- Naomi Woddis
Karen McCarthy Woolf
Poet Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father.
Her groundbreaking debut, An Aviary of Small Birds, was published to wide acclaim in 2014 and was shortlisted for both the Forward Best First Collection Prize and the Fenton/Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Guardian/Observer Book of the Month. Her latest poetry collection, Seasonal Disturbances, published in 2017, was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and described by Warsan Shire as a “stunning and strange collection from a true writer.” Her pamphlet The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers was a New Statesmen Book of the Year and a PBS recommendation in 2006.
Her poems have been translated into Spanish and Swedish and have appeared in Poetry Review, Granta, Modern Poetry in Translation, Ploughshares and numerous other journals. She has read her work in many national and international contexts including Cheltenham, Aldeburgh and Ledbury Festivals, Barbican Centre, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Modern, as well as on tour with Speaking Volumes in the US, in collaboration with Mexican poets with the British Council in Mexico, and at the Bocas International Festival in the Caribbean.
She has been awarded residencies at literary development agency Spread the Word, the City of El Gouna, Egypt, and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 2015, and has received several commissions from BBC Radio including Radio 4’s flagship show, Book of the Week, to write a response to Homer’s Odyssey in 2017. In 2005 she wrote a play for BBC Radio 4, based on the life of Dido Lindsay – a mixed-race girl who grew up in Kenwood House in the 1760s.
McCarthy Woolf is an accomplished editor and critic who writes frequently for Modern Poetry in Translation, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Review, and for Poetry London where she is on the board of trustees. She is also on the board of trustees for Wasafiri magazine, where she has also been guest editor. She has edited literary anthologies, most recently Ten: The New Wave and Ten: The Next Generation. She also edited the anthologies Bittersweet: Black Women's Contemporary Poetry (The Women's Press) and Kin (Serpent's Tail). She is an associate editor at the international literary journal Wasafiri and is on the editorial board of Magma magazine.
Karen McCarthy Woolf has extensive experience of teaching poetry and creative writing and has worked with several schools and arts and education agencies including The Photographers’ Gallery, City Lit, Southbank Centre, English PEN, Cape Farewell, and the Arvon Foundation.
She is a recipient of the Kate Betts Memorial Prize and an Arts and Humanities Research Council scholarship from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she completed a PhD in Creative Writing in 2017.
Karen McCarthy Woolf came to prominence in 2014 with the publication of her first full poetry collection An Aviary of Small Birds, an elegy for her still born son. Selecting the book as a Guardian book of the month, Kate Kellaway said it was “a beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut.”
It went on to be a finalist for both the Forward and Aldeburgh Best First Collection prizes in 2015 and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. The book is a visceral evocation of loss, grief and dislocation, refracted through surprising lenses and poetic innovations, and rendered in poetry that is simultaneously elegant, highly distilled, direct and heartfelt. The subject matter might have been searing to explore but McCarthy Woolf is resolutely unsentimental in this infinitesimally detailed examination of the components that make up heartache. It takes the poetry to some wondrous and hallucinatory places such as in the following poem:
wears white gloves
and his left hand waves
on the crowd, moves
slowly as if under
the surface where water
swims sinuous as an elver
that darts between clouds
of ink in violet reeds
weightless as birds.
In an interview following her Forward Prize nomination McCarthy Woolf said: “I think when you go through a traumatic experience it tests one’s faith – whether spiritual, philosophical or otherwise – and I think that some of the tensions I enjoyed exploring in the work relate to that – even in death there is beauty, humanity and awe [….] In an Aviary of Small Birds I was concerned with how I might make a very intimate experience universal.”
This “activism of the heart,” as McCarthy Woolf terms it, often finds its conduit in water “because it is a comfort, / this return to water, to the stream, to the earth; // the mindless torrent of the brook”, as the poem ‘Hawk’ has it. The activism relating to water continues in a sequence in her sophomore 2017 collection, Seasonal Disturbances:
The silence of water
could be drought
and a cry of thirst.
This quest for the provenance of water, its properties and her relationship to it is a leitmotif running through all of McCarthy Woolf’s work. In 2012, McCarthy Woolf was the inaugural writer-in-residence at The November Project, a tidal power sustainability initiative based on a disused fuel barge in the middle of the Thames. The project aimed to make use of tidal power to allow for electric craft to operate on the Thames. The project was perfectly in keeping with the poet’s longstanding preoccupation with water and other environmental concerns. It’s an absorption that is reflected in her doctoral research at Royal Holloway, University of London where the title of her thesis was One Plus One Equals Three: Towards a Sacred Hybridity in Contemporary Ecopoetry. According to the poet’s own website: “At the heart of the research is a bid to develop a theory of sacred hybridity that synthesises an emotional authenticity usually associated with lyric poetry, a commitment to the politics of ecological witness and an engagement with form and hybrid and collaborative practice that is experimental, innovative or playful.”
