Hollie McNish | Interview
Poet/Spoken Word Artist
By Gemma McSherry / Photography: Helmi Okpara
If the topic of poetry conjures up images of hot clammy classrooms during your GCSE summer exams, trying your hardest you remember just one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, then let Hollie McNish bring about your poetic redemption.
Hollie McNish is a force, to put it quite simply. An English author, poet, spoken word artist, mother, workshop innovator, BBC Woman’s Hour poet in residence, winner of the Ted Hughes Prize for ‘New Work in Poetry’ and not to mention, a graduate of Cambridge University, along with holding a masters in International Development and Economics. However, don’t let this dazzling list of accolades and accomplishments alarm you, Hollie is very much a people’s poet, serving up quick rhythms and quirky rhymes in place of complicated stanzas and convoluted structures.
Her work explores heavily the theme of modern day motherhood, experiences around the shame of breastfeeding and the anonymity one feels once you become ‘mum’, but quite uniquely and most likely, why she caught the attention of the Ted Hughes panel. Hollie uses these accessible themes to open up a dialogue around much broader, more political and weighty topics. Such as the Nestle Infant Formula Scandal, which saw Nestle launch an aggressive advertising campaign across Africa. Mothers were lured into purchasing formula milk and discouraged from breastfeeding, causing continent wide despair as formula fed babies are between 6 and 25 times more likely to die of diarrhoea and four times more likely to die of pneumonia than a breastfed child.
Another topic was the complicated relationship between Page 3-esque sexualised images of breasts in the media, and the discrimination many women face as a result of breastfeeding in public spaces. Alongside her work on Motherhood, Hollie writes about issues such as immigration, the impact of social media and the younger generations desire for instant stardom in her poems ‘Mathematics’ and ‘Famous For What’ respectively. With so much to say, and with insight on topics as broad as the aforementioned, Hollie spoke with CultureHUB to discuss how she writes her poems, where her ideas come from, conducting workshops with teenagers and winning the Ted Hughes Prize.
“I didn’t write poems because I’d studied poetry and wanted to carve something out onto the page, I wrote them as my diary since I was about 10.” Hollie begins, “I just wrote them as I thought and spoke and in all honesty, I just don’t think in complicated language of a high register. So it wasn’t so much that I planned for my poems to be ‘accessible’ I didn’t even think I would be sharing them.” Hollie’s poetry remained unheard for many years, and it wasn’t until her mid-twenties, after graduating from Cambridge University that she started performing her poems in public spaces.
Working on such a broad range of topics, Hollie has no fear of addressing difficult and uncomfortable subjects, she uses swear words on occasion and doesn’t shy away from ensuring her opinions and those of her peers, are heard. At the same time, Hollie maintains a connection with her work, only writing about matters that are of interest to her, and that she has acquired personal experience or knowledge of.
“I get a lot of people email me to say ‘please will you write a poem about…’ mostly about either big political human rights issues or personal illnesses and I don’t do it. I feel awful but I don’t want to just start writing about things in a sort of falsely commissioned way about things I have no experience of.” Hollie concludes, “It’s not why I write and the poems would be awful. ”
“The reason, for example, I wrote the breastfeeding poem, ‘Embarrassed’ was because I was sat on a toilet feeding my daughter feeling like crap. And just before having my daughter, I’d been studying a part-time Masters in Economics and Development – so I’d studied a lot about global trade issues surrounding food donations, one of which was to do with the use of formula milk in disaster zones. So it was in my head already when I was then going through breastfeeding as a mother myself. I wasn’t going to share that poem either. I did a little CD of some motherhood pieces and didn’t put that in it cos I thought no-one would relate.”
Hollie received such swathes of support upon releasing ‘Embarrassed’ that caused her to realise “other mums were embarrassed too at the time.” ‘Embarrassed’ has become an iconic poem from Hollie’s repertoire given it’s current and seemingly timeless content the piece is available to watch on Youtube and has been shared across many platforms, including the BBC and The Guardian.
Platforms like Youtube, BBC Radio, TV and other less commonly used mediums for sharing poetry have enabled Hollie’s work to reach a broad and diverse audience. Something that’s noticeable about Hollie’s and her approach to performing is her awareness of her audience’s daily demands and needs.
“I wasn’t brought up in a big city of near lots of theatres or poetry nights, and things like staged talks and arty poetry events can be really intimidating for a lot of people, myself included. So, for me, the platforms I share my work through are the places that I would’ve seen things before I started sharing my own work. “ Alongside her work as an author and poet, Hollie runs ‘Page to Performance’ workshops in schools which engage the youth with poetry and encourage an open space for exploring and performing their own works. Hollie’s poem ‘Famous For What’ looks at the issues facing many teenagers today; social media, body image, the widespread sexualisation and adultisation of young people.
“The workshops leave me feeling more than optimistic. The only people who ever complain to me about teenagers tend to be people that haven’t actually spoken to a teenager since they were one. I think the teenage years are likely the hardest – puberty mixed with all day schooling surrounded by thousands of other kids all battling the same shit and drowned in adverts telling them what’s cool and what’s not and what they should be feeling and thinking and then having all this sexuality coming out but not really knowing what the fuck to do with it and being told such conflicting advice. It’s shite!”
Hollie has worked across the country with teenagers from a range of different economic, social, religious and otherwise backgrounds and states that “We act like those younger years are the best – our culture loves teenage models in adverts and films and songs about teen love etc. But to me, fuck it’s a hard time for so many kids.”
Hollie’s dedication to poetry as well as her overarching achievements, poetry programmes and publications were recognised when she won the Ted Hughes Prize for New Work in Poetry in March of 2017. Speaking about winning the award and the impact it has had on her life since, Hollie told us that she feels “very emotional and proud that something written about motherhood has been given a literary prize, when for so long, anything related to motherhood or other female-dominated topics like birth, periods, women’s bodies (unless they’re love sonnets written by men) has been seen as a market only for mummy/’chick lit’ and often patronised genres.” Whilst this award has brought her much attention as an artist and performer, she goes on to say that “practically it hasn’t made a massive difference to anything. I don’t charge more because of it for example!!! The only difference I did see for a while was that there was more likely to be people come to my gigs who’d never heard my poems, but who’d heard I’d got that prize.” This additional more diverse audience brought added pressure as Hollie wasn’t “sure my potty mouth would go down too well with them!” But like everything else that Hollie touches, it seems to have turned to gold.
Hollie McNish will be appearing at the Out to Lunch Festival in Black Box Belfast on Sunday 07 January and will be performing poems from her new collection, PLUM, which is available in paperback from all good high street retailers as well as online.
Issue 12 Out Now