Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. Her memoir The Liars’ Club (Viking), which appeared in 1995 and was recently reissued in a tenth-anniversary edition, traces her childhood in the oil-refinery town of Leechfield, Texas. Published to rave reviews, The Liars’ Club spent more than a year on the New York Times’ bestseller list and won numerous awards, including the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for a first book of nonfiction. Karr’s second memoir, Cherry (Viking), continues the story into her adolescence and was a New York Times’ Best Book of 2000. She is now at work on the next installment, Lit, which deals with her college years at McAllister, graduate school at Goddard, the birth of her son in 1986, and her baptism in the Roman Catholic Church in 1996. Before she became known as a memoirist, Mary Karr was already an established poet. Her books of poems are Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour (New Directions, 1993), Viper Rum (Penguin, 1998), and Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, 2006). Her poems have appeared in the Paris Review, New Yorker, Ploughshares, Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere. Viper Run included the essay “Against Decoration,” in which Karr criticized what she saw as “a debilitating tendency towards the vague, emotionally inert, and prissily difficult in contemporary poetry.” Sinners Welcome includes an essay commissioned by Poetry magazine on the relation of her religious conversion to her writing, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.” She was interviewed by Brennan O’Donnell.
Image: In “Pathetic Fallacy,” your poem about your mother’s death, you have the wonderful lines: “Who gives her sixth-grade daughter / Sartre’s Nausea to read?” You’ve said that it was your mother who taught you both what you call your undiluted agnosticism and your deep love of poetry. Now that you’ve come to acknowledge openly the connection between your poetry and faith, what would your mother say?
Mary Karr: Oh, my mother was delighted when I converted. She became very religious at the end of her life, ironically enough, and took instruction in the Episcopal Church. She was cynical about Catholicism for the reasons people are, mainly because of how women are marginalized and issues of celibacy for priests. But we had a deep, ongoing spiritual connection. We prayed together. At her death, I prayed the rosary with her. She’d never prayed the rosary, but I talked with her about it as it was going on. So my mother and I both wound up being Christian. Who knew?
Image: Did your work play any role in her change?
MK: Oh, not at all. My mother was her own idiot, as they say. No one ever influenced her for good or ill. She was always a very deep, philosophical thinker. She read Nietzsche, she read Hegel. She had her Buddhist phase. She took us to a Christian Science church a couple times when we were kids. She was in some ways a kind of Platonist. She had a very strong sense that the spiritual was divorced from the body, and one of the things that bothered her about Catholicism was that she saw the cross with the body on it as a worship of agony, of the tortured animal. We argued about that.
When she died I was writing Cherry. I had converted by then, and she was glad. She had gotten sober before I got sober, and we started having spiritual conversations then. Ironically, she led me, more than the other way around. She convinced me to pray when I believed there was nothing to pray to.
Image: You’ve called yourself a cafeteria Catholic—someone who accepts some church teachings and not others. To what extent do you think that the church has a right and even an obligation to offer challenges to contemporary ways of being in the world? Does that create tensions for you?
MK: Vatican II Council and the notion of the freedom of conscience were really important to me when I became Catholic. Under that doctrine, I’ve seen priests offer the eucharist regularly to people who are not baptized Catholic, in many churches, in many corners of the world. I once met a very inspirational nun who had been working in Africa for fifty years who said, “I think the Holy Spirit has many forms.” But in terms of the notion of the incarnation and the transubstantiation, I’m very literal. I’m not a metaphorical Catholic. I don’t believe the resurrection is metaphorical. I don’t believe it was just about someone coming back from the dead, in which case we’d worship Lazarus, too.
Church authority is a complicated thing for me. I remember saying to my priest, “Father, before I sign my commitment, I want to say that I don’t believe that the pope is the ultimate religious authority. And I believe the hierarchy is very corrupt, as the recent scandals about child sexual abuse show.” There are all kinds of things about the Catholic Church I don’t know very much about, and that I’m suspicious of, as I’m suspicious of most hierarchies. I think women should be priests. I think priests should be able to marry. I think homosexuals should be priests. I think all kinds of things that the current doctrine opposes. Birth control. I could make a long list.
