Friday, October 28, 2011

Beyond FLY-BY: Decoding Mary Karr

Poet and best-selling memoirist (THE LIARS’ CLUB, CHERRY, LIT) Mary Karr was recently in Denver for a Lighthouse Writers Workshop Writer’s Studio weekend that included an interview and Q&A, an after-dinner pep talk and fundraising push (“Pony up and ride, y’all”) for Lighthouse, then a Sunday morning seminar. Each event was packed with local writers and Mary Karr fans, some of whom were already familiar with her biting wit, acidic dark humor, self-effacing tendencies, and ferociously blunt Texan take on life.

I wasn’t, but I sure am now:

On family: “We’re all hell-damned via those we love or even with whom we share our DNA.”

The reverse of this hits home when I consider the main character of my novel-in-progress, who’s not only struggling to parent despite her own parents’ shaky examples but fears hurting those she loves through her own mistakes.

On her son: “I was protective of my son when LIT came out but CHERRY was harder because he was in junior high.”

Her son is now a film-maker at Blind Spot Studios.

On writing: “Every great work of art is about trying to love somebody.”

I’m plowing through THE LIARS’ CLUB; this quote brings to mind the portrait Mary Karr’s mother painted of her own mother.

Quoted Lorrie Moore as saying “Life is a field of corn and literature is all that corn distilled into a shot glass.”

“Those things you avoid writing about lead to ‘of course’ moments. And when you discover that, you go back to the beginning and readjust.”

“Create an emotional experience, create characters that readers will want to follow whether they like them or not.”

“Refuse to write a boring book with your name on it.”

Against decorative writing: “Decorative writing leads to absence of emotion in the reader and a lack of clarity.”

“I like poems that reward further study.”

“I love John Ashbery but despise his work.”

“What matters, as the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century said, is the aroma of the poem.”

On listening, and not, to the advice of those smarter than you: “In the middle of writing the fifteenth version of LIT I was heartbroken. Don DeLillo sent me a postcard that said ‘Write or Die.’ I sent him a postcard that said ‘Write and Die.’”

“I was told by [poet] Etheridge [Knight]: ‘You’re not a preacher, you’re a singer. Your dad keeps knocking but you won’t let him in.’ I had to stop trying to make a representation of myself to others.”

On great non-fiction: Mary’s list of top 100 non-fiction titles, written in 2009 for Modern Library.

On lousy non-fiction: Said some memoirists use “gimmicks to impress” and “get confidence and comfort by not dealing with who they are.”

“You can’t run away from who you are.”

“You can’t run fast and loose with the truth.”

On INFINITE JEST: “It’s a big book guys in short black jackets in New York carry around.”

“David Foster Wallace was a great plot master and sense-by-sense master, but I don’t want to reread INFINITE JEST ever.”

On writing a memoir: “You remember through the lens of who you are now.”

“Protect your pages. It’s not about their view of what happened. You probably had strapped onto your head their view your whole damn life.”

“Be suspect of your interpretations. Lies of interpretation happen. I don’t label, I don’t speculate how others felt. I speculate on interpretations.”

“Analyze your opinions of others. Provide details. Ask why. Write what you know, identify speculation. Don’t feel obliged to represent [another’s opinion of what happened] but if it’s directly opposite to yours, feel obliged to note it.”

“Poke at your assumptions to break through. All writers fail when they lie. Give three-dimensional evidence. Put the vision on the page.”

“People read memoirs based on voice. If they like the narrator or are fascinated by the voice they’ll keep reading. [Each of my books] has suspense due to a narrative through-line that was discovered during writing.”

“You have to change within the book.”

“It’s not about how you feel, redeeming yourself, or getting even.”

She suggested if you want to get even you should carry a shotgun. And then she told the story of how Mississippi novelist Richard Ford once used his shotgun to get even when sent a book to review. The book was by an author who’d given one of his books a bad review, so he put it on his front porch, shot a hole in it, and sent it back.

“Just be honest. Tell the reader what you’re doing because you will be busted.”

On discipline: “When writing LIT I did nothing but write Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, no phone, email…I didn’t even answer the door. No social events. My fiancé would go to the opening of an envelope. I had to cut myself off, give myself nowhere to go.”

“Stay inside. You will write something. Some days two sentences. Good days six pages, lucky days seven pages. I had a weekly aggregate and when I reached my goal I could take a hot bath—I love hot baths, baptism every time. Massages. I treat myself well. I treat myself like a mental patient. Good food in the house. Yoga Thursday and Friday or daily mass Thursday and Friday, or I’d go see my shrink.”

On church: “What brings you back is the simple faith of the people. Awe in others, moving reminders that we’re like other people.” Then she added she really thinks of everyone else as “traffic,” usually just in her way.

“The American religion is doubt. Whoever believes the least, wins.”

On inspiration: “I am never interested and inspired. I’m interested and inspired by a seven-figure check. I’m in this for the money.” She then added she wouldn’t be in Denver if she hadn’t been paid to be there, adding she’d rather be home “shopping for a new Thanksgiving table.”

