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Mary Karr, Poet & Memorist

Spitfire, devotedly irreverent, and elegantly devastating are just some of the phrases to describe poet and memoirist Mary Karr. In person or on the page, Karr is undeniably distilled. Seeking “the poetry that made our pulses race, that could flood us with conviction and alter our lives,” she wrings from her reader sorrow, faith, and joy all enmeshed in the same beautifully brutal depictions of reality. Whether her poems filled with smart-assed hilarity or her unsparing prose, Karr captures a voice equal parts faith and cynicism and always moving.

Mary Karr's four volumes of poetry are Sinners Welcome (Harper Collins in 2006), Viper Rum (Penguin 1998), The Devil's Tour (New Directions 1993), and Abacus (Wesleyan 1986). Karr's first memoir, The Liars`Club, won the PEN Martha Albrand Award for best first nonfiction and was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Awards. It was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year and a "best book" for more than thirty newspapers and magazines. The sequel, Cherry, about her adolescence was also a bestseller for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Houston Chronicle. It was a "best book" for those periodicals and The New Yorker, where it was excerpted. Karr's two memoirs are credited with sparking the explosion in that genre. Her third memoir, Lit, will be published in 2008.

Karr's poetry grants include The Whiting Writer's Award, an NEA, a Radcliffe Bunting Fellowship, and a Guggenheim. She has won prizes from Best American Poetry and Pushcart. Her work appears in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, and Parnassus. She is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. She lives in Syracuse and New York City.

"From a very early age, when I read a poem, it was as if the poet’s burning taper touched some charred filament in my rib cage to set me alight." —Mary Karr

Mary Karr describes herself as a black-belt sinner who's made an improbable journey out of the inferno for her famously tormented childhood. In her fourth collection of poetry, she documents her transformation into a resolutely irreverent Catholic. No one before has brought such smart-assed hilarity to a conversion narrative. The battle is grounded in common loss (a bitter romance, deaths of friends, a teenage son leaving home) as well as elegies for a complicated mother, but these poems disarm with an arresting humor familiar to fans of The Liars`Club and Cherry. They are illuminated by a cycle of spiritual poems rooted in Karr's eight-month tutelage in Jesuit prayer practice, and an essay that weaves together how Karr's reliance on poetry as a pathway out of suffering made prayer possible for an unbeliever. Readers who complain that poetry wallows in gall and denies us consolations will find clear-eyed joy in this collection.

Photo Credit: Marion Ettlinger

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