On the eve on her first national tour, poet Hollie McNish talks feminism, feedback and feeding with Hannah Dunleavy.
If you’ve ever seen Hollie McNish perform live, or you’re one of the millions of people who’ve watched her poems on YouTube, you’ll know she gives a lot of herself to her work.
In the flesh, she’s the same: open, funny and forthright. So much so that 20 minutes in, we’ve descended into the sort of completely unguarded chitchat that forces me to ask: “Are you happy for me to put this in?” Stupid question. Of course she is.
We’re on the subject of “female performers” in poetry. (And comedy. And music. And…)
“I do a gig with men, they say the word sex, and then I say the word sex – completely different reaction,” says Hollie. “People tell me off for swearing all the time. My dad swears a lot, I swear a lot. If I edited it out of the poems, it wouldn’t really be my voice.
“And then I get calls where people say, ‘We booked Kate Tempest and she can’t come; can you?’
“Obviously, it’s a massive honour to be compared to her and it’s brilliant to get work if she can’t do it. But if you’re trying to replace Kate with a poet who’s similar to Kate and you’re calling me, you’ve got it wrong. There are so many male poets whose poetry is way more similar to hers than mine. We’re both women – that’s the only similarity.
“I’ve never done a gig with an all-female line-up where the promotional material wasn’t changed to say ‘girls’ night’. I’d love to do a poetry night of all women but no one knew it was going to be that. That’s my dream. Or to go to a club and discover all the DJs and MCs are women and it wasn’t even mentioned in the flyer.”
This isn’t a diatribe; it’s a statement, delivered like her poems, with passion rather than rancour. It’s a fine line to negotiate, particularly for a poet who’s largely made her name discussing women’s issues.
“I’m not angry. I think it’s because I started performing later in my life. Well, not late, I’m only 31. But anything I wrote from the ages of 16 to 20 was totally angry – mostly about Coca Cola and not getting into nightclubs.
“I just got bored of it. Actually, after having a kid, I realised being angry doesn’t do much. It just leads to more anger; places being bombed or your kid having a tantrum. It’s basically the same job, being a parent and being a UN conflict ambassador.”
Born in Reading to Glaswegian parents, Hollie studied French and German at Kings College, Cambridge, before doing a masters in Development Economics. Burgeoning poetry glory aside, getting into an Oxbridge college from a comprehensive is a big deal, right?
“Nobody ever asks me about that, probably because it doesn’t have much to do with poetry. And in the four years I was there I wrote bugger all. But yes, I think it’s a massive deal.
“From the local mixed-sex comprehensive, I was the only person in my year that got into Cambridge. It’s daunting to go to any university, but to go there, yes, totally daunting. I picked Kings because they advertise themselves as being one of the more liberal, welcoming colleges. But get there and try to find someone from a normal state school? I had three friends that were from properly working class backgrounds.”
University was just a hiatus for Hollie’s poetry, which she started writing young. “Really young,” she emphasises. “I loved it. And I don’t know why I loved it so much.
“My Mum phoned me yesterday and told me that she’d been having a clear out and she’d found these little books of poetry I’d made. I’d made her a Mother’s Day book and written her loads of little poems when I was about 10. This is how I got into Cambridge, geeky things. I was always writing poems.”
So, what finally gave her the confidence to stand up and read them aloud?
“It was mainly when I met my partner, who’s a drum‘n’bass MC and fine with being onstage.
“When I was doing my masters, I started doing a radio show and I read one on there. In my second year, I was writing so much about being a woman my partner basically refused to listen to any more unless I went and read one at an open mic night.
“I didn’t do it for another year, but then one day I just went to a poetry café on my own. I was fed up of being so scared. It’s not as awful as you think it’s going to be.”
Anyone believing that motherhood is a death knell to a woman’s career will be heartened to learn it was the arrival of a baby that really kick-started Hollie’s career – logistically and creatively.
“I gave up my day job when I had my daughter and I was still doing poetry and a part-time job. Then I decided to just try to do it. If I’d still been working full-time, I might not have tried. Giving up a part-time job was a lot easier.
“So many people started listening to this stuff I did on motherhood. I got on Women’s Hour and did a poem about my body after birth. After that, it was amazing, the best career step you can get. And it was total luck – someone just saw me performing at Latitude.”
