We reached Mary Karr in the small window of time that she had after reading at Harvard, appearing in New York at Barnes & Noble, and heading off to Chicago for two appearances. Karr’s next stop: the Deep South. The paperback edition of her searing, beautifully reviewed memoir, Lit , has hit the shelves, and Karr is striking out to stoke the sales buzz for a book that should be flying out the door all on its own.

And it seems to be doing just that. Lit debuts this week at #8 on the New York Times Paperback Bestseller List.

As readers of The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and now Lit surely know, Mary Karr does not turn away from a fight. And if it takes some battling to get the sales she deserves in the desultory universe that publishing has become, she’ll strap on her armor, mount a steed, and head anywhere her public wants to hear her. Always swamped by a crowd of devoted fans, a Karr reading never disappoints. The pages of Lit are indeed lit—with the pain of addiction and isolation and the glory of recovery and community both. The author has a Texas drawl that is a real-time, audio highlighter for her ability to write a sentence that lives on the page. When she reads, it’s like being read to for the very first time—magical. Mary Karr on the road selling a book is enough to keep literature healthy for a summer season and well beyond.

But this is not a woman to stop at conventional readings in service to what can only be called a life devoted to literature in general and poetry in particular.

Mary Karr needs to challenge the zeitgeist. And that means taking on ‘new media’ and getting the public to drink from the well of poetry in a digital sphere where they’re more likely to be surfing for cute kitty videos.

Mary’s putting a “Poetry Fix” video on YouTube every Monday and Friday.

“Poetry Fix” is giving viewers a chance to be smart about poets and to be set aflame with the realization that poets, writing broken lines with meter and metaphor at their core, mean to do more than decorate the truth—they mean to convey it with an insistence of understanding that can’t be denied. Mary and her assistant, Christopher Robinson, talk of the likes of Robert Hass, Pablo Neruda, Archilochos, and Wallace Stevens in short, 3-to-4 minute videos. Mary reads a poem, they exalt about the writing, the symbols, the impulses there. The viewer learns. And, Mary hopes, gets a little burned in the experience.

“I’m testing here and on Twitter,” she says. “I want to test the public’s appetite for and reaction to quality. I want to see if they respond and come back and are alive to the power of what good poets write.” Apparently, they’re passing the test. Mary is gathering Twitter followers like clover gathers bees, and several times a day those followers are getting lines of poetry.

“I’ve got the lines in my head,” Karr says, “I wanted to see, if I built a place for them in the new order, would they come?”

Indeed they have—for lines like “”Keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror” from Zbigniew Herbert and “Now you’re tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you once knew” from Kabir.  Mary runs quickie contests too.  On Twitter and Facebook, she asks questions like, “What are the best first and last lines in literature?” Answers flood in.  She send books—hers and others—as prizes.

“I looked at the new media and asked myself, ‘What would the surrealists have done?’”  she says.  “Marcel Duchamp would have put up a video of himself in drag, dancing, that’s for sure. We can’t be afraid of this place. We’ve got to take it over with quality and ideas and crowd out the stuff where people are talking about eating a pork chop last night.”

Go to Poetry Fix on YouTube at the marykarrlit channel. Follow @marykarrlit her on Twitter.  Find her on Facebook.  Get lit by this warrior for words with impact. And while you’re at it, get Lit. It’s a memoir, yes, but a miracle too—the story of how a drinking mom with a history that was pointing her in the direction of doom got on her non-believer knees and prayed herself sober and right into the light.  No wonder she’s trying to drag the rest of the world into it too.

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  • Sue July 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Thank goodness Mary is doing what she’s doing on Twitter and Youtube, otherwise I (and likely others) never would have tried to listen to or read poetry again. In fact, I doubt I’d ever have heard of Mary had it not been for another Twitter user suggesting we, her followers, check out Lit.

    Just listening to Mary and Christopher talk about the poems on Youtube is an education in and of itself.