Rachel McCarthy: the climate change scientist and poet
unlocking elemental forces
Inspired by ‘hardcore’ chemistry, the poetry of Met Office scientist Rachel McCarthy has been called mesmerising by British laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Rachel McCarthy pictured at her home in Exeter, Devon. Jim Wileman for The Guardian.
It’s not every poet who manages to work a demanding day job as a Met Office climate scientist. But when Rachel McCarthy isn’t walking the corridors of Whitehall, on secondment to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, she is to be found polishing her poems.
Despite achieving a double first in physics and chemistry, McCarthy always wanted to write. As the founder of Excite Poetry, the Devon wing of the Poetry Society, and the director of the sell-out Exeter poetry festival, her verse-writing skills are matched only by her ability to draw crowds to big events.
Strolling through Exeter’s arty West Quarter, blinded by a low winter sun, McCarthy ducks into her favourite junk shop, Otto Retro. “I used to run this open-mic night here,” she says, eyeing up the curiosities that include an Austrian zoological chart and some Czech apothecary jars. “It was such a warm environment. We’d have poetry readings – and people could shop during the break.”
In 2015, the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy named McCarthy one of the country’s most exciting new voices, describing her work as bold and mesmerising. Last year also saw the publication of Element, under the Laureate’s Choice imprint, curated by Duffy.
Each of the 19 poems in the volume was inspired by elements from the periodic table, which McCarthy is adamant shouldn’t be dismissed as “a thing stuck on the wall in your GCSE class that you had to memorise”. Everything is made of elements, she says. “You and I. This table. It’s an alphabet of our existence.”
The collection spans history and tackles subjects from bees (chromium) and butterflies (iridium) to love (yttrium), disaster (osmium) and art history (zinc), via unsung aircraft fitters such as her own father (titanium). Short notes at the end of the booklet explain the significance of each poem’s element. Copper in octopus blood, for example, carries oxygen more efficiently than iron in haemoglobin, helping the octopus survive deep under water. The poet Alice Oswald says of McCarthy’s writing: “strong interesting poems, full of tension and symmetry. They are alive.”
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Each of my poems take their impetus from elements of the periodic table, specifically the ‘transition metals’. The ‘transitions’ were a natural choice for a structure really, their name implying change, mutability. They seemed the section most ready to be viewed through a different lens, especially as their names have a wide variety of origins; from cities to stars, from Greek tragediennes to great loves, providing fertile ground for ideas.
I’ve found a large structure to work within helpful, which may well be the scientist in me wanting a framework to hang my theories (poems, in this case) from. However I do believe that for a poem to be successful, as with a scientific proof, it should be able to stand on its own. You shouldn’t need to know anything about iridium for example to engage with the poem that comes from it. At best I’m hoping that the nugget of science behind the poem - which in iridium’s case is that this element is what gives the wings of butterflies and other insects their shimmering effect - adds a little extra enjoyment.
For me each poem starts with research; when the element was discovered, where and by whom, its uses, the history of its nomenclature. This research will often spark a quite loose idea, a fascination with a certain idea or object, like the butterfly. Of course, the idea is only a small part, the emotional and technical execution of the poem are the ultimate driving force.
Pivotal in creating this sequence has been engaging with skill and variety; I turn to poets like Gillian Allnutt, Alice Oswald, Tomas Tranströmer, and increasingly Mexican poets to hear language sing in its barest but also most inventive register, with everything extraneous removed. Russian poetry, especially that of Blok and Akhmatova fascinates me. ‘Memorial at Norilsk’, in memory of those who died building the Nickel factory there, owes a lot to that period and style of Russian writing.
Where some links to the elements are first-order, other poems step off slightly further down the line. ‘Abandoned Airfield at Dunkeswell’ is dedicated with love to my father, who spent his working-life building aeroplanes and takes its inspiration from titantium, the lightweight element used to build them. Pellestrina is a quiet venetian island, sister to Murano, famous for its cobalt-blue glass. The element riddle I’ll leave you to work out for yourself!