On the other hand, in my spiritual journey, to be obedient and humble is a constant challenge. I need to look at and question my own beliefs and practices and how I live in the world. There are things that are convenient for me that I do question deeply. I’m not married; I’m sexually active. I talk to my spiritual director about this. Mostly that’s an aspect of my personal life that has been accepted among my confessors, though I did have a spiritual director, a Franciscan nun, who told me my immortal soul was at stake. I said, “You know, I don’t think so.” But then, I don’t think enough people are willing to say that sex is a sacred thing, though they warn you about AIDS and this other stuff. Sex shouldn’t be entered into lightly. It puts you at great risk spiritually and emotionally and in every other way.
Image: Would you say that these tensions are one of the attractions of Catholicism for you?
MK: Absolutely. I like that you can have clear arguments about things. I once met a couple, a man who had been a Jesuit and a woman who had been a Carmelite. They had both left their orders and married. They were arguing. She said, “I don’t get the whole Jesus thing. The Holy Spirit is a female pronoun in the Greek, and frankly, when I pray now, I mostly pray to the Holy Spirit, as opposed to Jesus or God the Father.” Her husband said, “That’s ridiculous! It’s called Christianity, not Holy Spirit-ianity.” I liked that they could have this argument.
I came into the church largely on the Holy Spirit. I talked to my priest about this. I told him one of the things I noticed, as I think most people do, was that the people who seemed most active and realistic in their spirituality were very Christ-centered.
The image of Jesus had a lot of barnacles on it for me. One of the things I did during my instruction was meet with Tobias Wolff and read the Greek Bible with a view to understanding Jesus better. I learned that so many of my interpretations of Jesus’s tone were really positions held by the church, things I’d been taught. Reading the original texts, I saw that a lot of the scriptures could be read different ways.
Image: You used the word “realistic” in talking about your particular attraction to Catholicism. This was something you saw in people?
MK: Not all of them, but I noticed that the ones who were most Christ-centered in their practice seemed to do the most work with the poor, seemed most engaged in life, were not maudlin or pious. One of the great things about Jesus, of course, is that he wasn’t like that either. He didn’t call a lot of attention to himself. He was always doing great things and then sneaking off, saying, “Don’t tell anybody I did this.” He was not someone who, as Tolstoy said, was always pointing to the tear in his eye.
And he had a realism about the nature of sin. Some people argue with me about my belief in sin, and I ask them, “Oh, you don’t have all kinds of venal, low motives in everything you do?” And they say, “Well, yeah.” I have no patience with the idea that we’re all just here singing “Kumbaya” and that there are no bad checks, only troubled ones. Some checks are written with nothing in the account.
Image: I was wondering if you could connect this notion of realism with something you wrote in “Facing Altars.” You wrote that before you began to pray in earnest, your mind didn’t take in reality, but when you began to pray, “Suddenly, the world view to which I’d clung so desperately as realistic—we die, worms eat us, there is no God—was not so much realistic as the focal expression of my own grief-sodden inwardness.”
MK: I was depressed most of my life. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of fear and anxiety, with intermittent respites. It wasn’t horrible. My mother’s psychotic episode, which I’ve written about, was a one-night incident; it didn’t happen fifty times. Because of that anxiety I have a very powerful adrenal system. I’m on alert a lot, which a doctor recently suggested may account for my good memory. I saw the world like a worried animal, as something to defend against. At my first confession, the priest said, “Wear the world like a loose garment.” I did not wear the world that way, and I’m constantly amazed when I meet people who do. My boyfriend is one; he’s just good-natured. He expects good things to happen; he thinks he belongs in the world. He’s going to get yummy things to eat and see people he likes. He’s going to make decisions, and some will be screwed up and most will be fine. His mother died of breast cancer, he had a horrible divorce, bad things have happened to him, but he does not interpret the world through that experience. The way I meet the world may be a function of being clinically depressed a lot of my life, or drinking a lot of Jack Daniels.
