Author photo: Fiona Melville

A bit of talk – with Karen McCarthy Woolf

Coming from a culturally diverse poetic community has been a great thing in terms of community, representative perhaps of London, where I live… I love that and I think it’s under threat in the city as a whole, and how that will play out in terms of literature I don’t know. And anyway we have to always work towards making sure that literature is diverse, because left to its own devices it doesn’t seem to […] in terms of printed form it hasn’t done a good job left to its own devices so far. – Karen McCarthy Woolf

On the run up to launching my first record ‘Talk in a bit’ I am sharing some bits of talking with poets I’ve been doing over the last few years. I’ve been interviewing poets for a new archive at the British Library ‘Black British Poets in Performance’ as part of my PhD on analysing poetry in performance (particularly the work of Lemn Sissay, David J and Salena Godden).  The archive is not yet launched (and might take a bit longer due to British Library website shenanigans). In the meantime I am going to post bits of the interviews, in non-alphabetic order…  Yesterday I posted a bit of talk with Malika Booker. Both Malika and Karen talk about the importance of taking workshops in the mid 90s with Kwame Dawes through Spread The Word:

It was very much this idea of developing the writer. I mean that sense of craft, technique, thinking about the page, and thinking about what is your legacy and where does the legacy exist – in the literature in the printed book? What are we pushing towards with this and what does it mean to be a Black writer in this environment we’re living in. That was a long journey that led me into the Complete Works much later. – Karen McCarthy Woolf

Both Karen and Malika worked for Apples and Snakes in the earlier days of the organisation. Both were on the first Complete Works programme, and have since published their collections to wide critical acclaim. Karen describes the work of Bernardine Evaristo supporting poets and her role with the Complete Works:

She kept faith with people who took a long time to get their collections out, and I would be one of them. She was hugely supportive and inspirational in many ways. 

Karen and I talked about her work for digital platforms, a dance collaboration and an installation project – we talked about ways in which poetry can perform beyond the poet-on-stage. The bit of talk I’m sharing here is about how Karen performs on the page with her use of form – which blew my little mind. She discusses the forms she used in her first collection An Aviary of Small Birds and the influences and thinking behind forms and voices., such as the list form and privileging of the image in ‘Of Road Kill and Other Corpses’, a list of animal cadavers:

I took photographs of them […] I didn’t know what I’d do with them but I knew you could not encounter that many cadavers and it for not to mean something.  

Another poem ‘Of August’ is a counterpoint to ‘Road Kill’. It is a prose poem in the form of a synopsis and uses distancing devices to get through difficult material. ‘I was interested in what happens when you deprive a poem of imagery, and that’s why it’s a counterpoint to ‘Road Kill’….’

 One poem, on the stillbirth of her son, when turned on its side looks like a cardiograph:

I noticed in the aftermath of the trauma I became very sensitive to sound, actually the visual is not what becomes important. I think when you’re in a state of trauma you’re in shock and when you’re in a state of shock your body protects you, you become primal, it’s about how do you survive in this world of predators when you’re in shock, the body heightens other senses and hearing is one that will protect you and help you stay alive. So the next poem is a two syllable per line sonnet, like the death knell. 

On the challenges of writing from personal experience, intimate loss, in An Aviary of Small Birds:

The great irony is that this experience made me a much much better writer in many ways. I had put a huge amount of time and investment into developing my poetry and had a lot of technical skill but I didn’t yet have the courage or conviction to write about the things that really mattered to me on a personal level, or to really countenance that level of exposure or vulnerability. I think vulnerability is an important thing, but really to express vulnerability, to allow it to go out there into the world you need a good strong robust vessel, and that to me is the form, to carry it, to sort of protect it. 

She discusses trying to ‘reach for the high notes’ to communicate with her son through the work, to express something of ‘huge sentiment without sentimentality’. She sees the book as a private kind of one to one performance ‘If you think of a book as a performative object, a poetry book is different to a novel’.

 On her experience of performance An Aviary of Small Birds:

I know you need to give audiences breathers, particularly when you’re asking them to focus on and process a difficult emotional experience that is also quite taboo. I’m asking a lot of my audience I need to give them space. And Francesca [Beard] said, ‘you know Karen, every bit of what I do, the whole thing, all of it is the poem, it’s one whole piece’. I really loved that as an idea and as a practice. 

The interview concludes exploring questions around ‘Black British writer’ as a category, the ‘requirement to position’ oneself as a poet, and how this might impact on what can be written about. She explains: ‘Race exists in my work now formally…a hybrid approach, bringing together two things that might seem contradictory, that come together to create something exciting’. Although she does not directly address cultural diversity, race or gender politics in her poetry:

…if we want to think about things in terms of race I think my experience as a mixed-race person comes through very much in that relationship with how form works. And also I would say that to me is great, brilliant, I like that, I like the fact that perhaps I‘ve been able to identify that later along the line, it’s not how I started thinking about things at all… but now it makes sense, I’m interested in hybridity. 

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s most recently published collection Seasonal Disturbances was named a a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for 2017. mccarthywoolf.com

Talk in a bit tour dates