‘Here are brilliantly bold poems in a collection that is much more than the sum of its mesmerising parts.’
— Carol Ann Duffy
I’m a beginning born from an end: stars die bearing me.
My youth cries
fire, anvil and hammer.
I kill but can’t be blamed.
Middle-aged, I’m the highest honour
of fallen empires –
for Russia they hang me by a red silk ribbon. In the end though Wales is my lodestone, those purpose-built towns
where Thatcher had it in for me.
My death the definition of irony.
— from Element
Element is Rachel McCarthy’s first pamphlet. Her poems have been broadcast on BBC Radio and Sky TV – the latter as a commission for Anthony Gormley’s ‘Fourth Plinth’ project – and some appeared in their early form in print, most notably in Shearsman Magazine 84/85.
‘Western science began in poetry with the cosmology of the Greek presocratic poets; the Renaissance began with the re-discovery of De Rerum Natura, a Latin epic on atomic theory. Rachel McCarthy, a first-rate scientist and poet, takes these relationships further in exploring the periodic table, using it to look at human life through the elegant precision of both poetry and science.’ – Ruth Padel
‘Taut, intelligent, lyrical, Rachel McCarthy’s poems wear their scientific impulses as lightly as fine linen. Again and again McCarthy weaves idea, experience and feeling into works that remind us how rich and extraordinary life is in all of its intricate nuance.’ – Carrie Etter
‘The poems in Element are deftly assembled, easily erudite, wide-ranging, sincere. The reader learns from them by being taken pleasurably to science, the classics and personal observation.’ – Harry Guest
Element has been almost five years in the making. I’ve written a few poems outside of it, alongside essays, but it has been the main focus since I moved to Devon in 2008. I’ve written elsewhere before that as a scientist having a framework to hang my theories (poems in this case) from has been helpful. It gave me an initial structure to explore poetry within. Research into each of the elements came next. I studied outside my work hours, not just chemistry but history too, the classics, to expand my knowledge base, to build up to the point I could dive off of and into the poem. I learnt to be patient. You have to let knowledge and ideas ferment. Research doesn’t generate poems, but it can enable them. The driving forces of any poem are emotion, rhythm, sound.
As I said, I write at night, so the weekend days I’d use to edit as I’d be clearheaded. I’ve found that editing directly after writing (or even worse – during) means you don’t see the trees for the wood.
On starting to write
When I was born, my father was a military aircraft fitter for British Aerospace, my mother a playgroup assistant and my sister had just started high school. I wouldn’t say we were poor but we definitely weren’t well off either. The one thing I always had though were books. I was a voracious reader and my parents quite rightly encouraged this appetite. I studied English literature at A-level alongside the three Sciences, Mathematics and General Studies. To take English alongside Physics made me a bit of an odd-one out, people either did Art or Science, but I’ve always been polymathic – I’d have taken History too, but there wasn’t enough space on my timetable!
Great teachers are invaluable in any subject and I was lucky enough to have a particularly committed and learned English tutor. Her encouragement meant that even though I followed a career in science I never stopped writing, because I’d been shown that writing was equally valid, equally necessary.
I left college with 6 A-levels and went on to study Natural Sciences at University College, Durham, graduating with double first class honours in Physics and Chemistry. I was too busy at that time to give poetry the brewing time and space it needed. It was only when I moved to Exeter in 2008 that I started writing in a quite concentrated manner and the concept of Element took shape.
On her writing process
I write exclusively at home in Exeter, in the main bedroom of my apartment which I converted into a study. I’ve never been the type to go and sit scribbling in a café. It’s too distracting. To me poetry requires so much concentration, not just when the pen hits the page, but maybe as much as days or weeks before. Trying to write next to a milk-frothing machine makes that impossible. I mostly write at night, having a strict rule of being in my study by 8pm at the very latest. This allows me a break between work and writing, but not so long that I’m too tired to concentrate.
Outside of writing my job takes up most of my time. I’m a senior scientist at the Met Office, specialising in the impacts of climate change and science communication. I’m also Founding Director of ExCite Poetry, the UK Poetry Society’s regional group for Devon, and of the Exeter Poetry Festival which is now in its 6th year.