Before I applied to college, I had to get a reference, because I had a sketchy academic record. My mother knew a professor of Chinese history. She’d taken a lot of Chinese history, and he was a family friend. I went to his office, and he pulled my blouse up and felt me up. And I got the reference and left. I felt that was the price of admission, something I had to do to get into college. I thought he was an asshole, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. I felt ashamed and all the things you do when you’ve been touched the way you shouldn’t be. But I just thought that was how the world worked.
When I got to college, I met this great professor, the kind who really changes your life, Walter Mink. I worked in his lab, taking care of the rats. He and his wife wound up getting me a therapist for five dollars a week, and I baby-sat their kids. They would invent reasons to give me money. At one point, they offered to adopt me so I could go to school as a faculty child. I tear up when I think about the degree to which he changed my life.
In my freshman year, I had an anthropology paper published, something I wrote for a class I was afraid I was going to fail. When I found out, I didn’t have anybody to call. I couldn’t get my mother, couldn’t get anybody on the phone, so I called Walt Mink, whom I called Dr. Mink. And he said, “Let me take you out for a hot fudge malt.” Afterwards, he was driving me back to my dorm, and I thought: He’s going to make a pass at me. In a different world, or with a little less trust or a little less resilience, I would have avoided him for the rest of my time on campus. It was just an example of how I would misinterpret kindness, just simple kindness.
It’s true that many of us are battered, abused, hurt. Some people continue to flinch, and become monsters—but on the other hand, if you shine a light on a person, she’ll grow in that direction, just like a plant. Love, mercy, grace, the Holy Spirit—all of those things are as natural to us as leaves are to a tree. And no matter how deprived of them we are, given the chance to grow in that direction, we will. Grace really does banish darkness the way turning on a light does in a room. It’s not that I didn’t have to do a lot of work to overcome things from my childhood, but I also believe that to a large extent, I was healed.
Image: I want to ask about your view of the natural world. You grew up in a very unlovely place. You experienced real betrayals, real dangers. You’ve said that your return to religion is allowing you to trust more in the goodness of the created world. Is that changing your work?
MK: I think the answer is a very simple no. I am carnal, and I don’t just mean that sexually. I like to eat yummy things. I like a hot bath. I perceive beauty in the natural world—a flower, a tree, that kind of thing—but mostly my appreciation of nature is pretty me-centered: I get to go swimming and the water feels good. I love taste and touch. Visual beauty is something I find more in human-made things: art, books, buildings, expressions of the human heart. I was just walking down the street and saw a woman with a shirt that said, “I Am the Mix-tape Queen.” It’s just an expression of who she is as a human that I find adorable, worthy of admiration. I just thought, “God, that’s good.” I don’t think my lack of interest in nature is because of where I grew up. Other people in my town loved the natural world. My father loved to hunt and fish, and he’d go sit out in duck blinds for hours at a time. But me, I’m very human-centered.
Image: You’re a spiritual New Yorker.
MK: Yes. I’m closer to Walt Whitman than William Wordsworth. I did the Ignatian spiritual exercises, and at the end you pray to love the world the way God loves the world. People wax lyrical about their meditations on the mountains and the oceans, but in my meditation, I would see faces, all different kinds. I did see a global perspective, but it was about humans. I told my spiritual director I thought I was missing something, and she said, “Human beings are the crown jewel of God’s creation. Better this than seeing bunnies and trees and hating it.”
I do find idle delight in the human parade as it’s manifest on Ninth Avenue every day, or the Port Authority, or the subway. Now, I would also mow those same people down with an Uzi, if it’s a hot day on Forty-second Street and they’re carrying big bags. I often have to pray that my resentment of perfectly innocent people, and my desire for their death, be lifted from me. But that’s what I mean about being realistic. I’ve learned that a lot of those sinful thoughts that turn me away from God, they’re natural. They’re bred into the fiber of me. If I could love purely, all my actions would be perfect, but I’m not exactly there.
Image: You’ve said your major aesthetic challenge since your conversion is making room for joy, accommodating joy in the work. Can you talk a little about what you’re writing now?
