Karen McCarthy Woolf

United Kingdom

Born in London to English and Jamaican parents, Karen McCarthy Woolf holds a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Prize and an AHRC doctoral scholarship at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is exploring ecological poetry, the city and loss. Her collection An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) commemorates a baby son who died in childbirth and is a Forward Prize Best First Collection nomination. The title poem has been translated into Spanish and was dropped by helicopter over the Houses of Parliament by the Chilean collective Casagrande. Karen has a longstanding interest in cross-arts practice: she has collaborated with artists, filmmakers, musicians and choreographers, presented her work as installation and performed in the UK, US and Europe. The editor of three anthologies, most recently Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014), she is currently resident at the National Maritime Museum, where she is responding to an exhibition on international migration.


Karen McCarthy Woolf’s poems reveal a range and craft as they explore themes of loss and grief, migration and displacement. They are sometimes political and are not afraid of emotion. They deal with myth and story and they also find imaginative and innovative ways to write about and explore personal subjects. She says in a Forward Prize interview: “In An Aviary of Small Birds I was concerned with how I might make a very intimate experience universal.  In my next book I’m exploring how to take on big, macropolitical issues and render them somehow personally affecting.”

McCarthy Woolf’s debut collection An Aviary of Small Birds commemorates a baby son who died in childbirth. It was widely received with enthusiasm and admiration for the way it explores a personal tragedy through shifting and unexpected perspectives. Kate Kellaway in The Guardian calls it a “A beautiful, painful, pitch perfect debut.” An Aviary of Small Birds was a Poetry Book Society Choice and the selector comment called it: “Visceral and tender, the work is also palate-cleansing, the poems fresh and contemporary. The poet draws on the natural world, particularly the fragility and wildness of birds and the weightlessness that answers something in the human soul. This is an exceptional achieved first collection, the poems elegantly controlled, though the feelings cannot be tamed.”

From An Aviary of Small Birds:

My love is an aviary
of small birds
and I must learn
to leave the door ajar...

Karen McCarthy Woolf talks about wanting to push against what our definition of a poem might be. They seem to be born out of obsession, from which much of the best poetry emerges.  The opening line of Kingfisher reflects, ‘The truth is I’ve a long history of dead birds’. This is a poet who uses her poems to stare closely at things most of us flinch at or ignore. Her prose poem Of Road Kill and Other Corpses has the protagonist taking photographs of dead animals. Some of her poems are harrowing:

Under Other requests or concerns:

hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.

Brain restored to head, skin

stitched neatly and correctly.

(from The Paperwork)

However, as Rebecca Goss expresses when she explores her reaction to this collection, “Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things.”  Karen McCarthy Woolf says “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.”

Last year Karen McCarthy Woolf was Poet in Residence at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which enabled her to extend her interest in the sea, water and its healing properties -this time made manifest in a series of poems about maritime migration, identity and belonging. Water speaks of the flow of people to new places in poems about migrations and these new poems weave intricate and complex stories, memories and places:

Golden River

Froths downstream

From Mizpah, Zion Hill and Sooky Gal

In your childhood parish

(from  Voyage)

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s poetry unites both mainstream and experimentalist readers in their admiration for this crystalline and brave collection, justly nominated for a prestigious Forward Prize. She is a powerful and assured reader, leaving audiences stunned and deeply moved when she has read from Aviary of Small Birds