Mary Karr

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Mary Karr
Mary Karr, HQ 9.8.16.jpg
Karr speaking at the St. Louis County Library on September 8, 2016
Born (1955-01-16) January 16, 1955 (age 68)
East Texas
Years active1987–present
Notable workThe Liars' Club

Mary Karr (born January 16, 1955) is an American poet, essayist and memoirist from East Texas.[1] She is widely noted for her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars' Club. Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.[2][3]



Karr's 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 explores her deeply troubled childhood, most of which was spent in a gritty industrial section of Southeast Texas in the 1960s. Karr 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.[4]

She followed the book with a second memoir, Cherry (2000), about her late adolescence and early womanhood.[5]

A third memoir, Lit: A Memoir, which she says details "my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic,"[6] came out in November 2009. The memoir describes Karr's time as an alcoholic and the salvation she found in her conversion to Catholicism. She describes herself as a cafeteria Catholic.[7]


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 essays. Karr has published five 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), Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, NY, 2006), and Tropic of Squalor (HarperCollins, NY, 2018). Her poems have appeared in major literary magazines such as Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.[8][9][10]

Karr's Pushcart Award-winning essay, "Against Decoration", was originally published in the quarterly review Parnassus (1991) and later reprinted in Viper Rum. In "Against Decoration", 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 overshadow expected meaning, and techniques of language (polysyllables, archaic words, intricate syntax, "yards of adjectives") only "slow a reader's understanding".

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.[11]


In May 2015, Karr served as the commencement speaker at the 161st commencement for Syracuse University.[12][13][14]

Personal life[edit]

Karr was born in Groves, Texas, on January 16, 1955,[15] and lived there until she moved to Los Angeles in 1972. That same year, Karr started at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she studied for two years and met poet Etheridge Knight, one of her first mentors.[16] Karr later attended and graduated from Goddard College,[17] where she studied with the poets Robert Hass and Stephen Dobyns.[18]

Karr was married to poet Michael Milburn for 13 years.[citation needed] At some point, she had a relationship with author David Foster Wallace. Karr spoke out about Wallace's abusive behaviour, which included years of stalking, throwing a coffee table at her, and harassing her five-year-old son.[19]

Although a convert to Catholicism, Karr supports views that are at odds with Catholic Church teaching: on abortion she is pro-choice, and she has spoken in favor of women's ordination to the priesthood. Karr has described herself as a feminist since age 12.[7]

Awards and honors[edit]


  • 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, HarperCollins; (2009) ISBN 0-060-596996


  1. ^ "Mary Karr". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. March 13, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ Dunham, Lena (January 13, 2017). "The All-American Menstrual Hut: Lena Dunham and the memoirist Mary Karr talk bullying, Jesus, and bra technology". Lenny Letter.
  3. ^ "A Conversation with Mary Karr". Image Journal. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  4. ^ Salon Magazine Interview, May, 1997 Archived July 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Cherry : a Memoir by the Author of The Liars' Club. The Penguin Group, Penguin Putnam Inc. 2000. ISBN 9780670892747. OCLC 779617706.
  6. ^ Times, The New York. "Stray Questions for: Mary Karr". ArtsBeat. Retrieved March 13, 2018. Archived May 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ a b Edelstein, Wendy (2006-02-15). "An Improbable Catholic". UC Berkeley News. Retrieved 2010-2-08.
  8. ^ "Mary Karr". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. March 13, 2018. Retrieved April 28, 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  9. ^ "Mary Karr". The New Yorker. The New Yorker. March 13, 2018. Retrieved April 28, 2018.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ "Mary Karr". The Atlantic. The Atlantic. March 13, 2018. Retrieved April 28, 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Karr, Mary (2005). "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer". Poetry. 187 (2): 125–136. JSTOR 20607202.
  12. ^ "All the Facts You Need to Know about Commencement 2015". SU News. Retrieved May 14, 2019.
  13. ^ "The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever". Retrieved May 14, 2019.
  14. ^ "Commencement Address by Poet Mary Karr". SU News. Retrieved May 14, 2019.
  15. ^ "Mary Karr". Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  16. ^ Almon, Bert. "Karr, Mary 1955–." American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement 11, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002, pp. 239-256. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 28 Jan. 2017.
  17. ^ "CANISIUS COLLEGE CONTEMPORARY WRITERS SERIES WELCOMES AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR MARY KARR". Canisius College. September 16, 2021. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  18. ^ Smith, Wendy. "Mary Karr: A Life Saved by Stories". Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  19. ^ "David Foster Wallace and the Dangerous Romance of Male Genius". The Atlantic. May 9, 2018.

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