page you start with is extremely blank.
Also in contrast to memoir, poetry has this great virtue of economy. Plus, I just love it.
So how did the new memoir come to be?
To be honest, I turned down a large advance for Lit, and I did it from prayer. The offer came when Cherry was on the bestsellers lists, and people in publishing started offering me money. But I wrote a book of poetry instead. Then within two weeks of when I started working on Lit, I was in London at a party where I hardly knew anybody, and I sort of bumbled into both my agent and the woman who ended up acquiring it. I'd been in Prague and had slopped down about fifty pages (eventually deleted), and I was in London for a day. That's been my experience in terms of prayer: I had literally just started putting words to this thing, and this editor I'd worked with before announced she was leaving the UK for Harper Collins US, and she was eager to get a proposal. That's how I often feel guided. There's this profound ease. It's not that there are not struggles and hardships, but I have a sense that I've been guided, steered. This also happened when I was facing an NYU tuition bill that exceeds most annual salaries in academia.
People often say it was so lucky I ran into them at just that minute. For me, it's evidence of God.
One of my favorite parts of the early going in Lit is the story of how you taught poetry to a group of functional but retarded women at a home in Minneapolis. Their ability to spot a good poem from a lousy one seemed dead-on. And you wrote: "To say the women changed my life may be a stretch, but only just …. Maybe the girls in my gym class had been right all along, and poetry was a trick on smart people—a bunch of hooey, fawned over by whining fops of the most stick-up-the-ass variety. The way an uncertain believer might stumble onto proof of God, the women at the group home fully converted me to the Church of Poetry." So here's my question: Is there a similarity between bad poetry and bad religion?
Yes, absolutely. You can smell it. Both have that sense of fakery. People who have grown up in more traditional Christian upbringings often have to wrestle themselves free of dogma that was punishing to them. There's something false about bad poetry, something inaccurate or unreal about both bad religion and bad poetry. Donald Justice once distinguished between being emotional and being sentimental. To be emotional, you have evidence, but not with sentiment—the author somehow instructs you to feel sad or cranky or whatever without fully letting you know why.
I remember once going to a revival meeting as a child in Texas and being very moved by the whole thing, and then hearing this woman standing near me say, "I prayed for her, and I know I'm keeping burning coals from falling on top of her head." And I thought, Oh my, there's something false about this church crap. People can tell when religion isn't right.
I was fascinated throughout Lit with the ways that you talked about what Christians might call the work of the Holy Ghost. I don't think you ever actually used those words, though, did you?
I threw out 500 pages of this book, and it was mostly stuff that sounded like I was proselytizing. That's the last way I wanted to sound. I made a conscious decision to talk about religion in a way that I hoped a secular audience could hear. It wasn't easy. Talking about religion to the non-practicing human is like doing card tricks on the radio, or watching porn to understand making love.
I originally had a lot of stuff in there about the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, for instance, but I took most of it out. My editor saved me. I'm a big fan of prayer partly because I believe in its power. The truth is: I took a lot of that stuff out of the book because it's something I prayed about.
You tell the story of your marriage, its troubles, and its eventual end. At one point, you talk about admiring your husband's "cool certainty" versus your own "ragtag intermittently drunken lurching around." Which of those ways would you say you approach God these days?
I wouldn't say my approach to God is at all intermittent. Probably my mass attendance isn't where it should be. But other than that, I talk to God every day, throughout the day. I know that that sounds pious and crazy, but it's true. I'll sometimes walk down the street and pray for a face that walks by. "Lord bless her," I'll say to myself. That sort of thing. On those five blocks between my apartment and my gym, something magical kind of happens. People become very particular. I see their rage. Their desire. They look more real to me. Now is that contact with God? I think so.
Again I pray not from being particularly devoted or righteous, but because I'm particularly desperate. My mind isn't always my friend. God corrects my thought, or spiritual seeking of any kind does—even counting my breaths one to ten in a sort of Zen practice can turn down the volume on my noggin. I also say the St. Francis prayer a lot. I have a lot of prayers. So, intermittent religious practice—no. But ragtag, certainly.
I remember saying to my spiritual director that as soon as I pray and give this to God it is going to be okay and I'm going to feel okay—and that makes me really mad! Why doesn't he just nail me all to the cross and get it over with? Now I talk with God, to Jesus, that way. Really frankly.
When I first got sober, people used to say to me, Everything's going to be all right. But one time a woman said back to me, Well, everything's all right now. I was checking into a mental institution at the time, but she was right, and I heard it, too.
Good days, I have this sense of being who I'm supposed to be in the world. It gets very quiet in my head, and that's the presence of God in my life, of Jesus my brother, and those things keep me coming back, like going to McDonald's for fries. When I'm like that, everything just keeps working.
A Jesuit asked me, when I was getting sober, "What would you write if you weren't afraid of anything?" The answer is, I have no idea. I still don't have an idea. I've been afraid for so much of my life. And I don't work on a long-term plan. I get very simple, parental messages—not lowered on a fishhook from a cloud—but a still voice tells me to take a nap or have a sandwich. Or it tells me that God's greatest joy is when I'm fully alive and who I am—which is something I didn't get as a kid. It is a great sweetness.
Of course, there are times when it's very arid with God. On my bad days, I think of God like he's a tree stump or a subtle bastard. I used to think of God as a more paternal figure. There's a great prayer, Jesus, my lord and savior and my good brother, sprinkle me with the blood of the Lamb. I can sense Christ as my brother. But the past month, maybe, I sense all I don't know and can never know as okay. On good days, I can ask myself in every situation: Where is God in this? Yes, sometimes he's a subtle bastard. But most often, not. I haven't had a drink for 20 years, and that's grace. That's God's good grace.
Jon M. Sweeney's most recent book is Cloister Talks (Brazos Press). He was received into the Roman Catholic Church on October 4, 2009.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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