A celebrated poet and a writer whose voice and poetics are immediately recognizable, Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, Her poetry has hugely contributed to the UK poetry landscape such as her work editing ‘Ten: The New Wave’ (Bloodaxe) and ‘Ten: The Next Generation’ (Bloodaxe). She also edited the anthologies Bittersweet: Black Women’s Contemporary Poetry (The Women’s Press), Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War’ (Nine Arches) and most recently ‘Mapping the Future: The Complete World Poets (Bloodaxe). 

Her debut, ‘An Aviary of Small Birds’ (Carcanet), was acclaimed when published in 2014. It walks readers through the story of losing a child through childbirth and unravels layers of loss and motherhood. The collection was shortlisted for the Forward Felix Dennis and Jerwood Prizes. It was also listed as an Observer book of the year. Her second poetry collection ‘Seasonal Disturbances’ was similarly well received by international poetry scenes. ‘Seasonal Disturbances’ (Carcanet) was published in 2017 and was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The collection, which deals with gentrification, city life and the environment, was the winner in the inaugural Laurel Prize for ecological poetry. Warsan Shire offered praise, hailing the collection as ‘a strange and stunning collection from a true writer. ‘Vulnerable, hilarious and wise, ‘Seasonal Disturbance’ is a darkly humorous exploration of the human condition.’ McCarthy Woolf’s pamphlet ‘The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers’ was a New Statesmen Book of the Year and a PBS recommendation in 2006. 

McCarthy Woolf’s work has been heavily featured including multiple commissions from BBC radio and translations in numerous languages (Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Turkish and Dutch). Some of these translations have featured in publications such as Granta, Modern Poetry Review, Ploughshares and several other journals. Beyond print publication, McCarthy Woolf also had her work produced as a choreographed short film, exhibited by ‘Poems on the Underground’ and had her poetry dropped from a helicopter over the Houses of Parliament.  

In her poem ‘Tasting Note for Grief # 17’, there is a simple and unadorned version of the familiar feelings of grief. Much like the unflinching collection ‘An Aviary of Small Birds’, McCarthy Woolf avoids no aspect of the everlasting effects of grief in her poem. This is a representation of how McCarthy Woolf is able to call upon all senses to taste, feel, hear and develop a sensitivity for death. In the line ‘insidious/ as rust in a cut’, she invites readers to examine how grief lives in the body, throughout and beyond the duration of this poem. There is an easefulness about the way that each line burrows under the surface layers of skin and emotion, exposing almost unreachable layers of grieving. Indeed ‘it will keep for years under the earth’ and mind. In a way, it is a burial the reader expects and yet waits for, reluctantly surrendering towards the final lines. 

In ‘Wing’, she emphasises a face to loss that is both entirely faceless yet known. The wing which has been found, ‘torn from the socket’ suddenly demands a type of sensitivity that is hard to pull away from. The poem is endlessly vulnerable, from the maternal resonances in the ‘somersault in the womb’ to the delicacy of the girl, phantom-like, ‘breathing quietly by a window’. The reading reveals a caress and a guardianship in McCarthy Woolf’s voice that translates on page. The short, swift language and the softness gives rise to a patience that is so appreciated for readers who understand the story’s tenderness. 

‘To Dover from Calais’ deals with vacancy and void just as ‘Wing’ does, only this time the gaps and silences cannot be filled. Whether it is shame, injustice or disapproval, the poem empties itself into an unlaughable matter. The couplet form offers structure and presents the politics of Calais and refugees as stories worth memorising. The poem wraps itself around the discomfort and also the indiscreet in order not to shy away from necessary political conversations.  

Karen recorded these poems on 13th December, 2022 at The Soundhouse Studio, West London.

Poems by Karen McCarthy Woolf

Wing - Karen McCarthy Woolf
Voyage - Karen McCarthy Woolf
To Dover from Calais - Karen McCarthy Woolf
Tasting Note for Grief # 17 - Karen McCarthy Woolf
Of Ownership - Karen McCarthy Woolf
Horse Chestnut 1 – A Coupling - Karen McCarthy Woolf
Emotions - Karen McCarthy Woolf

Books by Karen McCarthy Woolf



Forward Felix Dennis First Collection for 'An Aviary of Small Birds', shortlisted

Prize website

Jerwood/Aldeburgh First Collection for 'An Aviary of Small Birds', shortlisted

Prize website

Laurel Prize for Ecological Poetry for 'Seasonal Disturbances', second prize

Prize website

Prairie Schooner, Glenna Luschei Editor’s Award for poems from 'Seasonal Disturbances'

Prize website

Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar for 'Un/Safe'

Prize website

BBC Audio Award / Best Adaptation for 'Orlando', shortlisted

Prize website