Karen McCarthy Woolf

21 Jun 2019

Karen McCarthy Woolf

The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for June, Karen McCarthy Woolf.

Karen McCarthy Woolf is a writer based in the UK. She writes poetry, criticism and drama. Her collection, An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) was shortlisted for the Forward Felix Dennis and Fenton Aldeburgh prizes. She makes radio features and drama for BBC radio. Her most recent collection is Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet 2017).

Natalya: How did you begin as a writer? What age were you? What brought you to write poems?

Karen: I wrote poems from a young age. As a child, I read children’s poetry and fiction. I have always had a very detailed mind and I think poetry’s capacity to zoom in on minutiae was one of its attractions. The world could be apprehended at a scale that made sense, as a physically smaller being. I was always fascinated by our garden, the sensory imaginary that lay within it and was attracted to stories and poems that brought this landscape to life. In many ways that is the constant in my work. Right now, I’m in a hotel room in Changsha, China. It’s a vast, modern city, there’s a volume control for ‘background music’ on the wall and a lighting console, behind me there’s a mountain and a chorus of extremely loud, hoarse and croaky frogs. Poetry gives me the capacity to capture these juxtapositions, these contrasting moments, to think about their equilibrium, or lack thereof, to record a neural pathway and share that with an audience. I was a dreamy child, an escapist: poetry was the video camera with which I was able to film my inner world.

Natalya: Wow, your poetry really does take you around the world, Karen. As well it should, it’s awesome. Tell me about your experiences growing up in the UK. Did you seek out other writers, poets, painters, dancers? If so, what was that like?

Karen: Absolutely. Yes. You could add to that list also musicians, as music is a great, unnegotiable passion in my life. I have always been drawn to creative people. This might express through a traditional notion of a ‘creative career’ or elsewhere: my friends are writers, sailors, human-rights lawyers, film folk, scientists and also people who love clothes, architecture, design, photography, travel, cooking ––what creativity is poured into the stirring and cooking of a good broth! They inevitably make me laugh. Some might do other day jobs working in bars, in offices, as security guards, carers, teachers, parents, but the creative spirit is more irrepressible than we think. It escapes –– it has to, it’s a pressure valve and the release will occur, eventually. London, where I was born and raised, was the perfect cauldron in which to incubate creative friendships. And now, as the city contracts through gentrification it is also expanding, not just geographically, but in terms of diversity: there is undoubtedly an explosion of opportunity created by and for those who’ve been marginalised. We are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift, and taking the long view, I have hope that there are changes being made at the systemic level this time: not just in the arts, but across the board. We still have a long way to go, and the macropolitical counterpoints are becoming more intense, but there is a flexibility and resilience in the air that makes me feel optimistic. Despite all the political gloom and doom. There are so many young people making amazing art happen: in nightclubs, on digital radio, in squats, online and in traditional media. Art is a physical embodiment of creativity and this can manifest in so many, beautifully various and complex ways. For a poet I am a deeply social creature –– although that sociability is mixed with a melancholic and reclusive note to my character (hence the poems!). I’ve been making collaborations with techno producers for a couple of years, and I’m going to be doing more of that. I think consumerist culture doesn’t always encourage creative careers –– or make it feel viable for those who aren’t independently wealthy. As the UK edges towards a more philanthropist-based arts economy we need also to be alert to the financial pressures which create stratas of accessibility. It’s so much easier to be edged out when you’re holding down three minimum wage jobs to pay your way at uni. In an economically and politically unstable environment the spirit of a creative community is a necessary nourishment.

Natalya: How does your family history and today’s political corruption in England collide and influence you as an artist?

Karen: This is a fascinating question and right now a mosquito is making a total meal of me. I will have to go to the shop and buy a citronella coil in a minute… My second collection Seasonal Disturbances explores aspects of environmental stress. It records my father’s journey from Jamaica to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation. Writing ‘Voyage’, and importantly reading it in 2018 (the 70th anniversary of Windrush) is demonstrative of that collision. I wanted to honour those stories, to be part of a ‘griot’ tradition, where a community history is held in its poems and songs. I was also wary of allowing the external gaze to settle too long or too easily on the concept of my dad as a migrant. That is one part of the narrative. He was here for 50 years. We need to acknowledge the whole –– beyond the border crossing, the journey ––otherwise corrupt politicians will continue with their campaign of racist and erroneous deportations with impunity. That is on my father’s side. My mother’s family is white, English, working-class. They are victims of political corruption too –– albeit as people who have access to white privilege, however muted, or limited that may be. My grandparents were ideological racists who loved me dearly. That taught me a lot about how racism is rarely based on everyday human interaction. You only have to look at the referendum results: London, the most diverse city in Europe, and possibly the world, voted overwhelmingly to remain because people know and live with each other in proximity. They were not legislating against an illusory and demonised ‘Other’ manufactured for the convenience of political powermongers. In terms of my work, I wrote a sequence of Cockney ‘renditions’ for Modern Poetry in Translation that recorded my grandfather’s stories from the East End between the wars. He was an amazing storyteller, a larger than life character, and I’m proud to have got those stories written down and published, as local and cultural archive. You know Issa has a haiku that says: ‘All the time I pray/ to the Buddha, I keep on/killing mosquitos.’ That’s the thing, isn’t it: the challenge of reconciling our behaviours to fit the ideal –– or vice versa. There’s work for us all to do in this regard.

Natalya: Tell me about how you began writing An Aviary of Small Birds. How did you bring your strength and the very scaffolding of your mind and body to write about what most people are afraid to talk about, let alone even imagine?

