Mary Karr brought impressive energy, wit, and candor to her role as the 2013 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, February 25-March 1. First made famous through her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club that sold over a million copies, Karr is also a well-respected poet. In a visit characterized by professional generosity and an exceptional ability to connect with young writers, Karr enriched the experience of our creative writing students and everyone else who came in contact with her during the week. She had many literary fans at Carolina before her visit; she left with countless more.
Karr’s February 27 public reading as the 2013 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence was the central event of her busy week on campus. She spoke to a large and enthusiastic audience in the Genome Sciences Auditorium, sharing selections from both her poetry and her prose, followed by a lively question and answer session. Creative Writing faculty member Marianne Gingher, a fellow memoirist, introduced Karr, declaring, “In book after book Karr documents a personal history of turbulence, heartbreak, cussedness, and something else that’s closer to transcendence than hope.” Gingher emphasized that it is “her dazzling gift for storytelling—whether she’s writing prose, poetry, or song lyrics—that readers celebrate. Swaggering frankness and breathtaking vulnerability on the page are hallmarks of Karr’s style.”
In addition to her reading, Karr contributed to two panels. On February 25, she joined Creative Writing faculty members Bland Simpson and Joy Goodwin, along with Jack Herrick, a musical playwright and longtime artistic director of the acclaimed Red Clay Ramblers, on a panel focusing on Collaborating in the Arts. Simpson is author of eight books and has collaborated on nearly a dozen musicals; he is also a member of the Red Clay Ramblers. Goodwin writes and produces independent narrative films and television documentaries; she has also written about theater and dance for The New Yorker and The New York Times. All members of the panel have worked on creative projects collaborating across artistic disciplines. For example, in addition to writing prose and poetry, Karr collaborated with Grammy Award winner singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell to produce the album Kin, which features many of her lyrics. A recording of the panel discussion is available on University YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoccCs0DMD8.
At the conclusion of the panel, Mipso, a bluegrass band composed of Carolina students Joseph Terrell, Wood Robinson, Jacob Sharp, and Libby Rodenbough, surprised Karr with a rendition of her song “Mama’s on a Roll” from the album Kin. Both Karr and the audience greeted their performance with great delight.
Writing Memoir used the panel format to explore “the craft and daredevilry of the memoir genre.” Memoir writers Marianne Gingher, author of A Girl’s Life and Adventures in Penland, Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, and Rosencrans Baldwin, author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, joined Karr to plumb the topic. The topic had large appeal; Donovan Lounge was “standing room only.” To review the dynamic discussion, go to University YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHl1BkULSEo
Karr had many exchanges with our students in both formal and informal settings. She spoke at a session open to all Creative Writing students, visited Marianne Gingher’s memoir writing class and Michael McFee’s Senior Honors Poetry class, and joined Bland Simpson’s Composers and Lyricists class for a barbecue dinner. The impact of her visit extended beyond the University campus: Karr was a guest in a Chapel Hill High School writing class where she responded to student questions and talked with them about finding their writing voices.
Karr has an impressive body of work to date. Gingher observes that for “all the crazy horror the memoir depicts,” her first memoir The Liar’s Club “offers abiding testament to Karr’s survivorship. All her books do.” Those other books include Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009). Gingher notes that none of them are bitter books: “They could have been, but Karr avoids self-pity like it’s a poisonous snake.”
Karr is first and foremost a poet. “It’s really what I want to do,” she has said, “but they won’t pay me for it.” She has written four volumes of poetry: Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (1998), and Sinners Welcome (2006). Her poems appear regularly in such places as Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.
The 2013 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program is grateful to its sources of support. The Hibbits family generously provided Mary Karr’s honorarium, thus making her visit possible. Richard Hibbits (Business, Class of 1971) and his wife Ford live in Raleigh, as do their sons Cory and John (Class of 2009), and John’s wife Meredith. John majored in Journalism and minored in Creative Writing. The Department of English and Comparative Literature and its Creative Writing Program provided support for the events of the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Week.
Mary Karr’s own spirit of professional generosity, along with her intensity and intelligence and goodwill, ignited a memorable week for Carolina’s literary community.