Opening Up

Mary Karr on writing country music, why Ashbery is a bad influence, and how her father was like Chekhov

Mary Karr describes herself as a free-verse poet, so it’s tempting to read her career itself as a decades-long exercise in a similar kind of unmetered independence. She has published four collections of poetry since 1987, including her latest, Sinners Welcome, in 2006. Karr’s elegantly ribald 1995 memoir about her chaotic childhood in East Texas, The Liars’ Club, was a best seller, credited—and occasionally blamed—for launching the ongoing fashion for confessional memoirs. Her influential 1991 essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in Parnassus and included in her book Viper Rum, lamented the opaque, emotionless “highbrow doily-making” of neo-formalism; the essay won a Pushcart Prize. This past June, Karr leapt to yet another genre with the album Kin, a collection of country songs she wrote with the singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, a fellow memoirist from Texas. Karr spoke with the Poetry Foundation from New York as she prepared to migrate for the fall semester back to Syracuse University, where she teaches literature.

I want to start by talking about Kin. I read that Crowell included your name in a song long before you’d met.

Yes, he name-checked me in a song called “Earthbound.” I sort of didn’t believe it. My sister’s secretary kept saying, “There’s some no. 1 song that Mary’s name is in.” And if you sing “America” the right way, it sounds like “Mary Karr, Mary Karr.” Finally she sent me the CD. ...

The minute I met him, he said we should write songs together. And I said, “You know, I never do anything that I can’t be better at than everybody else.” And he said, “You’d be a natural; you’d be great.” I said, “No, I’m an idiot. Everything I’ve done, I’ve studied very long and hard in order to do.” We became kind of best friends instantly. And seven years in, he convinced me.

You’ve described the new album as a collaboration—that it’s not just you sitting down and writing lyrics, and him sitting down and writing music.

He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and I’m not. So people assume that he wrote melodies and I was coming up with words, but it was much more organic, and toward the end I was coming up with melodic things and bridges.

In “Momma’s on a Roll,” Lee Ann Womack sings, “Me and my sister pouring liquor down the kitchen sink,” which comes straight from The Liars’ Club. Would you call Kin an autobiographical album?

Absolutely. We [Crowell and I] both dined out on being from the “Ringworm Belt” our whole careers. We’re both autobiographical writers, we’re both storytellers, we’re both in love with the idiom of the place we grew up. People kept saying, “Could any literary writer pair with any songwriter?” and I don’t think so. I think if you were a poet, like, say, Terrance Hayes, and you had a lot of hip-hop in your head anyway, and you paired with Eric Clapton or Jay-Z or someone like that—you have to have something of the beauty and of the place for the language to come out of you. Home was the same place for us, in a way.

What’s the difference between writing a song and writing a poem?

You’re still trying to come up with the best language possible, and the most economical. Rodney says it was a great thing that I didn’t know what sang well and what sang poorly. The example he always gives is this: He said [during the writing process], “Your feet are tough as nails.” And I said, “Oh my God, I’m never going to write a song with [the line] ‘Your feet are tough as nails.’ It’s the biggest fucking cliché in America.” So he said, “So what are they like?” I said, “Your feet are tough as horns,” or something. You’re looking for what’s accurate and what’s fresh in terms of diction and language, the same as you do in a poem.

Songs are, in a way, very formulaic, even the most radical ones, even an apocalyptic song like “All Along the Watchtower” or “You’re a Big Girl Now.” There’s an unspoken narrative. But still the song has to resolve, even if it resolves by opening up. So a lot of it is just trying to come up with better language.

Had you ever collaborated before on a piece of writing? I would imagine it’s really difficult.

I never had. I never aspired to. Mainly because I’m not that good a writer. I’m a pretty good rewriter. So I say a lot of stupid things. I say, “Your feet were tough as nails” too. And then I just keep banging my head on the porch ’til I come up with something maybe a little more accurate, or truer.

