Although Mary Karr has written several acclaimed volumes of poetry, she is best known as the author of The Liars’ Club: A Memoir (1995), her best-selling memoir of growing up in the 1960’s in a dysfunctional family in southern Texas. The Liars’ Club breathed new life into the genre of the memoir, and critics praised it for its searing recollection of both the joys and sorrows of a childhood no one would have chosen. Karr eloquently creates a lyric portrait of an ugly place and time that she recalls with ferocious love. Critics also admired the poetic precision of language and vision of the world that animates The Liars’ Club. In Cherry: A Memoir (2000), Karr continues the story of her life, this time chronicling her tumultuous teenage years. With her characteristic poetic intensity, Karr narrates her sexual awakenings, her rebellions, and her struggles to find her true self in a small Texas town and in the expansive hippie and surfer cultures of 1970’s Los Angeles. In Lit: A Memoir (2009), Karr explores her descent into alcoholism and madness and her journey from sinner to Roman Catholic with the same lyrical force of her earlier books. As in many of her later poems in Sinners Welcome and her essay, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” she probes deeply into the relationship between spirituality, substance abuse, depression, and writing.
All three of Mary Karr’s memoirs have made The New York Times best-seller lists. The Liars’ Club won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and a nonfiction prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Liars’ Club and Lit were both finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Karr received a Whiting Writers’ Award in poetry in 1989 and the Tietjens Award from Poetry magazine in 1990. In 1991, she received a Pushcart Prize for her essay, “Against Decoration,” which was published originally in the journal Parnassus and later appeared in Viper Rum. Karr won the International Poetry Forum’s Charity Randall Citation for poetry in 2000. She became a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005.
Karr, Mary, and Franz Wright. “Theology Descending: Franz Wright and Mary Karr in Conversation.” Interview by Paul Contino. Christianity and Literature 58, no. 4 (Spring, 2009): 687-712. An interview with Karr and her fellow poet, Wright, in which the two poets discuss in detail the significance of the religious images and themes in their poetry.
Kitchen, Judith. “Confessional: A ’Black-Belt’ Sinner Describes Her Conversion to Catholicism in Spiritual—and Spirited—Verse.” Review of Sinners Welcome. The Washington Post, April 16, 2006, p. T07. Finds the irreverent tone of Karr’s poetry appealing and sees her poetry as a form of prayer.
Lewis, Robert P. “’Descending Theology’: The Poetry of Mary Karr.” In Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, edited by Mary R. Reichardt. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010. Examines how Catholicism is expressed in and influences Karr’s poetry, with an examination of the poetic sequence “Descending Theology.”
Shah, Bruno M. “Pathetic Sacrifice: Christian Love in the Poetry of Mary Karr, as Found in Sinners Welcome.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 12, no. 3 (Summer, 2009): 112-132. Shah focuses on Karr’s poetry collection, Sinners Welcome, to articulate the ways that Karr’s poetry is a dynamic reflection on the mystery of Christian love.