MK: The new memoir is called Lit. I got 450 pages in and then threw it away last April and started over. I’ve got a huge hunk of it now. Now it starts at the end of my drinking, when I was barely able to take care of my baby. To be unable to care for a child, to see myself drinking and not able to do that, was hell. In writing about the darkness of that time, I was thinking that crucifixion is more interesting than resurrection in terms of tension and drama. One of my challenges in this book is to represent joy. I assume the book is going to work up to my becoming Catholic. I’m not certain, but that’s my current plan. In trying to get sober I am on the path to a new life, a more spiritually-driven life.
Image: When you’re asked about your work in memoir, you say you’re a poet first, yes?
MK: I’m a poet who writes memoir. That said, I have a journal entry from when I was ten years old that says, “When I grow up, I will write one half poetry and one half autobiography.” Talk about being led to do something. I was teaching classes in memoir in 1984, so I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. One of my first classes at Syracuse in 1991 was a memoir class. I sought out and was taught by Tobias Wolff and Frank Conroy, and I did interviews with Maxine Hong Kingston and John Edgar Wideman and other memoirists. I knew that the story of my family was what I had been given to write. I spent six or seven years trying to not write it, and then began to write it in poems. It didn’t occur to me to write another story. I felt like that one was standing in line waiting to be written.
Image: In your essay “Against Decoration” you took a very strong stance for intelligible poetry, poetry that communicates basic human emotions across time and distance and social class. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your commitment, from very early on, to clarity.
MK: I don’t think difficult poetry is bad or wrong. A lot of good poetry has a limited audience. What I object to is poetry that, even if you study and bear down, gives you nothing to work through. You have to hammer through Emily Dickinson’s syntax, but in that process you create a psychological space; you have to work to free the meaning, but that makes the poems more luminous. I admire Dean Young, who writes a very complicated poetry. I wrote the introduction to The Waste Land for Modern Library. Wallace Stevens is maybe my favorite poet. There are a lot of difficult poets I really like. But I wouldn’t call them ornamental poets.
Image: And the difference between difficulty and ornament is?
MK: Whether, when you take the time to penetrate the difficulty, there is anything there. The difficulty is in the service of creating an emotional experience in the reader. The difficulty limits the audience of those poems, certainly, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
But for myself, I am defending a kind of poetry that I am doomed to write. My interest in this is clear: it’s to further my own enterprise.
Image: You’re also someone for whom that sort of poetry was a lifeline. Would you say we would be a better society if we had more Howard Nemerovs and Robert Frosts who could be picked up by fourteen-year-old girls and recited on buses?
MK: Yes. Sylvia Plath is another example of a poet who young girls in times of great suffering find comfort and solace in. But I also think that at different times poetry means different things. At the turn of the century, with the handyman poets and everybody walking through fields of singing wheat and Joyce Kilmer selling 250,000 copies of Trees, it was time to recognize that poetry had roots, and that we should not lose all those intellectual and historical connections. In 1910, 1920, or 1930, the new difficulty in poetry was a correction for too much of the plain style. I have no doubt that fifty years from now, this poetry I’m advocating will begin as a rise of sentimentalism, where everybody will be writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin at first, and then we’ll have to correct back the other way.
Image: Who else do you see writing right now who has gotten the message that it is time to get rid of the fetishism of difficulty?
MK: Well, Robert Hass, my teacher, is a meditative poet, a great American poet. Charles Simic’s Book of Gods and Devils is a great book. I like Louise Glück. Heather McHugh writes a difficult poetry, but a poetry whose difficulty, like Dickinson’s, creates an interior psychological space that permits a kind of emotion that you would not have without the surface difficulty. The difficulty works in service of an artistic experience; it’s not just randomly strapped on to gesture back to the poet. I like Franz Wright. Stephen Dunn wrote a great book called Different Hours. One of my students, Courtney Queeney, is publishing a wonderful book called Filibuster to Delay a Kiss. I like the young Greek poet Tryfon Tolides, who just published his first book. Terrance Hayes published a book called Wind in a Box, which is a title I don’t love but a book I do love. He’s writing about race in ways it has never been written about. And Yusef Komunyakaa.
Image: What is the canon that you want your poetry students to immerse themselves in?