On why she writes: “I told my friend Lorrie Moore: ‘I don’t like writing, reading, touring, speaking, so why am I a writer?’ And she said ‘Because you like having written.’”

On what motivates her: When “I forget to feel my butt in the chair. That thoughtlessness.”

“As an adult, spiritual healing helps me see myself. [Writing is] cathartic but not revelationary. I enjoy that power of resurrection.”

On Lighthouse: “I see writing as necessary, life-saving, essential for a city’s circulation system. Lighthouse—its openness, its support—it’s an amazing thing that’s made out of air. Essentially an affordable university and it’s very impressive. You’re essentially creating that’s branching out to hospitals, the elderly, young people, the disenfranchised, and you’re saving lives.”

“‘Fail better’ as Samuel Beckett said. [Writers need] the presence of a community to support us in that enterprise.”

On poetry: Mentioned Poetry Fix, short talks on specific poems that can be viewed on her YouTube channel.

Quoted “The First Step” by Constantine Cavafy and the haunting “There Was Earth Inside Them” by Paul Celan.

“I write poetry to have that connection to great poets. It’s sustenance for me.”

And I attend Lighthouse Writer’s Studio and Fly-By Writer’s Project weekends to have that connection to great writers like Mary Karr, Alexi Zentner, Robin Black, Colson Whitehead, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore. It’s sustenance for me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Beyond FORM: Elegies 1995

It’s been a while. A while since I’ve written a blog post, a while since I’ve thought back to the darkest day of December 1988. With the death of Gadhafi, I’m back in Hartford CT, hearing over the phone from a close friend that a boy from Hartford, a Syracuse student we’d known at school who’d gone to London to study for a semester, has been killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103.

Today’s news also brings me back to the mid-1990s in Nashville, when I was a young mom trying to return to my creative writing roots by teaching myself to write poetry in forms. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles were all new to me, offering the structure I needed as I sought to find my footing as a creative—rather than just a corporate—writer. In 1995, I wrote this triptych of elegies. When I submitted them to a literary journal that specialized in forms a few years later, an editor suggested I stick to lighter, more “domestic” issues for my lyric poetry.

More than 20 years since the bombing of Pan Am 103 and 16 years since I wrote these poems while my son napped, my son is in college, has a friend serving in Afghanistan, and has a relative
his cousin’s husbandwho became an Army Ranger shortly after he got married last year and has already served his first tour in the Middle East. An eloquent October 19 Facebook post by Colorado Springs author Barbara Samuel reminds us that, even if we don’t know anyone in the military, our soldiers continue to march off to wars “fought piecemeal all around / No longer reserved for the battleground.” Will it ever end?

Elegy I
For Harold Hart Crane (1899-1932)
Poised on the edge of an empowered age,
Despite youth, wise as a solemn sage,
Hart Crane agonized as this century
Succumbed to the rule of industry.

Trapped yet enraptured, he watched a bridge rise
From scraps to a vision brushing the sky,
Drew from this Brooklyn sight inspiration
To face his fears through their liberation:

Intense, in tune with his world’s path forward,
Into forms of phrasings his word he poured,
Lifting from yesterday’s fields of sorrow
Treasures for the day, hopes for the morrow.

His quest, while quelled as his name became known,
Haunted despite the promise he’d shown,
Or liberated him, and set him free
To leap to his death in the swirling sea.

A native son immortalized through lore,
He remains homeward bound forevermore,
Yet another wonder that somehow passed,
Too soon and too quickly, from our grasp.

Elegy II
For Turhan Michael Ergin (1966-1988)
Poised on a shadowed stage before his peers,
Contained, controlled despite his fears,
Turhan Ergin, a young student actor,
Breathed life into a brooding character.

For a brief, charged time he held spellbound
His silent audience in that tiny round,
With a performance that made evident
His passion for the art and his talent.

A lover of life, a bright dark-eyed star,
So sure his plans would take him far:
London studies, then home to celebrate
And greet the year in which he’d graduate.

But his return flight, Pan Am 103,
Over the Scottish town of Lockerbie,
Exploded in a fiery, mid-air shower,
A hellish testament to a madman’s power.

A beloved son lost on a distant shore,
He remains homeward bound forevermore,
Yet another wonder that somehow passed,
Too soon and too quickly, from our grasp.

Elegy III
Afterword - 1995
Poised in the century’s final decade,
I grieve for the towers Crane might have made,
And wonder where Turhan would be giving
His next performance, were he still living.

Could the poet possibly have foreseen
The painful potential of industry
In wars fought piecemeal all around,
No longer reserved for the battleground?

In just sixty years since Hart Crane’s death,
In conflicts of inconceivable breadth,
We’ve created a chilling legacy
Of bitter quests fueled by power and greed.

And each new bombing in New York, England,
Oklahoma, and the skies of Scotland,
Adds to the magnitude of our loss,
The final tally of human cost:

The number of beloved sons and daughters
Killed in our era of endless slaughters,
The countless wonders that have passed,
So soon and so quickly, from our grasp.