Q&A: Mary Karr
“A Perfect Mess” is a panoramic view of the exhilarations and accelerations of city life. The lines “For a few heartbeats, the whole city stalled, / paused, a heart thump, then it all went staccato” and “I heard a tenor exhale pure / longing,” for example, seem to resonate with Frank O’Hara’s great poem “The Day Lady Died.” Are there other poems of the city that reside in your mind’s library? And do you like city life yourself?
The city obsessed me even before I lived in one. As a kid, I imagined Eliot’s “unreal city” — a paradigm of the dehumanized in some way, bodies and souls deformed by the mangle of traffic and noise. In reality, it’s a daily spiritual exercise not to want to mow down my fellow citizens with a machine gun. Ever notice how only other people are traffic? One prayer of mine is to try to imagine myself inside the face of every single person who passes. A Buddhist pal told me that’s a Tibetan exercise for compassion. It makes people’s facial features very particular ... Pound’s petals on a wet, black bough. The Brooklyn of Whitman and Crane, the New York of Lorca, parts of Howl all feed me.
Music, particularly jazz, enters into poems of urban life. “Coming home after midnight” feels like a nod to Nat King Cole, among others. Is life in New York still jazzy?
Feels more hip-hop to me, but I know more about that music than I do about jazz. To the extent that jazz is collage, then a riff on the form, form bent: sure, it’s jazzy.
The poem is dedicated to the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder — How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. Is a crammed, cluttered world a better place? If so, how?
David Freedman’s an old writer pal from Boston. His contention is that messy people (like myself) are more efficient — visual organization like piles or how my books are all color coded may work better than the compulsive filers’ OCD approach. I know right where my cardamom is even though my spices aren’t alphabetical.
Tell us why the poem ends with an ellipsis!
Because the city is still breeding beauty the way yeast makes dough grow plump. You only unplug from it, the current never stops ...
“The Blessed Mother Complains...” juxtaposes infomercials for exercise machines with mastectomy scars; the poem tells us that these are among the things the Blessed Mother must witness: it is to her that the “flightless fly.” They “wail” for justice and mercy; but why is there a question mark after the latter word?
She’s wondering herself if justice and mercy are possible. Even Jesus bitched about his suffering, and if we read him right, he suffered our agonies too. No one leaves this planet without having plenty of heartbreak.
“The Obscenity Prayer” is reasonably self-explanatory, but would you care to comment on the proximity of obscenity to prayer in general? Also: does the poem have any kinship with Hemingway’s “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada” from A Clean Well Lighted Place — or any other such work of parody?
The best prayers are fuck you or fuck this shit. Or fucking help me / him / her / them / us. Someone once told me the only sins are sins of ingratitude. (I’m speaking of sin here not as breaking a rule, but as choosing to turn from God or — if you’re a nonbeliever — from the loving or best or sanest aspects of the self.) The obscenity in the poem is that psychic bitterness I’ve always struggled against. Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink. Yes the poem owes a debt to Hemingway’s “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name ... ” which is more elegant in its nihilism, prettier, but less specific. I wrote a record this year with country hunk Rodney Crowell (Kin is number one on the Americana charts today, she brags). Rodney’s Sex and Gasoline has a song called “The Obscenity Prayer” — which is all about the slavery of desire. Basically, it says give it to me. “Give to me my Playboy channel, killer weed, and sheets of flannel.” Funny song.
“Loony Bin Basketball” is dedicated to Phil Jackson, the remarkable former NBA coach whose nickname was “Zen Master” because of his interest in Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. What do you imagine he would make of this poem?
Phil Jackson is a good friend. He’s called “Zen Master” because he has a serious practice in Buddhist meditation, and his book Sacred Hoops is a very wise way to think about competition not as war with the destruction of the other as its goal, but as a way to fully enter the instant. Sport as a celebration of pure presence with the excellence shared. I dedicated the poem to him because a recent class in mindfulness I took was taught by a Buddhist, and I felt close to him in that attention to breath, which is a spiritual solution in the poem to suicidal ideation.
He says about it in tonight’s e-mail: “Truly Mary, I thought of Jack Nicholson and One Flew Over The... however, that scene with Big Chief and those players doesn’t do justice to your poem. Catatonic Bill had game!”
The players described in the poem are far from the likes of the professionals Jackson so successfully coached. Can you tell us more about how you encountered (or imagined) Frank, Claire, and Bill?
We all hold excellence and quality in ourselves no matter how defunct we may seem to ourselves or the world at large. The basketball game was from my stay in the mental Marriott almost twenty-five years ago — a place where I decided to start acting like I believed in God even though it seemed like horse dookie. I just needed to.
The lines are rather breathless in tempo, and at the end of the poem you write: “Breath is God’s intent to keep us living. He was the self I’d come in // wanting to kill, and I left him there.” Can you talk a little bit about these lines, about breath and God?
Our autonomic nervous system breathes for most of us, and a priest friend told me once, when I asked him how I was supposed to know God’s will for me, that I should see what is. If you’re breathing, just presume you’re supposed to be alive and start looking around for some way to make yourself useful.
If you’re suicidal, your mind is actually the keenest threat to your survival. Yet depressed people still listen intensely to their minds even though said minds NEVER have anything good to say. Think of it, you try to employ the diseased organ to cure itself! If someone outside your body were shouting those awful things you say to yourself in such times, you’d plug your ears and sing lalalala. You have to stop that mind or die. A simple meditation practice I started twenty-three years ago involves counting my breaths one to ten over and over. Pure hell at first. I evolved through various practices — some Christian and Ignatian spiritual practices taught to me by a Franciscan nun and a few Jesuits along the way. I came back to breath last year. For me God is in the moment, and I tend to do everything I can to avoid being in such a stalled, unproductive place as the present. The ego has to stop inventing its reality and notice what’s actually going on, which process kills it (the ego) a little if you’re lucky.
Poet and memoirist Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. She is the author of several critically acclaimed books of poetry, including Abacus (1987; reprinted 2007), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (2001), Sinners Welcome (2006), and Tropic of Squalor (2018), a trilogy of memoirs including The...