“Total luck” is a statement characteristic of the poet’s self-deprecating nature. I later suggest that what she does isn’t that far from stand-up comedy (“No. As a poet people don’t expect it to be funny.”) Or rapping (“No. I can’t rap. Rapping’s really skilful.”) And when I mention one of her na-tional tour dates has sold out (“It’s really exciting. And shocking.”)
Shortly after her Radio 4 appearance, two of Hollie’s poems went (in her words) ”nuts” on YouTube: Hate, which tackles the thorny issue of immigration and Embarrassed, an ode to breast-feeding, which absolutely bursts with life (“For God’s sake, Jesus drank it/ So did Siddhartha, Muhammad, and Moses/ And both of their fathers/ Ganesh, and Shiva and Brigit and Buddha/ And I’m sure they weren’t doing it sniffing on piss/ As their mothers sat embarrassed sitting on cold toilet lids/ In a country of billboards covered in tits.”)
“Breastfeeding, yes,” Hollie laughs. “I didn’t even put it on my album about motherhood, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. Big mistake.
“It’s totally baffling, the attitude to breastfeeding. I wrote that poem when my daughter was six months old. I breastfed her until she was two and people looked at me like I was an alien.
“We just don’t see it enough. We don’t see it on television and if we do it’s always a new-born baby. So, I can understand why women are nervous about breastfeeding. People say it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it’s not, not anymore.
“And I really don’t know what people are so bloody upset about it. There are people being shot every day, all over the world. Why worry about women breastfeeding?”
Are people that upset about it?
“Some of the comments people have emailed me! A man wrote to me and said, ‘Just because you’re a women, you get away with it. If I did, I’d be called a paedophile’. It’s unbelievable.”
This brings us to the thorny issue of feedback, something Hollie’s been attempting to meet head on.
“Feminist stuff or things to do with being a woman: I get a lot of hate from that. I feel like I’m 12 again and I wouldn’t snog one of the boys in the playground and they call you an ugly lesbian. I don’t find that stuff that threatening,
“But with immigration, there are people who are really angry about it. I had the EDL posting about my gig and a guy said he was going to come and show me what he thought of my views about immigration. Like turning up to my gig and beating me up is going to make everyone go back to their countries of origin.
“You can’t not be worried about that stuff. A friend said to me, if you cancel gigs because of it, you’ve let them win. But that’s easy to say. It’s me walking back to my car at night on my own.” She pauses: “Everyone’s for free speech and empowerment, but no one’s ever offered to walk me back to my car.”
The anger Hollie’s prompted is something she doesn’t understand. “What are people so scared of? If I write a poem about women, even if I’ve said or implied bugger all about men in the whole poem, immediately, it’s assumed. Usually by people who haven’t read the whole poem.
“It’s the same with immigration. If I say anything positive about anyone who is foreign, I immediately get people saying, ‘Why are you slagging off white people?’ Even if I haven’t spoken about white British people once.”
But while she’s facing a barrage of shit from a certain sort of male, it’s another of the species that’s keeping the poet’s interest.
“I’m going a workshop with 50 Beavers next week. I do quite a lot of stuff about going outside and nature. So we’re going to go into the forest. Hopefully, it’ll be all right.”
Working in schools and with youth groups is clearly something with clearly gives Hollie a lot of pleasure.
“Teachers are overworked, they really are. And when there’s 30 kids in a class, teachers can’t be passionate about everything they do. It’s amazing to go into schools and meet children who’ve never heard a poem read out loud.
“At school you’re told to study what’s on the curriculum, there’s no space for just talking about stuff you want to get off your chest. I find that amazing. Kids say to me, ‘what should I write about?’ I tell them to just write what’s in their head, even if it’s just a stream of consciousness.”
With a national tour pending and double album just around the corner, when you work with kids and you have a small daughter, do you have to forget those words and remember the phrase ‘role model’?
“Yeah, I do want to be a role model for my daughter. I’ve heard that mothers are the ones that fuck up their daughters, so I try. I try to be open with her and use words like vulva rather than foufou and, I shouldn’t say this, but I do a lot more walking round my house naked.
“Maybe she’s going to be really embarrassed about some of my poems when she’s old enough to understand them. I’m hoping she won’t be that traumatised”.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.