Hollie McNish: parents, poetry & the power of art

As she prepares to gig in Liverpool for the first time, poet and performer Hollie McNish discusses her new book of poetry about parenthood and the excitement of playing on mixed bills

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 11 Jan 2016

Hollie McNish has amassed labels like ‘boundary breaker’ and ‘internet sensation,’ along with less flattering names from keyboard warriors below the line, during her speedy rise to spoken word and poetry slam acclaim. But behind her viral momentum – her videos Embarrassed and Mathematics, which look at breastfeeding and immigration, have slid into the social media zeitgeist (racking up over a million views each) – are years of honing her poetic act in front of audiences, and a propensity for forthright, lyrical probing of enduring social issues.

In the ramshackle basements of arts venues and the cramped backrooms of bars, McNish uses her distinct style of half-rhyme, full-rhyme and assonance to build a frenetic rhythm, and to dismantle the prescribed, the powerful and the status quo.

“To me, everything’s tied up with politics, with power, with the control those in power have to affect laws, influence culture and status quos,” she says. “One of the roles of literature, I guess, is to provide an antidote to that.”

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For McNish, this impetus doesn’t lend itself to lengthy diatribes or lofty polemic; instead, her poems weave the personal and political, and are infused with a dash of humour and a touch of linguistic acrobatics. An oft-returned-to topic is her experience of motherhood, which is the focus of her new book, Nobody Told Me, published next month.

The memoir consists of diaries “from the day I found out I was pregnant to the day I dropped my daughter off at pre-school. It’s honest. I’m nervous about it!”

The precarious chess game of modern parenting – “aside from inequality, war… shit food” and “the ‘give boys guns, give girls glitter’ US exports of the toy world” – is, she says, best summed up by one particular material, slowly engulfing every corner of the planet: “the hordes of plastic toys and plastic bottles and plastic party bags filled with plastic toys filling up babies' potential future water sources is probably a pretty big issue.”

Hollie McNish on Page to Performance

McNish is a passionate defender of the arts. She runs Page to Performance, delivering workshops in spoken word and slams, and through her work she’s “seen a heap of people saved by the arts – teenagers who’ve avoided suicides, breakdowns, people battling depression, trauma.” She admits to paying for entrance to her own gigs after being intimated by the sometimes slightly cliquey reputation of arts centres. “I wasn’t brought up going to theatres or talks or art centres – I’m still intimidated now, even,” she says. “I’ve paid for entrance to my own bloody gigs cause I’ve been too scared to say anything at the box office! Stupid I know, but these places can be intimidating. And expensive.”

Looking ahead to her Liverpool gig – part of a showcase put together by Scottish poetry-music-animation curators Neu! Reekie! – McNish enthuses that she’s “totally stoked to be performing in Liverpool, especially with such a cracking lineup and 'cause for some stupid reason, I’ve not been there before, which is fucking sacrilegious!

“I’ve performed with Neu! Reekie! a few times now,” she tells us, “last of all on a tour they did called Anywhere but the Cities – lots of landscapes and whisky and stories and music. Their lineups are beautiful! I tour a lot and get to go to loads of poetry nights, but the Neu! Reekie! blend of poetry, music and animation gets folks' juices going like no other I’ve seen. And they’re some of the only buggers confident enough in poets and poetry to give us a slot next to bands and singers – not stuck down in a small room or at the back corner of a festival where no one can see it!”

Hollie McNish will be performing with Pete Wylie, Eugene Kelly, Eleanor Rees and more at LEAF on Bold Street, Liverpool, 28 Jan, 8pm, £5 from brownpapertickets.com