Rodney is a natural leader and a natural collaborator. ... He’d say, “You’re in it, you’re right there.” Musicians constantly say these ineffable, opaque, truly bizarre things, like “OK, do that, the exact same sound, but fewer notes.” And everybody nods sagely. Or “That was good, but with hair on it.” Like, what the fuck does that mean, “hair on it”? They’re always talking with language that I imagine Rimbaud and Mallarmé were talking with—or do talk with all the time in their poems.

Are there particular things you learned from songwriting that you find yourself importing back into your poetry?

The ability to collaborate. Right now I’m working on two scripts. I just finished one for HBO with Cynthia Mort, who did a show I really liked called Tell Me You Love Me. And I’m also working with a guy named Jacob Epstein for Showtime, on a different script that I’m more deeply immersed in at this moment.

I think had I not had that joyful experience with Rodney, I wouldn’t have seen how collaborating really pushes you in a direction, like Philip Larkin said about having children: “Why did he think adding meant increase? To me it was dilution.” I always imagined that you collaborated when there wasn’t enough material for one person to write a script or something. Now that I’ve had these three very interesting, to me very successful, collaborations—I would never have done that without Rodney.

When you hit upon a good phrase that doesn’t fit into what you’re working on in the song, do you stow it away for another project?

All the time; just the same as in poetry. You’re dragging the mystery behind you. You’re shedding sparks. The faster you drive, the more sparks you shed.

Which poets are your favorites to teach?

It depends. I’ve been known to teach a lot of the high moderns. I did a seminar on just Yeats once, and I do a class called Dead White Guys, which is Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Yeats. And then there’s the postwar generation: Lowell, Bishop, Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore—I guess she’s more the previous generation. Contemporary poets, I love teaching Dean Young. There’s a guy named Roger Fanning who’s a very oddball poet I really like. A lot of people everybody else likes, like Ashbery, I think suck. So I don’t teach those guys. They have to get that from somebody else. I teach Simic, Heather McHugh.

At my wedding we read a Heather McHugh poem. She’s wonderful.

Oh, she was a teacher of mine. Also Robert Hass, that generation of poets. And their predecessors— Kunitz. And I like Allen Grossman. I like a lot of the poets of the plain style, like Larkin. I know he’s not really hip anymore, but he is to me. I also love Hopkins. I don’t know enough French to teach the Symbolist poets, but I’d like to.

Is this a similar list of favorites you’d have come up with early in your life?

As a girl, there were probably three people who most influenced me. Shakespeare, because I was reading Shakespeare very young, and memorizing not the sonnets, which I didn’t much like—I think they were too hard for me—but the speeches. And Cummings. I can still say, “In Just spring when the world is mud-luscious” and “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I can probably say seven or eight of those poems since I memorized them as a kid. I can still say quite a few Shakespeare speeches, although they all have big holes in them now. Also the Winnie the Pooh poems when I was a little kid. And I memorized “Prufrock” when I was about 12. I found the Four Quartets in high school, and fell in love with those. Although I had no idea what they meant, they sounded very grand to me. And my favorite poet for a long time was, and probably is, Stevens.

It’s interesting because those poets are almost opposite of the kind of poet I am. They’re the poets I would have liked to be but just wasn’t. It took me a long time. Larkin has a great line about trying to sound like Yeats that I would say about me trying to sound like Stevens, or a lot of young people now trying to sound like Ashbery. “It is a particularly potent music, pervasive as garlic, and has ruined many a better talent.”

What made you want to memorize so much poetry as a child, and do you still do it often now? It’s tricky!

Well, not when you’re young, it’s not. The mind soaks it up, probably the way it learns a language. I always had a very good memory for language when I was a kid. It’s sad when you get older; it’s too hard to memorize things. There’s a really simple sonnet that I memorized last year, and I stop at the same place every time.

I think I started trying to impress my mother. My mother would get drunk and be maudlin and suicidal and loll around, and I think I started with the Shakespeare speeches because it amused her. She liked me when I did it. She paid attention to me and thought I was clever. So I was always trying to win her attention. Thank god she didn’t like titty dancers, right? My life would have been very different.

Your mother was an artist, but I’m also struck in your memoirs by your dad’s skills with language—not just storytelling, but language itself. Do you credit them in some way for your work as a poet?

