Millions of YouTube hits, a new poetry book about parenthood set for publication and a breastfeeding poem soon to be aired on Channel 4. It’s Hollie McNish – on motherhood, feminism and the power of poetry…
She goes by the stage name Hollie Poetry, lives with her partner and their daughter – who’s five – near Cambridge and works full-time as a performance poet. Meet Hollie McNish… (This interview was originally published in October 2015).
You use poetry to discuss your experience of motherhood, why do you choose this as your subject matter?
I don’t choose my subjects they just come depending on what I’m doing, reading, watching, seeing. Motherhood is a strong factor in my life now – it inspires me, makes my cry, scream, laugh and opens my eyes up to the world in so many new ways.
Who are these poems for? In fact, who is your poetry for in general?
I just write. I always have. Since I was seven, I’ve being writing poems about anything and everything. My teenage diaries are in poems, my lecture notes even. So I write for myself, unless I get a commission to do something for someone specific.
But in general, my own poetry, I just write it. I didn’t ever plan to read it to others and I still write primarily to just get things off my chest and out of my mind. Then some of it I might share.
Embarrassed by Hollie McNish…
You talk (in Embarrassed) about feeling uncomfortable breastfeeding, who is ‘they’ – who made you feel that way, and how did you respond?
On a few occasions it was specific people telling me they thought it was weird. But mostly, it’s just society in general. People, including me before I did, know nothing about breastfeeding but seem to have lots of opinions on it.
It makes me so angry that I was made to feel embarrassed about breastfeeding my daughter
I think the fact we never see it: no characters on TV, films, no pictures, no nothing. It’s in no way normalised in the UK. My friend – a scriptwriter – tried to write in a character just sitting in a cafe breastfeeding, but they wouldn’t do it.
Even the book my daughter chose from the library the other day – a book about ‘How Babies are Made’ showed the newborn being fed with a bottle in the cartoon. It’s horrendous how awkward we are about it in this society.
People put it down to boob and nudity but it is totally nothing to do with that – it is the act of seeing someone suck on a nipple that we are embarrassed about. We’re just uncomfortable about bodies – or about any sort of nakedness which is unrelated to sex. It makes me so angry that I was made to feel embarrassed about breastfeeding my daughter. Angry and upset.
How powerful is poetry as a tool for spreading a message?
I think it can be very powerful – think of Dylan or Maya Angelou. I think poetry is already and always has been used for this purpose everywhere – in songs, in speeches, in political rallies – and the fact it is used worldwide in a lot of marketing and advertising also drums this point. It is a powerful way of using words to create a vision for others.
Do you identify as a feminist?
I do. It took me a long time to say that. I was not brought up with this as a good word, far from it. In my first interview after reading out my poems (all pretty feminist themes) someone called me a feminist poet and I immediately got offended and said “no, I’m not”.
Now I’ve hung around with enough friends who have busted my ass and shown me where and why this dismissal of the word comes from, I realise I always have been. It’s the same as breastfeeding – it’s a bloody helpful thing for those in the seats of global power if women feel shame about their bodies and ashamed of wanting more rights.
I think a lot about what I call the ‘Grandma Economy’ – the unpaid labour of the world – grandmas and bees: the most underrated workforces we rely on
Are you a mother first, or a poet?
A mother for sure. Though I’m me first. I’m slowly realising that it’s important to be me first.
How and why did you become a poet?
I just loved writing poems with no intention of having it as a career. I met my partner at 21 and read poems to him. I’d only ever read to my mum before that. He encouraged me to go and read them to others but it still took me a good four years to do that.
After my first reading at a small open mic night, someone asked me to read at their night. Then another… it just spiralled as people kept asking me to perform. Then someone asked if I ran poetry workshops and I started doing work in schools.
After two years, I had a day job, a child and a nearly part-time job again doing poetry. I got an Arts Council grant of £6000 to develop my poems on parenthood and finally decided to quit my other job. And I’ve been full-time since then – poet and mother.
How do you manage your time – working and raising a child – do you have help from your partner, other family, or paid childcare?
That is totally dependent on my partner firstly, then our mums, then aunties and uncles and cousins! We’ve never paid for childcare; a luxury of being self-employed. My partner works mainly night shifts, so it actually fits in pretty well.
We have a shared calendar so we don’t book work at the same time. Now she’s at school, it’s easier, because we can both work in the day, every day too. It’s a massive juggle between us. And then, yeah, there’s the free labour from the rest of the family.
I think a lot about what I call the ‘Grandma Economy’ – the unpaid labour of the world – grandmas and bees: the most underrated workforces we rely on, I think.
Is your daughter’s upbringing very different to yours, if so – how?
