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Interview with Hollie McNish: lifting the lid on off-limit subjects

Kyra Hanson interviews Hollie McNish who won the prestigious Arts Foundation prize for her spoken word poetry and has just published a new collection of verse Nobody Told Me - Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter

Last year English poet Hollie McNish, 32, won the prestigious Arts Foundation prize for her spoken word poetry. Shortly after, she was named one of OK! Magazine’s top 12 inspirational women to follow on Twitter.

She’s just at home writing about breasts in the Guardian as she is writing about the sexism of Beyonce’s lyrics in The Mirror.

I meet her in a back room of the Royal Albert Hall, where she hadtime to chat between reading at the Hammer and Tongue National Slam finals and putting her six-year-old daughter to bed.

McNish is humble about her rise to fame on the spoken-word scene, which she says is mostly down to “luck” and her love of writing poetry.

It was while studying at Soas she chanced upon The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. After a year in the audience trying to pluck up the courage she finally took to the stage and soon went on to win the 2009 UK poetry slam finals. She’s also the first poet to perform at Abbey Road Studios.

Her new collection Nobody Told Me upends gender stereotypes and lifts the lid on traditionally off-limit subjects — detailing the blood, sweat, tears and leaking breast milk of life before, during and after pregnancy.

It was on the way to her first Glastonbury festival poetry gig that McNish found out she was pregnant. She says the first moment she noticed society’s gendered expectations was when she realised she was scared to tell her boss, “who had been joking ‘just don’t get pregnant’” ever since she started the job.

McNish, who cycled to work every day until she was eight months pregnant, didn’t realise how difficult pregnancy would be.

At her first post-pregnancy poetry gig she was told she was unprofessional by the man who’d asked her to do the gig because she had breastfed during the break.

So what does it take to balance parenthood with a successful career in poetry?

“Not just hard work — cause I’ll sound like a fucking Tory,” she laughs and explains how being able to work online became crucial after she had her daughter, known as “Little One” in the book. Her YouTube channel gets hits in the millions.

The Little One is riding her scooter around the winding corridors of the Albert Hall as we talk, leaving trails in the plush carpets. The staff turn a blind eye. Britain’s cultural spaces are not known for being child-friendly and McNish says most are not at all welcoming to mothers or parents: “The world of work is still so inflexible in terms of bringing up and working around children.” This is short-sighted, she says, “society can’t afford to lose its smart women to childcare.”

Poetry readings can feel like stuffy, formal events — hostile spaces for mothers and their babies, so with Nobody Told Me McNish decided to do things differently.

Declining invitations to launch the book in London, she settled down in front of a webcam with a glass of wine instead. Hundreds tuned in online to hear her read — myself included.

It was an intimate affair, like a private pyjama poetry party. “The book is about parents. And parents have no cash, time or ability to leave the house — especially after putting the kids to bed,” she says. The launch felt like a homage to those mothers — many of whom voiced their own experiences of parenthood in the comments thread during the relaxed performance.

Not many performers go out of their way to create an inclusive, friendly environment for mothers the way McNish does. She recently wrote a Facebook post welcoming newborns to her gigs.

She’s aware that “any job that involves a lot of travelling or just work outside of the school run is still stupidly hard to do.” Nobody Told Me details the frustration of attempting to cover up morning sickness, having to silence a child on a train journeys, buses, gigs, meetings, hunting for backstage spaces to sit with her daughter.

If at times the poems feel raw and emotional that’s the point: “I wanted most of the writing and poetry to be the same as when I wrote it, because it’s meant to be honest and I think polishing everything too much would have spoiled that.”

She creates a dialogue around topics which are often left shrouded in awkward silence. She writes openly about unconventional desires (for bricks and ice cubes), the transformation of her body during pregnancy and touching her clitoris during childbirth to distract her body from the pain.

So what reaction does she get when she swaps a 9pm reading in a bar to a lunchtime reading in a school?

“Normally quiet giggling or red-cheeked awkwardness — then emails afterwards.” She loves reading in schools but is sick of taboos — especially when it comes to young people: “We just need to be open and stop this Victorian British silence. It might be deemed polite but it’s not helping anyone, while causing a lot of loneliness and harm.”

Nobody Told Me is a unique collection to be passed between mothers and daughters, teachers and students and among girlfriends and sisters showing us how to laugh, cry, overcome and ultimately live with any qualms we might have — not just about motherhood but the female experience in its entirety.

Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter –
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