My mother was great with one-liners, but she was a terrible storyteller and had not much sense of character. She was too narcissistic to observe anybody else really closely, but she was really good about coming out of left field with something funny. But my father had the ability, like Chekhov, to find that single detail. You know, “The piano player had the porkpie hat on and had the joker from a deck of cards stuck in the corner.” Or “He shot, and it blowed a hole in his head big enough to put an orange in.” Not as big as an orange, but big enough to put an orange in, as if someone would do such a thing. It makes it much more horrifying and graphic.

You’ve written about your earliest poetry being sort of dense and pretentious. When you figured your way to this more idiomatic, plain-speaking, emotional language, did you consciously look back to your parents’ way of speaking?

No. It was something I’d been trying to stuff back in my whole life. It’s something I’ve been trying to kill in myself so I didn’t sound like such an ignorant redneck hick, even though I was in fact an ignorant redneck hick. I don’t know why I’d want to sound different.

What’s the first thing you remember writing as a kid in a self-conscious way, where you thought of yourself as a writer?

It was always poetry. I still have a poem I wrote. I couldn’t write yet; I could read pretty well, they say, by the time I was two and a half or three. And this is a poem probably from when I was like four. It was for my grandma right before she died, and it says, “There was a man who got hit by a car, four feet tall. Here’s the man.” To me, that was the poem.

You published two collections of poetry before The Liars Club made you a literary celebrity. I’m wondering how you imagined your literary life playing out before you knew how the memoirs would change things for you. What did you think your life would look like as a poet?

What I imagined is that I’d marry some great poet. That’s really what I imagined, that he’d write poems about how wonderful I was and how generous, which is really ridiculous because anyone who knows me knows that I’m a selfish bitch. The idea that I’d be Nora Joyce or Vera Nabokov is highly unlikely. But that was the model. Heather [McHugh] and Louise [Glück], the reason I sought them out as teachers was that they were the first women you saw who weren’t merely pieces of ass.

Isn’t it so much better not to be?

I don’t know; it’s probably easier the other way. I said to Louise once, and I wrote this in a poem, “If I had a choice to be happy or to be a poet, I’d choose to be happy.” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have that choice.”

Originally Published: September 18th, 2012

Ruth Graham is a journalist in New Hampshire.

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  1. September 19, 2012
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    I grew up in east Texas in the 1970s. I was inspired just now by this article to write the country song below in honor of the talented Mary Karr.

    My Texas Road
    2012 09 19

    I was driving on a desolate Texas road
    when a Mary Karr song rang on the radio
    and all my heart-ache and petty gripes dissolved
    as her words gleamed like sunlight in my windshield.
    Our world has gone crazy with hate and war
    so where can I go on this old Texas road.

    I felt my heavy soul float on eagle wings
    gliding free over fields of cotton and wheat
    so I stopped and stood alone by a narrow creek
    and felt myself expand big as this crazy world.
    Our world has gone crazy with pain and fear
    so where can I go on this old Texas road.

    I see your face bright in the sun, Mary Karr,
    and all the problems that plague America
    blow away in refreshing winds of change
    so I keep on driving down my Texas road.
    Our world has gone crazy with love and hope
    so come with me now on this old Texas road.

  2. September 19, 2012
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    I am glad to see a talented poet also write lyrics geared toward singing, since the rhythmic singing of people sharing stories and perceptions around the camp fire by the river in starlight is the origin of the poetic impulse.

  3. September 21, 2012

    I love what you said about trying to sound like other poets. I think I've
    just been inspired to try taking my writing in a different direction for a
    while. Thanks, I guess, for that.

    And also, I'm less worried that I'm the only one in my poetry class who
    has yet to read Ashbury. I should, but I might not worry so much about
    it now.

  4. September 23, 2012

    This is good, so good. Intelligent & generous interviewer, observant,
    interesting & insightful interviewee!

  5. September 28, 2012

    Mary Karr expressed herself and was given a well written interview piece. It was as if I was in the room while it took place. Thank you Ruth.