Memoirist Mary Karr On God, #MeToo And Speaking Up About David Foster Wallace

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"Tropic of Squalor," poems by Mary Karr. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Tropic of Squalor," poems by Mary Karr. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's Note: This segment discusses sexual violence, and contains audio that some listeners may find disturbing or offensive. The book excerpt below also contains some explicit language.

Acclaimed memoirist Mary Karr has just published "Tropic of Squalor," a new collection of poetry. Included in the collection are poems about her family, her relationship with God and David Foster Wallace, with whom she had an abusive relationship.

Karr (@marykarrlit) joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the book.

  • Scroll down to read excerpts from "Tropic of Squalor"

Interview Highlights

On her volatile relationship with David Foster Wallace

"I had a relationship, he had the volatile part. One reason I finally spoke up about the violence is I have so many young women who write things that I read, they imagine that I could never be in a situation with somebody who is violent. And I've got to just say after 20 years of silence about it, at a certain point, I feel like I was complicit with somebody who beat my ass and was a torment. I felt awful when he died. I thought it was terrible. But I'd been a writer for ... before he was born. Some people consider me a footnote in the biography of this guy who's seen as this sort of sainted sage who tragically could not live in this wicked world, and he just happens to be a guy who was brutal to me.

"The worst thing he did was climb up the side of my house onto my bedroom balcony, and also follow my son home, and my son was 5. And also try to buy a gun to kill my husband. And the biographer had saw letters where these things were discussed. It's not like this stuff was not known. I think what D.T. Max said about it was that it made — his violence made him more 'fascinating.' I just ... reading stuff from the #MeToo movement and seeing so many young women in my office who carry so much shame, and like every other woman, I blamed myself. And I was going to, you know, fix it. And I was — it's a very common saga.

"I also I had a lot of suicides in my life. My mother was suicidal, claimed she was. Now I realize she was homicidal. But it's something, you know, is a bad, sad part of my past that I've only recently sort of come forward with. And I was kind of scolded by a handful of people about it because it was seen as though I were being unkind or something, which is what happens to a lot of women. But, I've got to say, so many young women reached out to me online, who had been hit in the face by him, or lied to, or students of his he slept with, that I am glad I spoke up."

On her poems about her childhood and hometown

"My dad worked at an oil refinery, but also in the oil fields, yes ma'am. Now I think, for me, the book was sort of like — 'Tropic of Squalor' was the joke name we had for my hometown, which was this swampy little backwater in East Texas where there's flaming industrial towers, and snakes and alligators, and the Ku Klux Klan had fish frys on Sundays. And it was a kind of hell for me, it was a kind of inferno. I was a sensitive, dorky kid with my head in a book, and I feel like the book is in a way about journey out of darkness into the light. ... Honestly, the cancer rate in my hometown — it looks like Chernobyl. The number of people I know — I mean, I had two friends die of leukemia before I was in the sixth grade. And it is true that they turn these gas stations into chemo centers. It's just so strange."

"I feel like all my life I have pandered to men in a way that I wasn't aware of. And I have totally changed my mind about what's going on in the world."

Mary Karr

On her relationship with God

"I am a prayer. I pray. Somebody kind of dared me, you know, 'Why don't you pray every day for 30 days, and see if your life gets better?' I don't know that it always changes things, but I know that it kind of always changes me, and sometimes I change things. It's not like the magic eight ball where the thing floats up to the surface, but sometimes I get a very quiet leaning in the middle of my chest, and something I've been gnawing on or worrying about, it just kind of vanishes. Or the bubble gets in the middle, somehow, so I'm able to make a decision about something. So people always ask me, 'What does the voice of God sound like?' So I wrote this poem called 'The Voice of God' that opens with the kind of thing God says to me. Sadly, I never get the lottery ticket number, but here it goes:

VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God

Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
could be cured with a hot bath,
says God through the manhole covers,
but you want magic, to win
the lottery you never bought a ticket for.
(Tenderly, the monks chant,
embrace the suffering.) The voice never
panders, offers no five-year plan,
no long-term solution, no edicts from a cloudy
white beard hooked over ears.
It is small and fond and local. Don’t look for
your initials in the geese honking
overhead or to see through the glass even
darkly. It says the most obvious shit,
i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.

