Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mary Karr on Writing & Memoir

For all of you who weren't able to attend but would have like to: Here are my notes from the Mary Karr Reading @ the Art Institute of Chicago, April 5, 2011, 6 p.m.:
She read from her new collection of poetry, Sinners Welcome. Poems I liked:
Over 50
Poem about death row guy she used to tutor in 9th grade
Words/phrases she used that struck me:
after all that magnificence was poured down my throat…
a gauntlet of elbows

Writers she quoted:
Ezra Pound: “Poetry is news that stays news.”
Franz Wright (writing to a mutual friend): “Your envy of my work must be terrible for you.”
Henry James: “You get married to continue a conversation.”
Writers/poets she admires:
                Dean Young, poet
                Philip Larkin, poet
                Isaac Babel, short story writer
The best part of the evening was the Q&A after the reading, when she talked about her process and approach to writing poetry and memoir (there were more audience questions on the writing of her memoirs, specifically The Liars' Club and Lit):
Q: How long do you typically work on a poem?
In answer to that she shared a trick that Louise GlΓΌck taught her: Keep spreadsheet with the months across the top and then list the poems you’re working on down the left, and draw a line for how long you work on a poem. She said she found that she works on most poems for months.
Q: Do you have any life left to write about?
MK: My problem is that I am happy now.
MK later: Everybody has a whole encyclopedia of material.
Q: How you do know what to write about people and what to leave out?
MK: I write out of love, and I send the pages to people to see if I went egregiously wrong somewhere.
MK later: I try not to speculate about other people’s motives.
Q: How do you manage to write about traumatic events:
MK: You need enough distance so you don’t drag them behind your car.
MK later: We remember in soundbites.
Q: How do you decide what to leave out?
                MK: What’s boring.
Q: Do you like teaching?
MK said many things, mainly that she loves to teach, but she also said: Teaching is like watching little sunflowers open.
Q: How do you know when to start?
MK: Prose starts with an idea; a poem starts with language.


  1. thank you so much for this. I am reading The Liar's Club for the first time and just googled Mary Karr and came across your writing here; it's beautiful and illuminating/ thankyouthankyou again. I am on a retreat on a small wild island in British Columbia and have just finished Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. What a trip, to go right from Hamilton's book to this one of Karr's. What fortune; and then to read about Mary Karr today.

  2. Hi madalyn, thank you for your heartfelt comment! I too am glad that you found my post and that you enjoyed reading my notes - one never quite knows if what one puts out there will resonate with someone, so it is rewarding to hear that it does. Your retreat sounds heavenly. May I ask what island you're on? I love British Columbia, and it's been way too long that I've been out there!