The audience is quiet as the main event of the night steps on stage and drops a bright red coat directly onto the ground beside the podium, followed by her purse — at 66, she introduces herself as “Mary Karr, it turns out.”
Around 30 people gathered in Montante Cultural Center this Tuesday for the first event of Canisius’s Contemporary Writers Series of the 2021-22 school year. The series was founded over 20 years ago with a grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation and is supported today by the Hassett, Scoma and Lowery Endowments. Dr. Mick Cochrane, head of Canisius’s English department and director of the creative writing program, is also coordinator of the series, which he said plans to have two more events in the spring.
Karr has written three New York Times best-selling memoirs and recently published her fifth volume of poetry, “Tropic of Squalor,” but she told the room she felt like “a toddler in a tutu” in a room of “real Catholics.” Karr’s talk and the succeeding Q&A session spanned nearly two hours and centered around her tumultuous childhood, battle with alcoholism and eventual baptism into Catholicism. She’s 32 years sober next week and currently a Peck professor at Syracuse University, though she has also taught at schools like Emerson, Tufts and Harvard.
Karr grew up in eastern Texas, in an industrial area voted one of the ugliest places on the planet to do business. Her parents, she said, were interesting: her father was a blue-collar worker and her mother, a painter, was married seven times. “My father, God bless him, did marry her twice, which nobody else had the nerve to do,” Karr said.
Her parents struggled with drinking — though she hesitated to define them as alcoholics — and she described her mother as troubled. From a young age, though, Karr connected with the poetry her mother loved to collect. “I just felt like there was somebody out there scratching to get out of their dark place, just like I was scratching to get out of mine,” she said. “Poetry never left me stranded.”
Karr was reflective and honest without discomfort as she told the audience about her faith journey. Raised by secular parents, she said she spent her childhood as a “godless pagan” but, as an adult, she began visiting churches with her son at his request, in what they called “God-arama.” Through these visits and her experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, religion did eventually connect with her, but Karr said her view is more involved in humanity and discussion than in book-reading. “I liked the argument. I liked the conversation. I liked that there was a body on the cross,” she said, explaining that she feels connected to others through the common “torment” of being alive.
Karr emphasized that she is not a perfect example of religious faith. “My mind,” she said, “sins and judges like it’s got a crank on it.” But she does believe in a universal human nature: she explained, “There is a chip in our bodies that longs to be connected to others.”
Karr closed her talk by reading one of the poems, “Wisdom: The Voice of God,” which is part of her most recently released volume. The poem starts, “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath.”
Between the Q&A — during which she told President John Hurley that she sees the influence of God everywhere, but especially in her interactions with others, and declared that she has stuck with memoir and not fiction because, “I have no imagination” — and the reception of snacks and desserts, Karr stepped aside to talk to a group of students. She signed their copies of her third memoir, “Lit,” by writing a short message before the title: the front page, with a newly added word, now reads “Stay Lit.”