Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Theology Descending: Franz Wright and Mary Karr in Conversation

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Theology Descending: Franz Wright and Mary Karr in Conversation

Article excerpt

PJC: Good morning. I've been asked to moderate a conversation by two of the best poets in America--Mary Karr and Franz Wright. I don't get far in a conversation without bringing up my favorite novel, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I've been teaching it, and I learned on the way over that Mary Karr loves the book and Franz Wright wrote a paper about it in high school, so I feel comfortable bringing it up. In the novel, there's a wonderful line by the elder monk Father Zosima, who says that even from a really disordered, painful family life, you can glean some precious memory. You can find something that was good and that was precious. And both Mary and Franz have written about their childhoods in memoirs and poems, and I guess the question I wanted to begin with is do you think that's true? I mean, do you think it is a sentimental thing to say that even in the most difficult childhood you can find some precious memory? And has your view of that changed at all in the last few years?

FW: It's very interesting that you would ask that because I've recently been trying to work on a--and I can't finish it for some reason--but I've been working on a poem that has a line that goes through it like a refrain that goes something like, "Strange how we always remember the good things about the most terrible times." And I've asked many people, "Do you have this?" And I think it's human, it seems to be something that many people have in common. You think back on horrendous, terrible times in your life and you've blocked out a lot, and you remember some little, exactly as you said, some little thing that was precious to you. Maybe because it helped you survive. I don't know.

MK: Yeah, I think you remember through the filter of who you are now, which is why most of us aren't screaming. [laughs] You know, when your heart is broken in the sixth grade and your mother says that you'll look back on it and laugh, and you do because you're not in the sixth grade anymore. Billy Carl Cash hasn't humiliated you. So, um, yeah, children have a lot of serotonin in their brains. They're meant to survive. Hard-wired. You know, there's that book about the roots reaching towards water, and they're hardwired to reach for the light. But me personally, I've memorized the bad news. I know what the bad news is. [laughs]

PJC: I guess I wonder--is bad news experienced differently by children? There's a wonderful, maybe you can help me with his name, a Nigerian Jesuit priest who's here.

MK: Uwem Akpan.

PJC: Yes, Uwem.

FW: Yes, we met him last night.

PJC: He's amazing.

MK: Yeah, we had a pizza with him. Can I say what happened? So Franz and I have known each other for almost thirty years. We used to drink and, you know, do cocaine together in another lifetime. And, um, now we're both sober and trying to be Catholic. So I wake up at like one in the morning, and he's left me a phone message. And we go down into the place where all the food is, and there's the beautiful Jesuit in a dashiki from Zimbabwe with the best pizza. Like, a pizza the size of this table and a liter of Coca-Cola. And we sat there with him from like one until four in the morning.

FW: And I had met him a little earlier.

MK: Yeah, you told me about that. He's very cool. He has a book coming out about the children in Zimbabwe.

FW: Say You're One of Them.

PJC: Yesterday he read part of a novella that he's finishing, to a packed room. He writes about children and their resiliency in the midst of really terrible suffering. And I guess there's a line that always runs through my head when I think about suffering. It's by Leon Bloy, who says that there are places in our heart that do not yet have existence and into these enter suffering so that they may have existence. Have you heard that?

FW: No, but it really resonates. And truly for me, one thing I think I've learned in the last nearly a decade that I've been trying to understand some of the mysteries of religion is that suffering does have a very positive practical function. …

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