Very! It’s more ‘poncy’ as my mum would say. I like the word artistic. Yeah, I had a great upbringing: small village, great parents and friends. My daughter’s in a village too, parents are alright, I hope. But the travelling she does all the time is the big difference.
I have to take her with me to gigs a lot, so she’s been to more clubs and theatres and festivals and poetry cafes by the age of five than I even knew existed till I was about 20.
I was always really intimidated by theatres and arts centres and still am really – but she’s been chased around the Royal Court Theatre, slept backstage in various cities and fallen asleep on several occasions to drum’n’bass busting through festival vans. It’s a big blend of stable village life and schooling and weekend madness! She seems to enjoy it though.
What does an average day look like for you?
It’s always so different. But I’ll do today/tomorrow. Last night, went to bed at 2.30am. I do work when my daughter’s in bed and am often up till 2/3am. Was writing the final copyedit of a new book till 2.30am and doing a commissioned poem about immigration.
Get up at 6.30am, woken up by daughter to cut out a comic picture. Around 7.30, make breakfast (me and my partner do alternate mornings and bedtimes). I don’t like cereal, I just give her any food for breakfast; today was an omelette with leftover potato and carrots from last night’s dinner.
We eat, argue about brushing teeth, I do her hair (it’s very curly so this is a long process). School drop off. Cycle to train station. Get to London. Go to drop books at theatre. Have a meeting about a football play. Find a café to do two hours work – admin, train bookings, emails.
At 4pm I get to the evening’s gig – a launch for 80 teenage girls and their mentors for a charity called The Girls’ Network. Finish at 9.30pm. Get train back. Cycle home for 11pm. Pack for Scotland. Go to sleep.
Get woken up at 7am. Have a cup of tea while partner does all the school run stuff. Get dropped at the station for the train to Edinburgh. Sit on the train (it’s the relaxing bit of the job – the train journeys).
Do some work – mainly researching/reading. Get to Edinburgh. Relax, prepare for gig. 11pm go to gig. Gig finished 3am. Go back to the B&B. Sleep. Get up at 9am to go visit family in Glasgow.
Is it harder to be a poet if you’re female? And if so, why….?
There are certain things that are harder I think – talking about sex and swearing and doing funny poems is a lot harder, because some audiences just don’t want a woman on stage like that. And you can sometimes feel the tension. I get criticised a lot more for being ‘outspoken/vulgar/swearing etc than any of the guys I know who speak about similar things.
The female poets I know are also much less confident about asking for a fee and selling their books. It is really annoying. I’m the same, but I’m being urged by other male and female poets not to be. I’ve been told several times this year that I’ve asked for half the fee the guys at the same level have. I get told off a lot for it.
If you do want to share your poems when you’re ready, share them with real live people first, not on YouTube or Facebook
In general though, I’d say it’s hardest to be a poet if you’re working class. There is much more of a class/economic divide in the arts, in general, than a gender one. I think that’s a big problem: access to arts now that schools are getting all their funding cut.
But I do find it irritating when I’ve been on an all-female lineup for a poetry night labeled ‘Girls’ Night’, ‘Female Takeover’ or some shit like that. I go to so many club nights and festivals where it is near or 100% male and it’s not called ‘Men’s Special’. Dance music especially. I’d like to see a Drum’n’Bass night in Fabric called ‘Boys’ Special’ because it’s all male DJs and MCs – it just wouldn’t happen!
What’s your greatest achievement – career-wise – so far?
I don’t know about greatest, but the thing I’m most proud of is getting to a point where I go away to gig for four days and when I come back, my daughter no longer says “don’t go away” but instead says: “was it exciting? Where did you go? Can I see pictures?”. That is huge for me. The guilt is lessening and I’m realising she likes hearing my stories and isn’t damaged by me going away.
Your Facebook hints at TV work are very intriguing – can you tell us a bit about that? And anything else in the pipeline for Hollie Poetry?
Yeah sure. I’ve just made a wee film for the poem ‘Embarrassed’ I wrote about breastfeeding and it’s being aired on Channel 4 soon. I’m really excited about it. I’ve also been involved in a full-length documentary about the politics of infant feeding globally.
Right now, I’m finishing the final legal reads (so people don’t sue me) of Nobody Told Me, which is a 350-page book of all my diaries/poems about parenthood over three years. I’m really scared about that coming out. But excited too. I know lots of people will have strong objections to some of the things I’ve written in it!
Any advice for budding young poets?
Keep writing. And if you do want to share your poems when you’re ready, share them with real live people first, not on YouTube or Facebook. Real people – friends, family, a reading group, an open mic.
I only put things up on YouTube after gigging for a good two years. I was 28 and even then it was hard to face the hate of the internet trolls. Do it in reality first.