Acclaimed memoirist Mary Karr has just published “Tropic of Squalor,” a new collection of poetry. Included in the collection are poems about her family, her relationship with God and David Foster Wallace, with whom she had an abusive relationship.
On her volatile relationship with David Foster Wallace
“I had a relationship, he had the volatile part. One reason I finally spoke up about the violence is I have so many young women who write things that I read, they imagine that I could never be in a situation with somebody who is violent. And I’ve got to just say after 20 years of silence about it, at a certain point, I feel like I was complicit with somebody who beat my ass and was a torment. I felt awful when he died. I thought it was terrible. But I’d been a writer for … before he was born. Some people consider me a footnote in the biography of this guy who’s seen as this sort of sainted sage who tragically could not live in this wicked world, and he just happens to be a guy who was brutal to me.
“The worst thing he did was climb up the side of my house onto my bedroom balcony, and also follow my son home, and my son was 5. And also try to buy a gun to kill my husband. And the biographer had saw letters where these things were discussed. It’s not like this stuff was not known. I think what D.T. Max said about it was that it made — his violence made him more ‘fascinating.’ I just … reading stuff from the #MeToo movement and seeing so many young women in my office who carry so much shame, and like every other woman, I blamed myself. And I was going to, you know, fix it. And I was — it’s a very common saga.
“I also I had a lot of suicides in my life. My mother was suicidal, claimed she was. Now I realize she was homicidal. But it’s something, you know, is a bad, sad part of my past that I’ve only recently sort of come forward with. And I was kind of scolded by a handful of people about it because it was seen as though I were being unkind or something, which is what happens to a lot of women. But, I’ve got to say, so many young women reached out to me online, who had been hit in the face by him, or lied to, or students of his he slept with, that I am glad I spoke up.”
On her poems about her childhood and hometown
“My dad worked at an oil refinery, but also in the oil fields, yes ma’am. Now I think, for me, the book was sort of like — ‘Tropic of Squalor’ was the joke name we had for my hometown, which was this swampy little backwater in East Texas where there’s flaming industrial towers, and snakes and alligators, and the Ku Klux Klan had fish frys on Sundays. And it was a kind of hell for me, it was a kind of inferno. I was a sensitive, dorky kid with my head in a book, and I feel like the book is in a way about journey out of darkness into the light. … Honestly, the cancer rate in my hometown — it looks like Chernobyl. The number of people I know — I mean, I had two friends die of leukemia before I was in the sixth grade. And it is true that they turn these gas stations into chemo centers. It’s just so strange.”