Karen McCarthy Woolf

My Approach

portrait of Karen McCarthy Woolf
The SWITCH inspire site is curated by the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf.  Read on to find out about her approach, and for tips on how to develop your own creative ideas.

My Approach

As a writer I’m very interested in process. I keep a journal and a notebook, where I jot down thoughts and ideas. I use the camera on my phone to snap pictures of things that catch my eye. I often go to galleries and use painting, photography and sculpture as inspiration for new poems.

For me poetry is a way to speak out about the issues that concern me so that people can experience the world from my unique perspective. Even though I’ve always lived in London my poetry is strongly connected to the natural world. Now, as climate change accelerates and we begin to feel its effects with more extreme weather conditions, the destruction of natural habitats and extinction of species, writing about what’s happening feels even more important. I don’t know if poetry or art can change the world, but I do know it can change the way we think about the world and hopefully, by extension, how we live in it.

Cape Farewell brings artists and scientists together to think about climate science creatively. As I selected the material for the SWITCH website, much of which comes from expeditions to the areas and communities most affected by climate change, I was struck by the way the artists, musicians and writers responded to the beauty and spirit of the landscape and how that made me think about what humanity has to lose.

Of course, the challenge is to find a way to explore these big and complex issues in a manner that is also personally meaningful. For me, the best poetry is detailed, thoughtful and speaks from and to the heart. From 18 January, I’ll be setting a poetry challenge on the Young Poets Network, every week for four weeks. In addition to bringing the issue and the artworks that respond to it to a wider audience, I’ll be sharing some of my own writing techniques and practice, and inviting participants to add their poems to the larger conversation on climate change and what we as individuals can do about it. I’ll also be selecting some of the best poems submitted to be showcased on the SWITCH website.

On Notebooking

Keep a notebook/journal and carry it with you. Jot down ideas that spring to mind, or make a note or sketch of things that catch your eye. If you have a camera to hand you can also use it snap photographs.

You can also use your notebook as a scrapbook and collect newspaper and magazine articles that grab your attention. Some of it might be directly associated with climate change, some of it less so. Allow yourself the space to write openly and freely – like a diary, a journal is a private space: yes, you may choose to develop some of the ideas in it for sharing, but that’s your decision and it’s optional. Write about how you feel as well as what you think.

On Freewriting

Freewriting is a technique many writers use when they want to brainstorm. I find it really helps me to discover fresh ideas for poems, or to find lines and phrases I wasn’t expecting. It’s also a way to download all the stuff you don’t want to go into a poem, but can’t quite get out of your head.

The technique is simple: decide on a time frame, say 5 or 10 minutes and then start writing the first thing that comes into your head. You can write whatever you like, the only rule is to KEEP YOUR HAND MOVING ON THE PAGE. Write fast and don’t allow yourself to think. If you get stuck, write anything, like ‘blue blue blue dog whistle stop fairy Christmas nonsense like this’, the trick is to just keep going. Don’t worry about being neat, or whether what you say makes sense, or whether there are spelling or grammar mistakes. Just keep writing until the time is up.

When you’ve finished, read it over and underline any lines or phrases you like or stand out: you might use these as material for your poems.

Get inspired and start looking round the material on the SWITCH site.

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Still Life

Nick Cobbing

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Carol Cotterill

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Nick Cobbing – Blosseville Coast Iceberg


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Clare Twomey – Blossom

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David Buckland – Ice Texts

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Anon - Whale Etching

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Sunand Prasad – Greenhouse Gas

Prasad - Greenhouse Gas

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Leonid Tishkov – Private Moon

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Rough Seas

Rough Sea

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Northern Lights

Northern Lights - Kathy Barber

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David Buckland – Messenger

David Buckland - Messenger

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Lemn Sissay

What If

What If?

