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Mary Karr (born January 16, 1955) is an American poet, essayist and memoirist. She rose to fame in 1995 with the publication of her bestselling memoir The Liars' Club. She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University. On May 10, 2015, Karr delivered the commencement speech at the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University.
Her memoir The Liars' Club, published in 1995, was a New York Times bestseller for over a year, and was named one of the year's best books. It delves vividly and often humorously into her deeply troubled childhood, most of which was spent in a gritty industrial section of Southeast Texas in the 1960s. She was encouraged to write her personal history by her friend Tobias Wolff, but has said she only took up the project when her marriage fell apart.
She followed the book with another memoir, Cherry (2000), about her late adolescence and early womanhood.
A third memoir, Lit: A Memoir, which she says details "my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic," came out in November 2009. She writes about her time as an alcoholic and the salvation she found in her conversion to Catholicism. She does, however, describe herself as a cafeteria catholic.
Karr won a 1989 Whiting Award for her poetry. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and her essays. Karr has published four volumes of poetry: Abacus (Wesleyan University Press, CT, 1987, in its New Poets series), The Devil's Tour (New Directions NY, 1993, an original TPB), Viper Rum (New Directions NY, 1998, an original TPB), and her new volume Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, NY 2006). Her poems have appeared in major literary magazines such as Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.
Karr's Pushcart Award winning essay, "Against Decoration", was originally published in the quarterly review Parnassus (1991) and later reprinted in Viper Rum. In this essay Karr took a stand in favor of content over poetic style. She argued emotions need to be directly expressed, and clarity should be a watch-word: characters are too obscure, the presented physical world is often "foggy" (that is imprecise), references are "showy" (both non-germane and overused), metaphors over-shadow expected meaning, and techniques of language (polysyllables, archaic words, intricate syntax, "yards of adjectives") only "slow a reader"'s understanding. Karr directly criticized well-known, well-connected, and award-winning poets such as James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren (daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren). Karr favors controlled elegance to create transcendent poetic meaning out of not-quite-ordinary moments, presenting James Merrill's "Charles on Fire" as a successful example.
Another essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer", was originally published in Poetry (2005). Karr tells of moving from agnostic alcoholic to baptized Catholic of the decidedly "cafeteria" kind, yet one who prays twice daily with loud fervor from her "foxhole". In this essay Karr argues that poetry and prayer arise from the same sources within us.
Awards and Honors
- The Liars' Club, Viking Adult; (1995) ISBN 0-670-85053-5
- Cherry: A Memoir, Penguin Books; Reissue edition (2001) ISBN 0-14-100207-7
- Lit: A Memoir. Harper Collins. November 3, 2009. p. 400. ISBN 978-0-06-059698-9.
- Abacus, Wesleyan (1987)
- The Devil's Tour, New Directions (1993) ISBN 0-8112-1231-9
- Viper Rum, Penguin (2001) ISBN 0-14-200018-3
- Sinners Welcome, HarperCollins (2006) ISBN 0-06-077654-4
- Salon Magazine Interview, May, 1997
- New York Times, "Stray Questions For Mary Karr", July 6, 2007
- Max, D.T. (March 9, 2009). "The Unfinished". The New Yorker. March 9, 2009
- Works by or about Mary Karr in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Paris Review Interview
- Mary Karr Author Page on harpercollins.com
- Profile at The Whiting Foundation
- Mary Karr, Remembering The Years She Spent 'Lit', November 3, 2009, NPR, Fresh Air
- Mary Karr biography at enotes.com
- NPR Interview with Karr for new poetry collection Sinners Welcome
- Salon Interview, May 1997
- Syracuse University - Faculty Biography page