Karen: It began with one poem, White Butterflies, that I wrote and read at my son Otto’s funeral. He died during the childbirth. I was nine months pregnant and it was traumatic. Because he died while being born, in the process of an emergency caesarean, it was categorised as a stillbirth, which is somewhat misleading, as many people think of it as similar to a miscarriage. Otto weighed eight and a half pounds. His feet filled the palm of my hand. I have had three miscarriages too, and all of these losses are excruciating in different ways. I say this, because you ask how did I write about what most people are afraid to imagine? Yet you didn’t mention ‘the thing’. This is not a critique; I raise it now simply to illustrate how hard it is to articulate. To voice. There are many things I never said, even though they hover, sometimes, at the edges of my consciousness. The most profound shift was in terms of commitment: I wrote those poems for and to my son. I was aiming for a very high note: of a baby, of a soul that is innocent and pure. That’s not to say that I didn’t revise and edit with rigour. I love a good, strong cut. It’s interesting that you use the word ‘scaffolding’. Poetry was the architecture, the holding framework that gave me the space in which to explore my pain and vulnerability. I needed, and received, a lot of support and encouragement to reach down into those dark caverns, from friends, family and fellow writers. Pascale Petit, whose body of work on transforming trauma through visual art is an inspiration, ran classes at Tate Modern. Being in conversation with visual art gave me access to a pre-existing syntax. Art, poetry, music: none of these art forms exist in isolation.

Natalya: Yes, I am afraid to even say ‘the thing’. It scares me, and I’m unable to allow myself to imagine what you’ve experienced. How did you find people’s responses? Were they helpful or hindering?

Karen: Many people have come to me after readings, shared experiences of loss and told me they found comfort in the work, even though it is not sentimental. At times it is quite hard-going, emotionally. Sometimes we need to recognise our pain, to feel it, not to have it glossed over. Plath is like that, and Olds, as well as Glück, all in very different ways. For me, Glück is the poet who manages to isolate that feeling, of emotional pain at a very profound and pure level. Sometimes when we reach a certain truth, it doesn’t feel comfortable, but I wasn’t looking to evoke ease. I think writing Aviary underlined why poetry is a fundamental genre for me: it allowed me to explore that grief in the fullest way possible at that moment in time.

Natalya: I’ve recently read Seasonal Disturbances, your second collection. I love the humour, but also the darkness that is somehow buoyant on top of the light you sort of dip each poem in. How did you incorporate these often-fragmented poems (sometimes about the fragments of your own body) into a broader picture of society, of political discourse, of personal fragmentation, and so forth?

Karen: Seasonal Disturbances is sort of like a Volume II in a way. It expands on many of the themes I began to explore in Aviary. What I realised is that in Aviary I was trying to make a very intimate loss universal; in the second book I was trying to make much larger, macro-level losses intimate. I have a sequence of sonnets that began from humuments (a visual erasure form) extracted from a book called The Science of Life, co-authored by HG Wells and Julian Huxley amongst others. One of the things that happened, while making the poems, was I discovered this dystopian, dictator voice: and I enjoyed speaking from this strange, oddly dissociated vantage point. It was like, am I inadvertently channelling a composite dictator spirit, embedded somewhere between the lines? The book is interesting in terms of its relationship to ecology: it has an admirable prescience in terms of the climate disaster we are facing, yet many of its ideological detriments, e.g. population control/eugenics as a ‘solution’ to resource scarcity, are re-emerging today. It was published, not coincidentally, in 1933. There is also a disrupted zuihitsu, Conversation, With Water – the rest of the poems hang off this piece, which was written on a barge in the middle of the river Thames. I became very interested in the spiritual and emotional resonance of water on our being and psyche, and it is a fascination that endures. It is a fragmented work in many ways, and I think fragmentation is symptomatic of trauma. Yet there is also something liberating in loosening the structure; it can bend easier in the wind.

Natalya: I have recently written, as part of an essay for The Poetry Review (due out later this month in the summer issue), about how some of your poems are examples of female writers using humour to belie a rejection of their domestic circumstances. Not always a total rejection, per se, but rather a gentle kick in the nuts, if you will. Why and where is wit or humour important, do you think, in poetry?

Karen: Wit and humour are important in life. I’m curious about your reading of the work in this regard. My next book is a verse novel, in the voice of a pseudo-aristocratic French doll who is the companion of one of America’s richest women, who died aged 105 in a hospital in New York, not having been outside for 80 years. It’s a tragi-comedy and I’m having a lot of fun sending her up. She’s a bit of an idiot, a snob, who thinks she’s better than everyone else, but is oddly lovable in the extent of her delusion. It’s actually very serious in its subject matter though: agoraphobia, domestic violence, race and class prejudice, all contained within a deeply claustrophobic and eccentric scenario. Still, as my mum or my sisters would say, you have to laugh.

Natalya: Can you inform our readers of what projects you have lined up for the summer? We know that you work in many artistic mediums and are always on the move!

Karen: I just got back from the Genoa International Poetry Festival in Italy, which is part of Versopolis, a brilliant EU funded scheme that links 21 European poetry festivals and translates your work into the host national’s language. It’s an opportunity to discover so many new writers, poetries and poetics. I’m in China right now, where I’ll be giving a keynote at Hunan Normal University in Changsha at their annual conference on Contemporary Literary Ideas in the UK and US. I’ll be sharing a paper on diversity and ‘sacred hybridity’ as a new, decolonised architecture and mapping this onto some of our writers of colour in the UK. Then in the autumn I go to California for a year, to UCLA on a Fulbright Scholarship where I’ll be Writer in Residence at the newly established Promise Institute for Human Rights. I’ll be working with them as they reimagine human rights in the 21st century and thinking about how literature and law can combine knowledge streams to articulate safe spaces in complex environments. Oh, and living close to the Pacific, a new ocean to dive into!