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SWITCH night at RIch Mix 2

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We also showcased the young poets and YPNers who rose to the SWITCH Challenge series at an evening event at Rich Mix, London, featuring newly commissioned... More ›

SWITCH night at Rich Mix 1

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Celebrating the first year of SWITCH, we made a short film to present an inspiring year of creative schools workshops – led by poets Karen McCarthy... More ›

Ian McEwan speaks to his fellow writers

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The renowned writer and Cape Farewell Patron Ian McEwan took big interest in the Switch competition and had addressed all his fellow writers at the final... More ›

A tough choice: the runners-up

Ackroyd & Harvey

The decision on who is going to win was a difficult one there were quite a few excellent submissions. Well done to all! The runners-up for... More ›

Challenge winner: Jake Reynolds

Challenge 4

Jake Reynolds

The final challenge was to write a poem that contained the things you would put in a box to represent humanity if aliens landed in the... More ›

Challenge winner: Serena Cooke

Challenge 3

Serena Cooke

Challenge three was to write a collage poem that explores the causes and effects of climate change, using information gathered from notebooks and freewrites responding to... More ›

Challenge winner: Mary Anne Clark

Challenge 2

Mary Anne Clark

The prompt for the second challenge was to write a poem in the voice of an animal that has to leave its home. Mary Anne Clark... More ›

Challenge winner: Jamie Uy

Challenge 1

The Winner: Jamie Uy

The winner of the first challenge is Jamie Uy, a very promising young poet. The challenge was to take on the theme of consumerism responding to... More ›

Ana Cecilia Gonzales Vigil

Amazonian Butterflies

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Hannah Tuulikki

Away With The Birds


Hanna Tuulikki’s Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds in Gaelic) is a vocal piece investigating the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic tradition and... More ›

Geoff Sample

Away With the Birds


From Geoff Sample’s Artist Diary from Away With The Birds, 2012: The deep throb of the ferry’s engines provides an accompaniment to the journey and transports... More ›

DJ Spooky

Dreams and Waking Life

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“I haven’t been able to sleep much, and some of the best thoughts I’ve had on this voyage have been in the place between dreams and... More ›

Deidre Nelson

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Bird Yarns brings together knitters from Mull and across the UK and beyond, with textile artist Deirdre Nelson in response to the changing migration patterns of... More ›

Yann Martel

Yann Martel

Having just hiked for 3 weeks through the Peruvian Amazon, the author of Life of Pi Yann Martel reflects on how this experience and the acquired... More ›

Ana Cecilia Gonzales Vigil

The Amazon

Andes Expedition

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Andes Expedition


Filmed during Cape Farewell’s 2009 Andes Expedition. More ›

Karen McCarthy Woolf

XYZ Generation

Karen close up

X, Y, Z Generation from Karen McCarthy Woolf on Vimeo. At some point every generation thinks it’s the last. This usually happens when people are young... More ›

Adriane Colburn

Forest for the Trees

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Forest for the Trees is a meditation on the complex relationship between nature and industry; sustained land vs commodified land; matter on the surface of the... More ›

Nathan Gallagher

Icebergs in Ilulissat


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Nathan Gallagher

Footprints in snow


This snow was near where some fish had been caught and prepared for eating. More ›

Nathan Gallagher

Figures in Uummannaq


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Nathan Gallagher

Fog over a Greenlandic glacier


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Nathan Gallagher

Ludvig, a native Greenlander, facing the cold

Photo by Nathan Gallagher

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Daro Montag

Festive Lima

peru 211

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Carol Cotterill

The dangers of snow - showing Ben Jervey


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Dan Harvey

Arctic fox footprints


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Dan Harvey

Burning Snow


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Ackroyd & Harvey

The Floating Field


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Antony Gormley

'Marker One' - in making...


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Dan Harvey

Ice close up


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Composite Image


Greenpeace composite image showing the glacier Blomstrandbreen has retreated nearly 2 km since 1928, with an accelerated rate of 35 metres lost per year since 1960... More ›

Gautier Deblonde



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Gautier Deblonde

Landscape with Petrol Pump


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Dan Harvey

Sea Creatures


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Daro Montag

Controlled burning in an Amazonian forest

peru 206

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Anthony Gormley and Peter Clegg

Shelter 2005


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Rody Gorman

Sound Poem


Loud noise, crust or hardness formed on the earth by the weather,             shower that comes suddenly, mountain torrent,             twisted or misshapen foot or ankle,... More ›