Friday, April 21, 2006

A Poet Comes Home

Hat tip to Amy Welborn.

A Special to the SF Gate on Mary Karr, author of 'The Liars Club,' who recently crossed the Tiber:
I know the two of you spent a lot of time exploring different faiths together to see what felt comfortable for you. You went to Jewish temples, a Buddhist zendo and various Christian churches. What attracted you to Catholicism in particular?

The carnality of it. That there is a body on the cross. It's not just an idea. It's real. If you go into an Episcopal church, that's pretty f--ing subtle. You know, there's a big cross -- it's like an electric chair hanging on the wall.

I wouldn't have thought I'd feel that way, because I had all of these intellectual friends who went to, say, Unitarian or Unity and Episcopal churches. I went to all these churches, and I thought: "This is just a bunch of white, rich, educated people saying: 'Let's be nice to each other. And let's be nice in the world.'"

One of the things I liked during Mass was that they have the "Time of Intentions," where they have people say if they have any prayer intentions. Some people say it's gratitude that their daughter made it safely to Ethiopia or "Please pray for my son, who has leukemia." To be in the presence of people's hopes and people's terrors -- their agonies stated out loud in the world -- made them human to me. And it made me not feel so different from them.

I have a lot of intellectual pride. I spend a lot of my life feeling different, feeling special. I guess for an artist that's kind of necessary, but I also have a sense that my heart gets bigger when I don't feel like I'm, you know ...

Like God?

Yeah. Or Satan. Either one. When you're around drug addicts or people who are mentally ill, it makes your heart bigger. It really does. You know, the church I went to in Syracuse was right by all the halfway houses. And I would say from 20 to 30 percent of the congregation was disabled, mentally or physically. So it was the halt and the lame.

Do you feel more comfortable around that group of people than you do with folks who have everything going for them?

I like both kinds of people. I see people that have everything going for them all day in my normal life -- I'm a college professor. But I also live right in the middle of the Garment District, the last blue-collar section of Manhattan.

They have sweatshops here. They have Asian ladies crouched over sewing machines next door to me. They have people wheeling pallets of cloth down the street. It's just an amazing neighborhood. And all the different faces that I see -- when I am spiritually on a good day -- I feel like Walt Whitman. On a good day for me, I'm in touch with the human heart, the human comedy, the human drama.

At my church in Syracuse there are Down syndrome altar boys. And one of them, when I went up to do communion I would talk to him every week during the Sign of Peace, and he had brought all his medals from the Special Olympics and laid them out to show everybody. And I thought: "That's me! That's me picking out my Manolo Blahniks!" It's the same thing.
I admire Ms. Karr's honesty. She freely admits her flaw: intellectual arrogance. She's also surprisingly real and down-to-earth. And I love her blue-collar/white-collar sensibility.

I've never read her work. But as a writer, I know this: the succcessful ones tell the story honestly. Whatever part of themselves connects them through the story to their readers, they offer it up without restraint or disguise. Ms. Karr seems like that kind of writer.

And praise be to God: another poet has joined the Baroque of St. Peter--the ultimate Ship of Fools!