MK: The English line: Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge—I’m a big Milton fan. Emily Dickinson. A lot of European stuff in translation: C.F. Cavafy, Pablo Neruda. A lot of those difficult poets, interior poets. The criticism of Octavio Paz, Eliot, Stevens, Plath. I taught a class the year before last called Dead White Guys, which was Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Yeats.
Image: You’ve said that you are startled to find that you are the keeper of the canon in your current academic position. That is, the writers are the ones left to do the job of keeping our culture aware of the long line of English poetry.
MK: My friend Dympna Callaghan is a great Shakespeare scholar and teacher. I urge all my students to take her class. My colleague Harvey Teres teaches nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century novels. Kenneth Frieden teaches a lot of Jewish novels, both in and out of translation. But the writers are teaching most of the literature in my department. There were years when, as a creative writer, you couldn’t have the word “literature” in the description of anything you taught. You’d have to fight to the death with the powers that were if you wanted to teach Yeats. But that’s all changed. It’s sad, because I’m not competent to teach Yeats the way a real Yeats scholar would. I can teach Yeats as a poet, but not the way Seamus Deane can teach Yeats, or somebody who really knows.
Image: So now it’s only the poets themselves who are presenting poetry to students as poetry?
MK: Yes. Otherwise, poems are being taught as cultural artifacts that demonstrate why we shouldn’t have plantations. Why girls ought to be able to have jobs. Why we shouldn’t beat up gay people. Good plan, but you don’t need to read Milton to know that’s a bad idea. Poetry is for social hygiene now.
Image: Looking at the chronology of your career, it strikes me that you turned seriously to the memoir form just as you were beginning your spiritual journey.
MK: I was definitely led to that. I know this sounds crazy, but I asked God what I was supposed to write. I do have a sense of being guided. One of the difficulties of last year, with the 450 pages of Lit that I ended up throwing away, was a sense that I was writing the wrong thing. I kept praying and praying for guidance. For a year and a half I thought I was just supposed to slog through it. Then I woke up one day and it was very clear what I had to do. Had I not prayed, would I have come to the same conclusion? It’s entirely likely, but I would have blown my brains out first because I would have been so frustrated.
Image: You mentioned the Ignatian spiritual exercises. Would you talk a little more about your prayer life?
MK: I did the Nineteenth Annotation Retreat, which allows the laity to do over three weeks the exercises that the Jesuits do over thirty days. But I would say I first started to pray seriously in 1989. I had prayed kind of intermittently before, but I began to pray every day at least for a few minutes in October of 1989. Within a year or so, I had a sense of what the Jesuits would call discernment, of being guided. For me, it felt psychological at first: I had a sober self, a sane self, who I’d get in touch with—I was still thinking in very secular terms. Within a couple of years I made the prayer of Saint Francis a regular prayer: “Make me an instrument of your peace….” I was making decisions based on prayer, like whether or not to get a divorce—that was something I had prayed about for years. I didn’t have a sense of what to do, but I did pray about it. I prayed about what to write, and I prayed about what job to take. My life got a lot better. That’s what I tell people when they say they don’t believe but they want to believe. I say, “Pray every day for thirty days and see if your life gets better.” It’s ironic how people will argue with you about that, as though it will cost them something, as though you’re trying to trick them into something. I say, “No, just do it and see if you feel like I do. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll think this is horseshit after thirty days.”
Image: You’ve been outspoken about what you call the memoirist’s contract to be a truth-teller. How much of that is enabled by your turning to prayer? Has prayer sustained you in that?
MK: I never thought of it that way, but that’s absolutely right. You feel a lot of guilt writing these books. It’s morally worrisome all the way through. Every day you face these questions: do you write about this person, how do you describe them, is that fair, is that right, did you really feel that way? You can really just get your knickers in a twist and not set down words.