Exeter, where I live, is home to the Codex Exoniensis, the largest known collection of Old English literature in existence containing over 90 riddles. As important as it is to look to the past, and read widely through the last few hundred years, I feel very strongly that poetry should also learn from science’s sense of projection. Engaging with contemporaries is vital. It’s from poets like those in this series and the work of numerous others; Fiona Benson, Matthew Dickman, Helen Mort, Carrie Etter, Ahren Warner to name a few, that I’ve learnt much from. To be a poet, one must be a poetry reader.
Poet Rachel Revels in the Application of Science
It's difficult to understand how the Periodic Table could provide inspiration for a poet – particularly one of the UK's rising talents. The list of chemical elements, organised on the basis of their atomic number electron configurations and recurring chemical properties, is hardly the stuff to inspire moving and inspirational words wrung from the heart.
But Westcountry wordsmith Rachel McCarthy is different; a literature-loving writer from a firmly scientific background.
By day, she works as a climate research scientist at the Met Office in Exeter, ensuring that cutting-edge studies into climate variability and change are communicated to a wide range of audiences in an accurate but understandable form. But away from her statistics and data, she is director of the Exeter Poetry Festival, the driving force behind the booming ExCite Poetry community group and one of the most exciting new voices in British poetry to win the personal commendation of the Poet Laureate.
To those who maintain that Science and the Arts don't mix, Rachel might seem a curious contradiction. But as the Exeter-based poet explains, it is her love of both which has shaped her life and led to her successes.
Born and raised in the North West, Rachel, 30, has always combined a love of literature and science. She said: "I was looking through some old school reports from when I was five, six and seven. Each said 'She enjoys writing and she enjoys science'. I am one of those polymath types; this path has always been there."
At college, where she studied an unusual combination of science subjects and English Literature, she sought advice on what sort of career path she should follow.
Rachel said: "I spoke to my English teacher, who suggested I go down the science route." From a practical point of view, it made sense.
She said: "We were in a difficult economic climate. I figured that I might be able to operate a nuclear reactor by day then write at night, but that I wouldn't be able to do it the other way round. When it came to choosing a career I took the scientific route, partly for the love of it, partly as it offered more financially practical opportunities."
She studied Natural Sciences at Durham University, graduating in 2006 with double first class honours in Chemistry and Physics. But from there, it was back home to her parents in Leyland, near Preston, and an 18-month stint working in a bookmaker's – dealing with matters of the turf rather than prose and printing.
Rachel said: "I really enjoyed it there. I started applying for scientific jobs while earning the money to move and waited to see what happened."
In a twist of fate, she was offered two opportunities on the same day: to study for a PhD in Galway or take up a job offer at the Met Office in Exeter. She said: "I had never been to Devon before, but decided to move here. I came down on my own, I didn't know anyone. But Exeter is a small city compared to Liverpool and Manchester. I am thankful it is. You can get to know a lot of people, and see them often quite easily."
It was that decision to move to Exeter in 2008 which propelled her into sharing her poetry with like-minded people – and led to her involvement with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
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Exeter writer chosen as one of the most exciting new British poets
There's some things in life you wouldn’t think go together but being a scientist, Rachel McCarthy likes to test the boundaries and has proved poetry and science create a successful formula.
The 30-year-old from St David’s, Exeter, has been chosen by the Poet Laureate, a royal appointment, as one of four of the most exciting new voices in British poetry.
It is the first time a Poet Laureate has recognised emerging talent in such a way, and Rachel is not only the youngest of the four, but also the only one living in the South.
The Poet Laureate’s Choice award isn’t about money or a glittering trophy but the recognition the award brings, including publication, a poetry tour and invitations to prestigious literacy events.
“I’ve known since December 2013, but I couldn’t tell anyone until recently. It’s understandably been quite hard to keep it to myself!
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