“I just felt a bit annoyed, nothing too deep!”
Hollie Mcnish is talking about the first time she performed in front of an audience. “It was at the Poetry Café, Covent Garden, at a night called Poetry Unplugged, hosted by Nial O’Sullivan. He was brilliant and really welcoming” The place is usually packed with funny looking characters who feed their hunger for good and bad poets, great and lousy writers, mad and serious performers. The audience is as eccentric as the speakers and all of them, no exception, have something to say, something to give! For the young artist starting shyly out in this complex and sometimes ungrateful world, the Poetry Cafe in the centre of London is the door, the beginning of the marathon. Some will make it and others will give up half way through.
Hollie has since gone very far. Since her first time performing in the crowded and dark cafe she has not stopped. Over the last four years she has performed at festivals worldwide, has toured like a gigging musician – something rare for a poet – and has gained fans from the likes of Tim Minchin, Davina Mcall and legendary poet Benjamin Zephaniah, through to the millions of people who have watched her spoken word performances on YouTube. She has recently signed to the fledgling Indy YUP! Label
to release her debut double album, Versus – an album that includes unaccompanied versions of her poems, and the same poems set to music.
The subjects of her poems are varied, from the intimate world of motherhood and the changes in her body to the lack of physical contact in our society. With “Mathematics” and “Ocean” she shares her views on immigration. With “Willies are more dangerous than Guns” she ironically condemns censorship.
McNish has both, the passion and the calm needed to make an impression in the listener. Her soft but potent voice is almost like one of those new ages sounds that relaxes and enrich you at the same time.
Could you tell me more about your first experience?
I read a poem about my granddad. Then sat down and watched the rest and felt like, finally. It’s only taken 5 years!!
Embarrassed is probably the best known of your poems, but I cannot imagine somebody like you, with the courage to stand in front of others and give them your opinion and your most inner thoughts, really, truly embarrassed! Have you ever really felt embarrassed on stage?
I don’t know why people say that. Standing reading poems is nothing on raising a child, worrying about a life. A life! And feeding a kid is all part of that, added to the tiredness, worry, emotions, fear and our stupid society surrounding you. Poems are screaming and crying at you while everyone watches you with all different sorts of looks on their faces!! I’m not embarrassed on stage really, I just feel sick and want to run away quite often and go to bed instead!
I think my most enjoyable gig is when I go to Bang Said the Gun, a poetry night in London. ‘Cos I get so excited to just go there, I can almost forget I have to read my stuff too!!
In Embarrassed Hollie answers back to those who sent her home to breast feed her baby.
I thought it was ok
I could understand their reasons…”
She started hiding in public toilets with her tiny daughter and she, finally, got fed up! She finally, took sides. She took the right side, the side of the little being who cannot protest or distinguish the sweet smell of a mother’s skin from the acrid smell of alien urine impregnating her young life.
“I wonder whether these public loo feeds offend her?
Cos I’m getting tired of discretion and being ‘polite’ as my baby’s first sips are drowned drenched in shite,…”
And I wonder listening to her CD, whether women noticed the exact moment in which our rights and privileges started being decided by men, whether our ancestors noticed the exact moment in which the growing society, the so called civilized society, took over their lives and secluded them to the anonymity of the sisterhood, to the warmth of the kitchen, the shame of the public eye!
Do you feel too exposed, vulnerable, when you share your feelings with the listener/reader?
No, not really because I don’t share things that are too personal to me. Those poems are still just in my book, never to be shared!
Do you memorise your poems before taking them to stage? Do you have any special tricks that help you memorising your poems? Do you need to or do they naturally come back to you when you are on stage?
I’m the worst person to ask this question to because I read my poems. I’ve always got my book with me and I’ve stopped worrying about memorising them. I like reading lots of poems and my tour gigs are an hour long which is a lot of poems. I can’t remember them. I think it’s cool if you can, but I don’t. I feel sick enough as it is without worrying about forgetting my words. So I just have them with me now. I LOVE reading
Your topics vary very much, from motherhood to immigration. I can see your experience as a teacher in the background. How do you work on your poems? Do you edit much before the final result or is it just a question of writing down your thoughts and giving them a quick and spontaneous shape?
It just depends on the poem. I don’t change many of them much and I’ve never sat down “to write a poem”. Just if I think of one I write it down. And I might work on it a bit. But I don’t think about them too much. Maybe I should. For my new book Cherry Pie, I thought about how I’d lay them out, and about the punctuation, but the words themselves, I tend to leave.
Sometime that might change.
When you don’t like what you write, when you are not a hundred per cent sure, do you bin it or do you keep drafts to work on them later?
I just keep them, but hardly ever actually look at them again.
Many writers create their own special environment, some can only write with a particular pen or on a special kind of paper. Do you need a particular atmosphere to work on your verses?
I’m not like that about poetry really. I don’t think I take it seriously enough. I have a Bic biro or my computer. And if I can get five minutes to sit and write, then it’s a bloody luxury! I’ve got too much work to do, as well as being a mum, cooking, admin! So it’s really a case of wherever!
Your words will inevitably be dissected and analysed by fans and critics. What do you think of the comments you get? Do you agree with most of them? Do you feel the message you want to give rightly reaches the audience?
I don’t mind the comments, I like reading them. Some agree, some say it’s lovely to read, others call me an ugly whore. It’s all gravy. I just like writing poems, I always have.
I admire her; I admire her boldness, the easy way in which she expresses herself. She answers my questions as a woman who feels judged and criticized by today’s society; a young mother who is in every way superior to this decadent civilization that surrounds us.
The Beatles, Ella Fitzgerals, Michael Jackson, Queen, U2… Hollie Mcnish! Could you please tell me about your experience as the first poet working with the Abbey Road Studios?
Well, I have to say that I don’t feel like the first poet. I just feel like the first non-singing poet! I feel like there are so many song-writers and rap-writers (if that can be a word!) who have recorded there, that I shouldn’t really claim that title. But being there did feel a little magic. Especially as my partner and daughter were there too. And the microphone was an amazing old piece of beauty!
In fact the event was recorded live on a big vintage microphone. Hollie was wearing a necklace made of macaroni pasta and one can feel her shyness come back to her after every one of the poems, every time she had to introduce her next work.
I’m sure you had to answer many times this through your career but: what is poetry? What is the relationship between Hollie, the mother, the partner, the girl… and poetry?
Boy! For what is poetry, I would say “ask Simon Armitage” because I heard him talking in an interview and I thought “yeah, that’s it!” He knows much better than I do!
As for me, I’ve been writing poems all of my life. I love rhyming, language, I love learning languages and the differences between languages. It’s all just me, like anyone we have a million different parts all merging into us. There is also Hollie the miserable, Hollie the sad, Hollie the excited and over enthusiastic. There are loads of us!!
Hollie Macnish’s words have a passion that is rare to get in the technological era we are living. She makes relationships between motherhood and sex, academic subjects and immigration. She cosmically links different aspects of ordinary life, convening the chores of the everyday with the indignation and the refusal to accept the horrible news we are bombarded with daily. She is right when she says there are many Hollies in her, we can guess them among the words of her poetry. We have as she said, “Hollie the miserable, Hollie the sad, Hollie the excited and over enthusiastic… Hollie the poet!”