I had not been baptized when Liars’ Club came out, but I did have a sense of having been spiritually snatched out of the fire. Prayer had become a place I could go. I was single, I had a kid, I had nine jobs, I had no money—but I could go to that place and feel that there was something there that was not me, that was going to help me pick the next right thing to do. During that time I also felt like I lived smaller, with more attention, with more self-care. I was kind of raised by wolves, and I didn’t understand that when you’re hungry you have to eat. I had money—it’s not that I was so poor. I was a sniveling little assistant professor, but I wasn’t on welfare. I had a lot of prospects, but I didn’t understand that somehow. A lot of that care for myself came from prayer. My sense of guidance of the Holy Spirit was often very small. It didn’t say, “Write a book. Make a lot of money. Buy a house.” It said, “Make yourself a sandwich.” It said, “Go to bed early. Read him a story. Don’t help him with that homework. You can finish these papers in the morning.” It was small, but for me it was crucial, because before then I had been kind of fixated on pleasure and anxiety. I call them the secondary emotions—as opposed to joy, sadness, terror. Pleasure and anxiety are low-level; they are the emotions you get when you’re depressed. Then my son said he wanted to go to church. I said “Why?” and he said, “To see if God is there.” I thought: Oh, well, of course; I’ll take him. I had no sense of church being the answer to something I was searching for.
Image: You said that when you first started going, the old voice was telling you that you were among “dumb bunnies.” What was it that led you to go back, if it wasn’t solely for your son’s sake?
MK: What I found in the Catholic Church was not what I’d have expected myself to be drawn to. I would have thought I’d end up an Episcopalian. In fact, when my son first wanted to go to church, the first person I called was a friend who was an Episcopal deacon. He said, “Sure, I’ll take you. I’m going in forty-five minutes.” I said, “Come pick us up.” This was a church that a lot of people at my university attended. I would have thought I’d be drawn into a church like that, with liberal politics and a liberal sensibility. But I found it horrifying. I was repelled by it. I didn’t expect to be repelled. I didn’t expect to feel that strongly about it. We went to a Southern Baptist church, and they prayed forever, heavy on the Old Testament stuff, and their music was fun (our music in the Catholic Church is often not much fun). And then we went to some Jewish temples. Nobody took us to a mosque, but we visited one later.
I would not have expected to be drawn to the Catholic Church. The church I went to was not run by a renegade priest, an outlaw, someone who was protesting outside the nuclear plant. He was just a little Irish priest in Syracuse. It was run by him and a bunch of nuns. (I got letters from nuns, let me tell you. I wrote an article for Vogue about our search for a place to worship. Nuns go to the dentist, too, and they sit there and read magazines, and they would write me letters saying, “I am praying for your conversion.” I think so many people prayed for me and my son that I was drawn.) This was also a parish in which the laity were very involved, giving homilies and stuff, maybe more than most churches. It was a very conventional liturgy, a real working parish with all the ups and downs, pretty white, which I didn’t want. On the surface, this little church was not at all what I was looking for.
But I liked the fact that the doctrine is so out in the open: everybody knows what the policy is, and they argue about it. In other churches it is too buried to even talk about.
From the very first time I went, I liked the realism of the priest, Father Joseph Kane. Young priests will often say mass real slow so you know how holy they are, but this guy gives the mass like he’s reading it from the back of his hand. There was no grandiosity. It was very understated and kind of regular. At first that put me off, but by the end of that first mass I liked it. It was Halloween, so the kids were dressed up as different saints. The other thing I liked was that it was disorganized: kids running in and out, babies screaming, people coming and going, stuff going on. They had siphoned all the kids out of the other churches because they were too messy.
After mass I said to the priest, “I am taking my kid to this church the way I take him to soccer, a game I don’t particularly like.” And he said, “God’s after you.” I liked his playfulness. I liked the fact that people were very engaged, not just in writing checks, but in helping each other: “So-and-so is here from El Salvador and they need a crib, does anybody have a crib?” People see the Catholic Church as a lot of pomp and ceremony, but that is not really what appeals to me. I could do better myself at home. I have some really great outfits.
Image: I think it is the last poem in Viper Rum that ends with you and your son singing from the same hymnal:
Now a column of sun
through high windows shines
on his blonde head. His hand
holds half our hymnal, index finger
underlining each word as we struggle
to match up our voices, hold the beat,
find the pattern emerging, feel the light
that glows in our chests, keep it going.
