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.