The November Project engendered the immersive sound poem ‘Conversations with Water’ commissioned by The Verb to celebrate BBC Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. The poem floats in the form of a zuihitsu throughout many pages of Seasonal Disturbances like a ribbon of shimmering water - a stream, a brook, a river. Water is also a locus of succour and a source of insistent enquiry given these themes of ecology, migration and climate change that pervade McCarthy Woolf’s work. These themes coalesced into a smaller, wryly humorous publication, Voyage, which came out of a 2015 residency at the National Maritime Museum and in collaboration with artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer. The project enabled McCarthy Woolf to deepen and personalise her contemplation of water even further by way of sea migration, memory and selfhood. When she discovered her father’s name on the passenger list of the ship Irpinia in the museum’s archives, she realised that this was the ship, much like the more famous Empire Windrush, on which her Jamaican father sailed to migrate to the UK in the 1960s.
Water isn’t the only thing that links An Aviary of Small Birds and Seasonal Disturbances. Both share aspects of lamentation but in the latter collection, the concerns are political and ecological, the tone is strange, dystopian, and wryly humorous with McCarthy Woolf’s trademark counterpointing of deeply personal and local investigations with big ticket political ideas. This is arguably exemplified in the poem 'Outside' which Carol Rumens selected as Poem of Week in the Guardian on Christmas Day 2017:
under the arcade
and the floor-length glass shop front:
a green pop-up dome
flanked by a Burberry
suitcase and a sleeping-bag
a makeshift shelter
for Sai from Stratford
with time to invest
in a four-day queue – he’s first
in line for an iPhone 6s
no-one moves him on
or threatens arrest
as it’s not about where
but why you pitch your tent
In this book, the voice isn’t always as frankly political as in the poem above; resistance comes in the form of the linguistic subversions that push against traditional forms too. Landays, golden shovels, prose/poetry hybrids and a form the poet devised herself which she calls couplings hold what a poem can be in elastic tension. This lends the work a metaphysical weight. A poem such as ‘Tatler’s People Who Really Matter’, takes the fawning language of that magazine’s aggrandising of the rich and privileged and reassigns it to immigrants: “Imagine how super-clever and super-connected / and affable one must be to have got this far”. The found sonnets that make up The Science of Life are a response to ‘eXXpedition’, the all-women sailing crew who undertake scientific missions to explore the effects of plastic pollution in the oceans. All of the above ensures that McCarthy Woolf’s poetry does something uncommon: it is experimental and self-determining, whilst also being capable of attracting mainstream readers too.
An Aviary of Small Birds and Seasonal Disturbances may have brought McCarthy Woolf a wider readership, but she has been working steadily to this end for many years and in a variety of ways. Born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father she has always had a keen in interest in testing the boundaries of what a poem can be, what it can do and where it can go. This energetic interrogation of the nature of poetry has manifested in cross-arts collaborations with artists, filmmakers, musicians and choreographers. Her work has been commissioned as an installation, selected for Poems on the Underground, and dropped from a helicopter over the Houses of Parliament by Chilean arts collective Casagrande as part of Poetry Parnassus.
McCarthy Woolf is also an editor of poetry. The most recent publications that she has edited are the anthologies Ten: Poets of the New Generation (2017) and Ten: The New Wave (2014), both for Bloodaxe Books. McCarthy Woolf featured as a poet in the first anthology of the series, Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word in 2010. In an introduction to her work in the book, her mentor Michael Symmons Roberts wrote of "her ambition, wit and sureness", her interest in politics, ecology and history, and "her continuing exploration of poetic form […]. Her poetry was already concerned with love, how close any of us can get to each other, and the risk and fear of the loss of that love.”
All three books were associated anthologies of The Complete Works, a nationwide professional development programme committed to creating more cultural diversity in mainstream poetry publishing.
Before that, McCarthy Woolf edited Kin: New Fiction by Black and Asian Women in 2003 and Bittersweet: Black Women’s Contemporary Poetry which The Independent said was “an anthology of tremendous depth” that showed “not just the vitality of the black British poetic voice but its standing in the context of writing from around the world.”
Dzifa Benson, 2018