You are matching your voice not only with your son’s, but also with the voices of everyone else there, and imaginatively with all who are participating in mass worldwide every day, east to west. That is a very strong attraction to you?
MK: Yes. You are doing something physical in common with people. I call it the carnality of mass: you stand up and kneel together, you all touch your chests when you say the act of contrition. My body bends the same way yours does. This type of connection is in poetry, too: when I read a poem, I breathe the way Wordsworth breathed. When we sing together, when we move together, inhaling and exhaling, our mechanisms are unified. I know a lot of people hate that as being sort of sheeplike, but sheeplike-ness, for me, for somebody who has been so special for so much of her life, is a very good thing. Pride is the sin I struggle with most. For me to become a citizen among citizens, a worshipper among worshippers, is central to my having any kind of spiritual change. Before, I didn’t know how much I needed this. I didn’t go in looking for it. But again, I was drawn.
I was a single mom, and people there had families. I don’t know how to have a normal family. Going to church social events permitted me to watch other families and see what a family is like when it has a spiritual foundation. My son and I began to pray together when he was about five. At night we would always say the prayer of Saint Francis. If he had an anxiety, we would pray about it. We always did that, up until he was too cool.
I brought my Jewish boyfriend to mass this weekend for the first time. We’ve been going out together about a year, and I took him to a little church I’d never been to before in Syracuse. He was so eager to go, and so receptive to the spirit of the place. It was not a particularly great homily, but there was something so moving about having him there. There is something about being with others in communion.
Image: You’ve written about how the experience of reading poetry also creates a type of communion. How are poetry and liturgy different and the same? How do they inform each other, for you?
MK: I was a lonely, weird little kid, and for me poetry was eucharistic. The fact that another person felt the way I felt, as lonely, or sad, or scared, was so comforting to me, and I was so hungry for it. It was as if I could eat the poems, like they went into my body. That’s what I mean by eucharistic: somebody else’s passion, suffering, comes into your body and changes you.
What was different from liturgy was that it wasn’t sacred. It wasn’t sanctified by the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t as pure as that. Poetry was sustaining the way a life raft is sustaining when you’re at sea, but it does not take you out of the water and put you on the ground. The eucharist changes you—I don’t experience it this way every time, but that’s the ideal. It heals you. It doesn’t just keep you alive.
My friend Stephen Dunn has a poem that is supposed to be a sort of posthumous work, to be read at his funeral, and it ends something like, “tell my friends that they have given me a better way to be alone.” Poetry gave me a better way to be alone. When I wrote, I always wrote thinking: I want people to understand this. I thought about my father, with his sixth-grade education; I wanted what I wrote to be accessible to him. So I had that sense of communion in my own writing.
I feel that in taking the eucharist a lot of my anger at my mother was simply healed. A lot of my anger at myself was simply healed, because I had already been forgiven, and that is so large. The Ignatian exercises brought on a real dark night of the soul for me. As part of the exercises, you pray to know the nature of your own sinfulness. Let me tell you, that was the darkest time, the most dangerous time. I had moved my mother, who was then seventy-five years old, to a new house closer to my sister. I went to help her unpack. She was dislocated and confused, really upset, crying, and she was raging at me as she had raged when I was younger, calling me names. I went off at her and shouted her down. I said: “You could talk to me like that when I was eight years old and I didn’t have any fucking car keys, but your day of dominating me is done. You ruined my childhood; you’re not going to ruin the rest of my life.” I just went off at her. That’s the nature of my sinfulness. Through grace I had been mostly relieved of my anger and disappointment in her. She didn’t have anything I needed anymore, and I could be close to her and love her as she was without wanting her to be a different way, and there was a lot of peace between us. She’s a complicated person, a difficult person, but things were easier with her the last ten years of her life.
That’s what the eucharist changed for me: that was not how I talked to my mother anymore. That is not how I talk to my child. Occasionally I talk to a cabdriver that way. This year I’ve had a lot of medical issues, lots of doctors and procedures. It’s been scary. But at no point in all of this did I shout at anyone, not even myself, for not being able to climb up the stairs, for being too tired. When I was tired, I lay down, and that’s what the eucharist does for me. Lying down is not my natural stance.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.