The Cruelest Month is happy to present an interview with Mary Karr. Her recent collection of poetry, Sinners Welcome, describes her conversion to Roman Catholicism and her search for truth in faith. A self-described "alpha-bitch," Karr is anything but. Warm, funny, and a pleasure to talk to, Karr exemplifies in person the curiosity and energy found in her poems.
It is our additional privilege to offer signed broadside editions of Karr's poem, "A Blessing from my Sixteen Years' Son." The first ten readers to submit their shipping information to CruelestMonthPoetry (at) yahoo (dot) com will receive one. Thank you.
New York: 2/24/2006
CM: What do you think of New York? Is it a good town for Catholics?
MK: (laughs) Well, yeah, I did these prayer exercises that Jesuits do over a thirty-week period. They’re called the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. One of the things you’re meant to meditate on for a whole week is to come to love the world like God loves the world. This is a long explanation.
CM: I like it.
MK: When I would try to meditate…You know I don’t like nature much. I kind of hate nature. I’m a taxi girl. Whenever I tried to feel reverent about the Purple Mountain’s majesty, and all that, in meditation I would just see these faces of people, streaming at me, of all different colors, sizes and dispositions. It's Walt Whitman’s America, isn’t it? You walk out and you see the “blab of the pave.” You’re talked to by the city all day and all night, and the humanity of it is very compelling to me.
CM: In your Afterword, you mention Pound’s In a Station of the Metro—which happens to be one of my favorite poems and speaks to the image of ‘faces in the crowd’…
MK: Yes, I’m a big Pound fan. I read Pound with a guy named Robert Haas, who translated Milosz. I was arguing with someone who said that beauty is relative, that some people like one thing and some people another. When my kid was 16-years-old, he was given an anthology of shitty poetry four-inches thick and decided to memorize The River Merchant’s Wife—one of the great poems in English. How did he know to find that? I didn’t find it for him. You know, the cream rises to the top.
CM: Precise language.
MK: Absolutely. Pound says in the ABC of Reading ‘Get the meaning across and stop.’ That’s something poetry does that I aspire to do.
CM: Kind of on that line, since the book describes a search for faith or truth, the fact that…well, I’m a Roman Catholic myself, but I also had an interest…
MK: Practicing or no?
CM: A little. I go to church every so often.
CM: St. Patrick’s on 51st and 5th. It’s right by the office.
MK: There’s a great church down on 15th and 5th called St. Francis Xavier. It has a soup kitchen where you can work; it has an AIDS hospice program; and it’s very involved with the poor. It’s got this big Latino population, though there’s nothing particularly Latino about the neighborhood. And it also has a lot of gay guys who are like Broadway singers, so they have this amazing choir that can take the top of your head off. But they do a lot of work with the poor, which is kind of the point.
CM: When I was reading the Berkeley interview, you said something about your attitude towards helping other people, and how you don’t take a pat-yourself-on-the-back attitude.
MK: Oh, sure I do. (laughs)
CM: I guess I misread that.
MK: You know my instinct is to rob little old ladies at gunpoint. I think I’m an alpha-bitch by nature. I don’t think I’m innately, you know…I’m a greedy selfish little guinea pig. Well, it’s like I said. I am somebody who does see God through other humans. I feel illuminated by them and their struggles.
CM: So it isn’t an individual striving? You’re not alone in your search?
MK: What do you mean?
CM: Well, I wanted to get your opinion on Christian Mysticism, like the individual’s relationship with God, in particular the work The Cloud of Unknowing. Does that do anything for you?
MK: Yeah, that’s a great book. When I was trying to learn to meditate that’s one of the books I read. That idea of emptying yourself. If you can get quiet enough, it’s hard not to hear God talking, but you know I’m so terrified, so worried and hungry. I’m like a little ravenous animal.
You know I really love teaching, and I have really great students at Syracuse. I’ve got a kid staying here now selling his first novel. Phil when did I meet you? (Speaks to someone in the room) Twenty-two?
CM: Do you have a favorite poem in this recent collection?
MK: Actually, I’ve never received so much mail about a poem. The poem about my son, "A Blessing from my Sixteen Years' Son." I think there is something about seeing your children as separate. I think a lot of poets represent it as if it was some tragic loss, like they’re not babies anymore—but I love watching him walking on his back legs, and eating with a fork and everything. It seems really clever to me. I saw him last night. I think people don’t write enough about the parenting joys of seeing children as separate from you. To see them manifest—not necessarily something grand—but that small civility.
CM: You also have the series of the “Descending Theology” poems.
MK: Oh, do you like those? You don’t think they’re too Jesus-y?
CM: No, I like the one when Judas is coming.
MK: Yes. Both of them must have been looking to God that night, looking at the sky thinking “Now the fuck what?”
I’m one of those people that when the planes crashed in to the WTC, my first prayer, honest to God—after figuring out that they had done this on purpose—was ‘Those poor bastards. God forgive them.’