Hollie McNish, Great British Poet

Earlier this year one of  Hollie McNish’s Poems took Youtube by storm. GBC spoke  to Hollie McNish about poetry, motherhood and why stereotypes and labels p*** her off!

Hollie, it seems you were relatively unknown until recently, now you’re working with The Economist and appearing on Women’s Hour and Channel 4. How hard have you had to work to become an ‘overnight sensation’ or did you really appear like Venus from her shell?

Wow, I’ve never been called an ‘overnight sensation’ before so thanks! But yeah, it’s been slightly nuts since I had a video go viral on youtube, from 10,000 to a million views in a few days thanks to a website called ‘Upworthy’ mainly. But Woman’s Hour, Channel 4 and The Economist all happened before that, it’s just that people who didn’t know any of my poetry are seeing it now.

‘I’ve had a day job, a baby, as well poetry for the last three years, which at times feels like I haven’t slept’

I went on Woman’s Hour a couple of years ago and that helped me so so much – I didn’t realize how many people listened to that programme. And the poem I did with Kate Tempest on Channel 4 was filmed ages ago. They had a lot of issues putting it up – I think because there were naked people in it who weren’t 25 year old models! It was all a bit appalling how much discussion they had about that video before it went online. But yeah, I’ve been working hard.

I’ve had a day job (in an architecture centre) and been bringing up a baby and now toddler, as well as doing the poetry for the last three years, which at times feels like I haven’t slept – think I’ve had about 5 hours a night average for a long time now.  But I’m grateful – for my child, for people who like my poetry and for people who keep asking me to do gigs. So I cannot complain in any way.

Tell us a little about your background. Was Poetry always a burning ambition for you or did you have different ideas growing up? 

Poetry,  no, not at all. I was a little obsessed with studying at school – did every piece of work ever set, all my homework, never got a detention. I played sports every Saturday. I wanted to be a sports coach first, I did football coaching course! Then as I got into sixth form, I was interested in languages, but also in politics, in the sense of ‘is everything they tell us a load of rubbish or not!’. I just felt like I wanted to know things for sure and didn’t believe what people told me about things.  But the whole time, since I was 15, I was writing tonnes of poetry at home and not really thinking about it.

‘I … find it unfair and scary how much immigration is flaunted in the media in so many false ways’

I got in to Cambridge Uni and that was a massive deal for me, my parents, the school I was at. I’m not sure it was fun, I made some great friends there but the atmosphere was kind of weird, a bit too stressed and, well, hard to get used to!  I didn’t write any poetry while I was there, which was odd, but maybe also due to the massive amount of work we had to do. I worked, did a masters in Development Economics, then started working for an architecture and design centre.

I started reading it out when I was about 23 and it sort of started taking over. I got asked to do more and more gigs and now I’ve just quit my job after 5 years there. But I still want to do concrete stuff. I’m not so bothered about going into more abstract / theatrical work with poetry. I’d rather work for the same organizations I always wanted to but perhaps in a more poetic way!

Your poems cover a lot of ground. Sex & love, society’s treatment and stereotyping of women, languages, economics…. What inspires you and drives to write and perform?

I guess reading most of all. I could say life, but I think reading reports, essays, books etc was the main thing that pushed me to write. I just used to think of rhymes and write them down when I found something interesting. The media, advertising, the Sun newspaper, they’re all helpful too! And then the good stuff – trees, babies, kids, sunshine, music, people. I guess it is life really!!!

Your poem Mathematics got a lot of attention; British National Breakfast also dealt with negative perceptions and hypocrisy about race and immigration. Why do these issues resonate with you?

I just find them to be one of the top prejudices of our politics, consistently scapegoated and sold to the public in the most simplistic and dangerous ways. When I was studying immigration it made me so angry the way reports were being taken and flipped around, cut up and regurgitated by the press. It is so so dangerous, especially as most people only read the headlines, which are often not even in line with the stories.

‘ I always felt a bit like I was meant to choose – like I couldn’t just be a bit of both cultures’

I was always quite obsessed with identity / countries / flags when I was little. My family are all Scottish, I was born and brought up in England, told I was Scottish not English and that obsession for me to decide one way or another used to really get to me as I was growing up. I loved going to Scotland to visit family and I desperately wanted the Scottish accent and to not be the odd one out at Christmas! But I always felt a bit like I was meant to choose – like I couldn’t just be a bit of both cultures / countries. A bit of an obsession with English versus Scottish culture without anyone really defining to me what that meant and why I should choose one over the other. I like both, I am both!

I went on to study forced migration and migration economics in my Masters. Maybe it all sprung from being the English one – not sure! I just find it unfair and scary how much immigration is flaunted in the media in so many false ways. I have so many students repeating those sort of dangerous headlines it’s unreal. Just takes all the attention off the real issues and ways of helping society and puts it on this minority of people who for whatever reason have decided to move countries.  So so many of the reports I read were really insightful. But they never make it to the public, either because of the language they’re written in or the length… I’m getting quite aggravated even talking about this! I’ll stop!

You’ve had a busy year! You played Glastonbury, Womad and the Albert Hall this Summer.  So, tell me are Poets the New Rock Stars of the 21st century? Have they finally knocked Rock Star Physists of their perch and will there be a live smackdown with Brian Cox?

Ha! I don’t think so. Not yet…… But I’d love to meet Brian Cox! (possibly not as much as my mum would though!)

Hollie McNish is performing live in Edinburgh on 20th of December, you can find out more about her live performances on her site here

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