‘I’ve come to terms with poetry being my job’

Hollie McNish, poet

Hollie McNish.

Hollie McNish.

The question “Where do you come from?” can be a funny one for poet Hollie McNish. As her name indicates her roots are firmly in Scotland, but her accent is clearly English, highlighting a geographical proximity to London.

“It’s a big question,” Hollie tells me during our Wednesday morning interview. “I grew up in Reading, about an hour south of London. Today I live in Cambridge but my family are all from Scotland. I don’t feel I’m definitely from a certain place in the UK. If I say I’m from England, my family think that that is just the worst thing I could say,” she continues, before adding with a laugh, “if I’m at a poetry reading in Scotland and I say I’m from Scotland, the Scottish poets just laugh. It’s a split life in that sense.”

That ‘split life’ does have a benefit for poetry audiences as Hollie likes to get around Britain and Ireland to read, and her current tour takes in Galway and the Róisín Dubh on Friday May 15 at 8pm.

‘You’ve got nothing to lose’

A Hollie McNish reading is not a traditional poetry reading. It is not staid, precious, or reverential, and while the subject matter can be deadly serious - racism, feminism, social injustice, male/female relationships, and motherhood - Hollie’s delivery and sensibility always contains a sense of humour, mischief, and wry observation. This is poetry as a live gig, an event, or as the Royal Shakespeare Company said of her, she “straddles the boundaries between the literary, poetic and pop scenes” - but this does not mean she is a performance poet, despite often being labelled with that tag.

“Performance poets write poems for the audience, they write in order to perform,” Hollie says. “They have crafted it to be funny or move them in some way, like a call and response section. Performance poets perform and move around, whereas I don’t. I stand still and read from my book. People still call me a performance poet but when I’m asked I say ‘I’m a poet’. People argue about this all the time, but after doing after-school runs you see that it really doesn’t matter!”

Hollie though admits, it is only recently, despite winning the 2009 UK Slam Poetry Competition; publishing two collections of verse, Papers and Cherry Pie; the album Verses; and numerous YouTube videos of her reciting poetry, many of which have gone viral - she has finally “gotten used to saying poetry is my job”.

“I used to think that was a ridiculous thing to say,” she admits, “My family were all teachers, nurses, but poet sounds a bit arty-farty, but I’ve come to terms with it now, that that’s my job.”

Yet it was her family, particularly her mother, who instilled in Hollie a love of verse. “The poetry I really love is the poetry my mum used to read to me as a child, things like Please Mrs Butler by Allen Ahlberg,” Hollie says, “In school I didn’t think I was interested in studying poetry, I used to print off song lyrics, sixties, seventies stuff my dad has, and Courtney Love.”

Hollie has written poetry since childhood and by early adulthood has amassed 300 poems, all of which were stashed under her bed or on her computer. Again her mother stepped in, encouraging her daughter to do more with them, telling her, “You’ve got nothing to lose”. However it was Hollie’s partner who finally got her to share her words with the public.

“My partner, who has had experience of the stage, said ‘What’s the point of writing them if you can’t share them? There will be people who will relate to the poems and enjoy them,’” says Hollie. “He kept telling me it might do some good, help someone see others are in the same position as them. He made me see there might be another side to it, so I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? No one’s going to get ill from it.’”

Hollie though, still found the “idea of reading them out loud really nerve wracking”. It took her “about a year or two” of turning up at a local café where poetry and open mic nights were held, “before I actually stepped into the café and read”. “As soon as I started reading them, I felt relaxed,” she said. “It wasn’t such a big deal, and I started getting emails from more and more people saying they liked the poems and when was I reading next.”

‘Intimidating’

Hollie’s poetry is accessible (“I know poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but mine does,” she laughs ), but the accessibility of its language and presentation gives it its power to raise issues of racism and women’s rights in a manner that is thought-provoking, and engaged, never simplistic. This is encapsulated in her two best known poems.

‘Get Used To This (Embarrassed )’ is a meditation on attitudes towards breast-feeding and how society sees the sexualisation of female breasts as acceptable, but breast-feeding as something that should only ever - if at all - be done behind closed doors: 

“We see lots of boobs for sexual reasons but we don’t see normal boobs as there is some revulsion towards them,” she says. “It’s all right to have pert 20-year-old boobs and have them out but saggy boobs or normal ones, or if they’re got out for another reason, they’re proscribed.”

The poem also raises the fact that sexism remains insidious in society. “Women have more rights these days and I’d never want to go back to how it was 100 years ago,” says Hollie, “but talking to my grandmothers, who are 97 and 89, they think we have more freedoms but say sexism has got much worse.

“People are picking on women’s bodies now as opposed to their cooking, or getting a job, or not wanting to be a housewife. More freedom means more things to pick on. The beauty industry is to blame for most of it. If you can make money from someone’s insecurities you will do it, such as creams for lines on your face that can only be seen under a microscope.”

The poem has produced surprising - sometimes extreme - reactions from women as well as men. “One women posted online that ‘next time you’re at a restaurant I’ll get up on the table and shag my husband while I’m sitting next to you’,” says Hollie. “The online comments say a lot about the place people live. The most hateful comments are from England and the US, they say ‘if you want to breastfeed in public, go to the toilet’, or ‘Pervert’, but comments from Sweden, Ghana, or Nigeria, say ‘I can’t believe there is a problem.’

“It has opened my eyes but the reactions to my poems women’s stuff I don’t find intimidating. I find it sad. I’ve been called a whore, a bitch, but I’ve been called that since I was 11. The reactions to poems on immigration I find intimidating.”

‘Mathematics’ is Hollie’s key work on racism and anti-immigrant attitudes: “When I meet these paper claims/that one of every new that came/takes away your daily wage/I desperately want to scream your maths are in primary...immigrants bring more than minuses.”

It has also been the poem that has provoked the most extreme reaction. “I like when people argue against me, and to see people thinking about the issue, but when you see the total hatred people have of minorities that upsets me.

“There were people who were posting comments saying how much they ‘appreciate’ my stance on migration and ‘We know where you will be reading and we’ll be waiting for you afterwards’, so I stopped doing ‘Migration’ for a while.

“People would say to me, if you stop writing about such issues you’re giving in. That’s all right for them to say, but I’ve a young family and I’m touring the country by myself. I’ve started reading the poems again and nothing so far has happened. I find the attitude intimidating, but not enough to stop.”

Women’s football

Hollie is noted for her work with young people and education and during her time in Galway she will be part of the Irish Unschooling Conference at NUI Galway on Saturday May 16, where she will speak with teenagers attending the event.

“Teens get so little chance to speak their minds,” she says. “In school they have to write what they are told and write the right analysis. There is very little chance to speak about stuff and talk about themselves and their own story. I run poetry workshops for teens and they really seem to enjoy the chance to put down words on the page.”

While her current tour will see her promoting Cherry Pie, Hollie is working on two new projects. “I’m working on a book about parenting,” she says. “It features poems and diary entries from the time I was pregnant. It’s called Nobody Told Me and that’s coming out in June 2016. I’m also writing a play about women’s football from the 1890s to the present day, taking in the Preston women’s team playing during World War I and playing matches in Ireland, told through the eyes of a 16-year-old player with the Preston Ladies. It brings in social history, mining, and the Rational Clothing movement.”

Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.

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