The Poetry Exchange: a response

by Karen McCarthy Woolf

In this piece, written in the earliest days of The Poetry Exchange, acclaimed poet Karen McCarthy Woolf reflects on her experience of reading and being in conversation with a poem as a friend...

Karen McCarthy Woolf (from net).jpg


I came to the Poetry Exchange not knowing quite what to expect:

I’ve never done any formal education work on reading … yes, I’m studying for a practice-based PhD in poetry, where reading is an essential part of my process;

I review poetry and fiction – which is in itself a very specific form of close reading, and I’ve also taken dedicated reading courses around specific texts, such as Dante’s Inferno;

as a writer, and particularly as a poet, all of the syntactical, linguistic, formal and visual effects that might be possible on the page are something I consider with ‘a reader’ in mind;

historically, reading has been a professional activity for me since I got my first job at 17, working as an editorial assistant in a business book publishers: I was trained to proofread, character by character -- a skill that had both a beneficial and detrimental impact on my reading experience;

throughout my childhood, books and poems were a refuge, a place of escape and excitement, that once I learned to read alone, was a distinctly private zone;

I had never considered the act of reading as a shared experience: the comprehension, yes – as a writer every revision, workshopped poem and draft is an attempt to enhance readability and understanding of the text, but up until now I’d not delved into the physical, emotional and cognitive intricacies of reading as an action, and particularly of reading poetry.

The Poetry Exchange opened up what reading meant to me on a deeply personal level ---

by expanding the paradigm of what it means to receive a poem, on a tangible, visceral and physical level;

and in providing a forum that was very attentive to the spaces in between words, what the group had identified as the ‘sweet spot’: a place where we might ‘guard the silence’ as well as the ‘noise’ or meaning a word or phrase might impart.


my poem to a ‘panel’ as a ‘friend’ was a surprisingly moving experience. I chose Louise Glück’s ‘Sunset’ ---a poem that had a profound personal resonance---yet even so, as I presented the work, and talked about how it fulfilled a friendship role, I was amazed at the depth and complexity of feelings it invoked.


My great happiness
is the sound your voice makes
calling to me even in despair; my sorrow
that I cannot answer you
in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language.
So you invest
authority in signs
you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become
your own response.

Louise Glück, The Wild Iris

As a writer I was lucky to both present a poem, and sit in on the ‘listening committee’. I wrote notes about the brief, which gave the panel some guidelines on how to ‘manage’ the introduction. A phrase that stuck with me was ‘be a dynamic receiver’. They were also asked to ‘understand’ rather than analyse and encourage participants to really embrace the idea of treating the poem as a friend.

This produced startling results – certainly in the manner in which I related to the poem. Ironically, although the poem I chose sits within a group of poems which anthropomorphize flowers, the landscape, elements and God/a deity which the poet communicates with, seeing it as a friend, within the context of a shared reading experience opened up new thematic areas too, as the poem itself is concerned with what it means to write and to read.

For part of the interview, I was tearful, because I hadn’t realized quite how strongly I felt about the poem. I’d not realized how reading it had played such a significant role in the development of my poetics as a writer; or how the notion of friendship framed the experience –-- the poem as a loyal and constant companion is something we might feel aware of in general terms, but as an actuality, in terms of my own relationship with poetry, was something I’d not truly considered before. I felt vulnerable, in my declaration of love, yet also excited.

The reciprocal part of the exchange then took place, where the listening committee disappeared to voice a recording of the poem based on my introduction as a ‘gift’ to me ---receiving the finished product hasn’t happened yet, and in fact the gift, for me was less in the possible receipt of the recording and more in being listened to…for having the opportunity to compare my own reading experience with other professionals – writers, actors, facilitators – where stepping back from a technical response to a text allowed me to (re)discover the joys and possibilities of poetry as something to be read for pleasure, to spend time with, as one might a friend.


The other stand-out activity was working on listening to and reciting and performing poems. Being given an individual line – in this case that above from W B Yeats’ ‘The Lake of Innisfree’ which we then performed as part of a group recital allowed me to experience the poem in detail and as a whole. The group used the physical space to play with volume and intensity, moving between different demarcated points, and this activity allowed us to analyse the structure of the poem through its manifestation as a performed entity. By understanding the poem’s life as an utterance as well as a written artifact new levels of meaning opened up – particularly in terms of experience poetry as lyric, as song – in its fullness as a thing of beauty and music.

As a writer, having greater insight into how actors read and work with text was fascinating. It’s easy to get set in your own relationship with poems, as things to be ‘made’, produced, published, performed. My feedback at the end of the session was that the ‘exchange’ had made me understand the reading process in a far more 3-dimensional manner.

Strangely although it’s tempting to say that the act of reading was rendered more active rather than passive, on reflection I think it may actually be something more akin to the reverse – but in that passivity, there’s a vulnerability and an openness that made the reading and listening experience more aligned to the reading I experienced as a child, where I could enter the complete world of a story or a poem, not just devour it forensically for professional purposes.