"Most of the time I'm not such a nice person. If you see me on the subway and the air conditioning is out — like somebody is screaming or some guy is going to the bathroom right in front of you, if you just say, 'God bless the guy going to the bathroom right in front of me,' it's amazing what happens. You can become sort of curious about somebody. So, I actually do walk around a lot of times — because otherwise, I'm just such a jerk. I just think, for me, prayer is like a part of a whole series of psychological corrections I need."

On feminism and her poetry

"I'll be honest with you. I'm in my 60s, and I feel like, until the past 18 months — I've been a feminist since I was 8 years old, but I feel like I've been an Uncle Tom. I feel like all my life I have pandered to men in a way that I wasn't aware of. And I have totally changed my mind about what's going on in the world. When people used to tell me there was a rape culture, it's not a new idea that it's bad to rape people, but you know what, it's kind of a new idea that it's bad to rape people. It kind of is. And there are terrible things that happen. I was raped as a child. There are terrible things that happen to children. But I'm thinking about when I was 21 years old, I came to New York City, and I was in a room with many of the great poets, many of the great writers I wanted to meet. I had a great teacher, a guy named Etheridge Knight. James Wright was there, and Galway Kinnell, and Alice Walker was there, and Denise Levertov. And I was there babysitting for Etheridge's kids. And Galway Kinnell, who was teaching at Princeton, comes into the kitchen and puts my hand on his unit. And I left. I left the room. So it's not just the rape. It's the number of times you're driven from a place. You don't have an opportunity you should have simply because of your gender."

Book Excerpt: 'Tropic of Squalor'

by Mary Karr

Discomfort Food for the Unwhole

To check out, we line up our carts,
Each head bent over a shining phone.
Through these squares of light, we tap

Tap with opposable thumbs, and though each
Human unit occupies a small space, a few
Floor tiles, each believes that through the glow

In her hands she can reach far, so from-this-place
Far. Our sprawling alphabets include hearts
Or dollar signs or cartoon thumbs turned up or down

To vote some Barabbas alive or dead. But ours
Is a city of I-beams and mirrored towers.
Behind us stretch rows of iced Gulf shrimp, New

Zealand lamb, the Russian sturgeon’s glistening
Black eggs, dewy orchids misty from Brazil—So
much from so many for so few and at such

Spectacular cost, and yet we cannot lift our heads
From our hands to look around. We cannot stop
Ourselves—each face hung forward off the neck

Of the corpse each self devours.

Suicide’s Note: An Annual

I hope you’ve been taken up by Jesus
though so many decades have passed, so far apart we’d grown
between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters
and phone calls and your face vanishing into a noose
that I couldn’t
today name the gods
you at the end worshiped, if any, praise being
impossible for the devoutly miserable. And screw my Church who’d
roast in Hell poor suffering
bastards like you, unable to bear the masks
of their own faces. With words you sought to shape
a world alternate to the one that dared
inscribe itself so ruthlessly across your eyes, for you
could not, could never
fully refute the actual or justify the sad heft of your body, earn
your rightful space or pay for the parcels of oxygen
you inherited. More than once you asked
that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera
I loved so my ghost might inhabit you and you ingest
my belief in your otherwise-only-probable soul. I wonder does your
death feel like failure to everybody who ever
loved you as if our collective CPR stopped
too soon, the defib paddles lost charge, the corpse
punished us by never sitting up. And forgive my conviction
that every suicide’s an asshole. There is a good reason
I am not God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.
I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,
each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.
We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.

Excerpted from Tropic of Squalor, HarperCollins Publishers copyright 2018.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2018.

This segment aired on May 15, 2018.



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