“Read forensically”: A National Poetry Competition interview with Karen McCarthy Woolf

Karen McCarthy Woolf

The next in our series of Q&As with the National Poetry Competition 2020 judges is here, this time with poet and broadcaster Karen McCarthy Woolf. It joins our previous ice cream-themed Q&A with Jonathan Edwards.

What advice would you give to entrants looking at a blank page?
A blank page can be daunting.  Give yourself permission to write about anything that truly moves you, large or small, and be prepared to make a big, creative mess on that page–– you can refine the work later in the editing process which is where the drafting really begins. Let go of the fact that you want it to be good. Or great. Or that your subject needs to be huge. Think of what Pablo Neruda managed to do with an onion! I always begin work by hand in a notebook and I write fast. Keeping a notebook handy helps us record and access voices and material we think we’ll remember and then forget. A blank page is also an opportunity to think about how your poem interacts with the space: a poem can be performative on the page, and not just visually, that relationship can be sonic too.

What advice would you give to those making their finishing touches?
Read your poem forensically. Several times. Think about the tenses, verbs, line breaks––what images, ideas, sounds does each line hold? –– and how do these elements relate to the subject matter.  Read it aloud so you can hear where it stumbles or falters. Ask a friend to read it to you, so you can listen in from the outside. If the poem guards its secrets too closely then you might have to interrogate it harder–– what are you holding back and why? You may need to add more material before cutting back again. Be ruthless on yourself and kind on your reader. It’s a two-way street. If you’re asking them to invest in reading your work, what do they get back?

What are you reading at the moment?
Layli Longsoldier’s Whereas –– a stunning, lyric critique of America and the genocide of the indigenous peoples whose lands it occupied and settled. I also have a pile of biographies and memoirs of General Custer on my desk and several books about barbed wire!

What can you tell us about the first poem you ever had published?
Thinking about it I realise it still had the kernel of many of my ongoing preoccupations embedded within it. But It was naive and, I hate to say it, clichéd, demonstrating above all how much more widely I needed to read!

Don’t forget that the National Poetry Competition is open to anyone aged 18 or over, and the deadline is 31 October each year. If you’ve written about something that truly moves you, you can enter the competition here. Good luck!