"Absolutely, I do."
"What do you listen for when you read your poems aloud?"
"Just mainly things that aren't true. Things that are false. I listen for what's true. I listen for music. I always love what Pound said: 'Form is a pattern cut in time.' I listen to what that pattern is trying to be and try to shove it around a little bit."
Ms. Karr has had some of America's best teachers of poetry, many of whom were students of Stanley Kunitz, born in 1905 and for many years a teacher in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. She studied at Goddard with Robert Hass -- "probably the greatest teacher I ever had. Louise Glück was my thesis advisor. I had Heather McHugh. I had Stephen Dobyns and Ellen Voight. So, I was lucky in my teachers. What can I say?"
"Syracuse, for writers, has been very good."
"True. I love it there. My students are serious, and they're so far from the marketplace they really are not ambitious for the kind of horrible thing that Columbia students are ambitious for."
"And what is that?"
"Just publishing as opposed to learning how to write. The marketplace is at too low a bar, and it's getting lower."
"And yet," I said, "there's this great longing for poetry."
"Yes. people are spiritually starving, which, in part, counts for how much poetry publishing does go on. But I think at the muddy middle level we will all disagree, but at the higher level none of us do."
"Writing is a great gift to be given, the desire to do it."
"I don't know. I write in a poem in Sinners Welcome about the resident genius who was Louise Glück. (See page ## in the poem 'The Choice.') I said to her once, 'If I had a choice between writing and being happy, I'd choose to be happy.' And she said, 'Oh, don't worry, you don't have that choice.'
"I had a student, actually a very good student. I remember him coming in, his second year as a graduate student, and saying, 'I'm done with poetry, I'm going to give it up.' I said, 'Great, get a real job. You can take me out to lunch.' I said, 'You're ready to quit? You should be so fucking lucky.'
"I had a student's father yell at me and say, 'I wanted him to be an engineer.' I said, 'Oh, it's not a choice of his being an engineer or being a writer, it's a choice of his being a writer or blowing his brains out.' Steven Dunn has a great poem. In his book Different Hours, he has a poem that says, 'I was burned by books early, and I kept sidling up to the flame.'"
"I couldn't believe the first time I began reading poetry that someone could speak to me so truthfully."
"I know. It does save your life. I mean Bob Hass always talked to me about his salvation. I think it did save my life.
"My mother," Ms. Karr laughed, "always said that I became a poet because I sat on the Shakespeare for a booster seat."
"Tom Lux says that while he is teaching, he gathers up poems he's going to work on when vacation comes around. Then he gets them all out, and works on them, one after another and edits."
"I have to do it all the time. I'm writing poetry all the time. I almost have to keep myself from it when I'm working on a book of prose, like I am now. I feel like I'm cheating on my husband. But I've got to get this book done and pay for my kid's tuition."
"Recently," I said, "almost every writer I talk to who's got children your son's age, talks to me at some point about having to pay for his or her kid's tuition."
"It's a lot of money. $50,000 a year. But it's great to have him here in the city."
"So, writing a poem while you work on a prose piece is like cheating on your husband?"
"That's the way writing poetry is to me right now."
Ms. Karr's memoir, Cherry, was published in 2000. We talked soon after the publication. I asked her if it seemed odd to her that lines she'd written, years earlier, stayed in readers' minds and carried as much heft as readers' memories of events in their own lives.
Karr said it didn't seem odd, no. "I've been taking communion from other people's mouths for years, you know. I feel that language saved me. Poetry saved my life, in a way. Being able to read those sad soliloquies in Shakespeare. I never really liked the sonnets as much as a kid. I'm sure I didn't know what any of them meant. They were so beautiful. And you know, you're sitting around your house with this sense of ineffable sadness that everybody else seems just numb to, and you find someone else expressing it, and it is like you say, 'their words in your mouth.' It is like communion. You make a community with others. You take these words in your body. That's how I always felt. It's such a happy thing, reading is. It really is. It's what keeps us from being lonely."