‘I don’t call myself a performance poet,’ Hollie McNish tells me ahead of her gig at Oran Mor for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. ‘That, to me, is the type of poetry which is specifically written to be performed. Mine’s not. I write poems all the time, on my own, by myself, with no intention to read them out.’
When she’s on stage, you can almost see what she means. Her support act, Michael Pedersen, performs eyes closed, without a lyric book, moving to the rhythms that drive his poems on. Founder of Edinburgh’s monthly spoken word and music night Neu! Reekie!, Pedersen is a more traditional poet, technically strong with subtle rhythms and imagery, using sophisticated intonation to emphasise the meaning of his words.
In contrast, McNish is an open book, but that doesn’t make her any less of a performer. In fact, it’s her greatest strength. Reading from the page, she looks her audience in the eye and feeds off the rapport she builds with them. Where other spoken word artists deliver their poems uninterrupted, she responds to the feelings in the room, always happy to break her rhythm to make a spontaneous remark or join in with a burst of laughter.
Her poems are straightforward, candid and relatable, an extension of McNish’s own personality. She says she doesn’t write that way self-consciously, it’s really just how she thinks. ‘I’m quite straightforward in my brain,’ she says. ‘I hate the faff of lots of writing, especially academic-style writing. I don’t mean when it’s a specialist topic, I mean writing that’s specifically made more complicated so it can appear more elite… [That’s] just not me. It’s not how I talk or think. My poems are pretty much word for word how I’m thinking.’
She opens her set with what she calls her top five ‘hate mail poems’, the ones that have earned her most angry emails from antifeminists and the likes of the EDL. Whether she’s speaking about sexism, racism or attitudes towards immigration, she’s astute, witty and observational, hard-hitting but never aggressive. ‘Hate’ is a slapstick tragedy about the absurdity of racial stereotyping and violence, while ‘For One Day’ explores what it would be like for men to be objectified in the same way as women: ‘For just one day / I’d have an MTV / where every other male celebrity was dancing on a pole in pants / his instruments banned / while all the females, fully clothed, stood back / just singing or strumming away / cos that’s their talent’.
Her ‘London poem’ is more confrontational. A response to being told that all poets ‘must have a London poem’, it attacks the capital’s insularity and self-importance. The opening line ‘Dear London / Sometimes I feel like punching you in the face’ goes down particularly well in post-referendum Glasgow. Although McNish is ‘getting more and more into [actual poetry]’, she’s keen to stress that her influences are musical rather than literary. However, the direct, interrogational personification of lines like ‘I love you London but some people here are scared of you’ and ‘London / I don’t know how many times I have to tell people I’m not from you’ read like a modern, British take on Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’.
‘Mathematics’, one of her best-known poems, grew out of a series of conversations she had with a man who blamed every single problem on immigration. Grounded in her own research – she has a Master’s degree in Development Studies with Economics – the poem refutes the myths that are perpetuated by the media and trickle down into popular thought. Moving beyond a purely emotional appeal, she attacks this narrow-mindedness with facts and stats, ‘economics’, ‘calculus’ and ‘historic maps’. McNish’s work and everything she does alongside it shows that poetry can make a difference – it’s about social justice as well as art.
She says, ‘When I quit my job, I thought, “Oh my god, what am I doing? Arty farty poetry?” It didn’t seem practical at all. The funny thing is, now I’m working with organisations and doing poetry at the sort of conferences I would love to have [been at before]. Conferences about the media’s portrayal of immigrants, breastfeeding conferences, or working with teenage mums and schools in general… Despite having a Cambridge degree and a Master’s, I still didn’t have much of a chance to do the work I wanted… And now, these organisations are asking me to come and speak.’
Motherhood is another important subject in McNish’s repertoire, with poems ranging from instinctive, personal ‘diary entries’ to vital political statements. ‘Do You Know How Funny You Look?’ looks at how people’s perceptions changed when she became pregnant and how bruising offhand remarks can be. In the same vein, ‘Megatron’, looks at how women’s bodies change during pregnancy and childbirth and how little attention this receives: ‘As the real life transformers / I’m saying Megatron ain’t shit / Compared to female bodies / To prepare to grow and feed a kid.’ Finally, for a well-earned encore, McNish performs ‘Embarrassed’, a poem about having to breastfeed her baby on the toilet because she didn’t feel comfortable doing it outside. Before reading it, she tells the audience that a group of student midwives waited around after her last gig to get her to do the poem so they could film it. It’s an issue that really matters and poetry is proving to be an effective way for McNish to get the point across.
Throughout the gig, she speaks warmly about her family and Glasgow, where it sounds like she feels most at home. She always aspired to be like her Glaswegian cousins and used to practice the accent, although, judging by her demonstration, without resounding success! When she talks about what inspires her poems, it’s clear that she takes a lot from conversations and listening to what other people have to say, particularly her grandmothers. ‘I write about… issues because they bother me in everyday life,’ she says. ‘When I think about them or read about them or chat to people about them, I tend to think of a wee poem or something based on that. I don’t know why, I just like to write down my thoughts in rhyme!’
McNish is realistic about her future, saying, ‘I don’t know if I even think now that [poetry] is going to be my career. I gave up my day job two years ago… so I guess that was a big, big moment. I love it, so I hope it carries on.’ And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. As a performer, she’s candid, empathetic and always accessible – there are no difficult lines or mixed messages. At the beginning, she looked nervous but that vanished after the first rapturous round of applause. For years, she only read her poetry to her mum, before moving on to sharing it with others and finally to public performance.
When asked what it feels like to be appearing at an arts festival geared towards mental health issues, she says, ‘It feels great. My mum’s a nurse and always told me how important it is to speak about mental, as well as physical health. When I started at Cambridge, everyone else was getting pestered by parents about what marks they were getting. Mine were constantly just checking that I wasn’t having a breakdown, or didn’t feel too out of place or unhappy. I’m not sure if my mental health influences my writing, but I’m sure that writing helps my mental health.’
Written by Rob Dickie