Speaking Out: An Interview with Hollie McNish

Poet, mother, lover, daughter, friend, feminist and proper author Hollie McNish is one of the UK’s best-known spoken word artists. In a rare free moment ahead of her October tour, She chats to The Skinny about luck, poetry and YouTube comments

Feature by Ceris Aston | 05 Sep 2014
  • Hollie McNish

Hollie McNish has a number of awards and accolades to her name, from a treasured pasta necklace made by her daughter to third place in the World Slam poetry finals. As we speak, she has just finished recording her third poetry album, following critical acclaim for her earlier albums Touch and Push Kick. "There are five poems plain, and five with music. And now I’m annoyed that they aren’t written as well. Sometimes you just like to sit and read by yourself…" The poet, who has also published a written collection Papers, doesn’t distinguish between her written and her spoken poetry: "I don’t really get the difference. I never write poems just to read them out. I don’t even read them by heart – I used to get myself in a massive kerfuffle about reading by heart, but now I just read it." As a side-note, she comments, "I always write poems that rhyme, which people tell me I need to get out of – but I am never going to write poems that don’t rhyme."

McNish is warm, funny and occasionally apologetic – catching herself if she veers onto a tangent, wondering out loud whether her answers are any good. She’s humble about her success, "It’s weird – I feel very grateful but also feel like I’ve just been lucky. I get lots of young people emailing me being like, 'I want to get into spoken word, how do I do it?' And I don’t really know!" Reflecting, her advice is to "write poetry, read it out, do as many gigs as you can." Having grown up in a village with no poetry scene, she recalls, "I never stepped into an arts centre or a poetry cafe or anything like that before I was 24. I went in and asked if there were spaces on an open mic night, and then I ran away. Arts places can be quite intimidating if you don’t feel like you’re their type."

McNish’s poetry began with the diary she started writing aged seven. "They’re all things that have really happened," she says. "When I was 15 I wrote about every boyfriend I had. The point was to get personal things off my chest. Then, if I read something in the papers then I’d write about it too." She’s passionate about the importance of the arts for young people. "I think it’s brilliant for all kids to learn to express themselves. It’s good to give people an outlet for thoughts and feelings and anger and all sorts. That’s what it was for me." When asked which poems she was most moved by, she gives a nod to Wilfred Owen before replying: "The ones that kids write when I do workshops with them in schools – these kids where the teachers say, they have no culture. They have just as much culture as me. I have to hold back tears sometimes. What really gets me is people just writing down their thoughts and feelings."

In recent years McNish has braved the internet, posting videos of herself reading her poetry aloud. "I think YouTube is brilliant," she enthuses. "I’d just had a baby when I started putting videos on YouTube – I couldn’t go anywhere. It makes things more widely available." Yet she exercises caution with her praise: "I am wary about telling people just starting out to put themselves on YouTube. It isn’t necessarily good for people who are younger, more vulnerable. You get a lot of hate on YouTube. Just put your voice up – people prefer to slag off your appearance." McNish’s unfortunately accustomed to the vitriol of the internet. "At first it was a bit horrible," she remembers. "I like it when someone gives me criticism in terms of the poem – I learn from it. But sometimes people are offended by things I put up. I put up a video in support of the No More Page 3 campaign ['For just one day/ I’d like to hear what those men who mock me would say/ if everything, was the other way around']. I have never been called an ugly lesbian bitch whore so much in all of my life.

“I post the poems in places where I know people won’t like it – I posted the Page 3 poem on The Sun” - Hollie McNish

"When people are so horrible, you think they are sort of proving the point of the poem," McNish reflects. "It doesn’t bother me so much anymore. It bothers my partner, and my mum as well. But I post the poems in places where I know people won’t like it – not just on The Guardian’s website – I posted the Page 3 poem on The Sun page, on men’s magazines." While some have responded with abuse, others have been prompted to think about the everyday sexism women face. She muses, "I’d rather tackle the mainstream stuff – make mainstream things better. I don’t want to go to left-wing venues all my life and meet people who agree with me. I’d rather get more hate and maybe change a few people’s opinions about things."

McNish addresses a number of feminist issues in her poems – from attitudes towards breastfeeding to the narrow parameters of what women are supposed to find ‘sexy’. Embarrassed moves from ‘I whispered and tiptoed with nervous discretion’ to the affirmation ‘For God’s sake, Jesus drank it – so did Siddhartha/ Mohammed and Moses and both of their fathers…I’m sure they weren’t doing it sniffing on piss/ as their mothers sat embarrassed on cold toilet lids/ in a country of billboards covered in tits.’ Her poem about Flo Rida’s song Blow My Whistle is a brilliant and hilarious deconstruction of the sexism in music videos:

‘It brings me to the actual thing that I find kind of odd/ and that’s the image that this man has used to talk about his knob… In a fantasy of orgy dance where straight women go to blow his piece/ at least choose a metaphor that doesn’t fucking squeak.’ She has a point. Yet she doesn’t hammer it home, but laughs – and with humour, her point is won.

While McNish has written powerfully against sexism and xenophobia, she asserts that "I’m not a political commentator, I’m a poet. Any subject where I don’t have personal experience I wouldn’t write about." It’s a response she’s well practised in by now, having fielded requests to write about issues from multiple sclerosis awareness to the current situation in Gaza. "When I wrote about immigration it was during my Masters [in Development and Economics]. I only put poems up when I am really sure of what I think – even if that will change at some point. I’ve been reading a lot about class issues recently and writing loads on the May elections – I might put up some of them."

McNish’s poems range from the mundane to the political, the sensual to the prosaic. "The poems I write are quite broad," she considers. "Not wanting to have sex after pregnancy – it’s an issue many women go through, and men feel awkward about." Her only wish is that her dad would avoid mentioning her poems about sex, particularly at family dinners. "The only people I feel embarrassed around are my family, and people in my village – they know my opinion on everything before they’ve even met me." McNish’s warmth, wit and honesty have already won her a multitude of fans. Her tour in October will no doubt be an opportunity to win many more. 

McNish tours the UK next month, taking in Oran Mor, Glasgow, 4 Oct and Gorilla, Manchester, 17 Oct http://holliepoetry.com