Hollie McNish’s spoken word ranges from issues about immigration to body image obsession. It’s a formula which makes her one of the UK’s most promising new performers. As well as touring the UK and much of Europe, she has released two poetry albums, Touch and Push Kick, and a collection of written poetry, called Papers. But despite her rising stardom, McNish also holds poetry workshops for schools and runs Cambridgeshire’s Youth Poetry Slam for young people between the ages of 12 and 25.
Having only recently entered the spotlight, McNish rejects my label of ‘icon’. “I’ve only been doing it for four years and had two poems go viral, thanks to Upworthy, Reddit and the Huffington Post. If I’m still doing this when I’m 80 then I might take that. But I feel really honoured that so many people are so supportive. It feels a little unreal, to be honest.”
McNish began writing from a young age, much like the young poets she works with in The Youth Poetry Slam, an initiative which encourages young people to write, often for the first time. She traces her creative origins to her childhood. “The first poem I’ve ever found with a date and age on it was age five. But I started writing more when I was about eight or nine. I’ve always written my diaries in rhymes for some reason. The only time I stopped writing was when I was studying at Cambridge. I wrote nothing apart from poems about feeling stuck in a strange bubble.”
But despite writing constantly, her career began to kick off a couple of years ago with support from Battersea Arts Centre. She explains how it happened. “I started seeing what I could do with poetry other than 15 minutes sets at gigs,” she says. “I only just gave up my day job about 4 months ago – I worked for an urban design charity for 4 years, but that, plus the poetry plus motherhood, meant I was getting about four hours sleep, at best, each night.”
Then, McNish’s poetry focussed on everyday issues. Since then her poetry has a political edge. “I did a Masters in Development with Economics and wrote a lot of poems at that point. I prefer reading essays and factual books too so I guess a lot comes from there. When I was at school I refused to watch the news or anything political until I understood what they were talking about (or more the language and words they were using).”
Upon leaving school she had no idea about politics and “didn’t know the
difference between Conservative or Labour, Democrat or Republican, or
anything like that. I just wasn’t interested. But I am now and whenever something affects me or interests me, I write about it in rhyme.”
I ask McNish whether she has a favourite of these poems. “Not really. Most of the poems I’ve written are still under my bed. I only read out a tiny fraction to other people. There are poems I like reading more than others, but I don’t have favourites of my own stuff.”
McNish won the UK Slam Poetry Competition in 2009, and four years on
she was asked to judge the competition. I was interested to see how she felt playing a critical role as a judge. “Horrible, and I’m not good at it! In slams, I give people between 9-10, no lower normally. I don’t really like judging stuff that, in general, has no right or wrong answer. If it was a maths competition I wouldn’t mind. If I remember the poem and it really sticks with me, then that’s what I find important. I’m not really interested in looking deeply at techniques or form, I leave that to judges who know more about poetry.”
Currently the voice behind Dove’s new radio advert, ‘Smile’, I asked McNish how she felt about the campaign. “It feels good now. It took a long time for me to get the balance right and agree to it. I love the campaign but am sceptical about advertising; it was a compromise really. But they have been amazing. I was able to write anything I fancied about self-esteem, there was no input from them. Then if they liked a piece, they could use it.
“Being called ‘the voice’ is funny, because I wrote the piece, I didn’t read someone else’s words. I’m really pleased they went with the poems too as I worked a lot on them, more than on other poems I write.
“I really wanted to get the focus away from looks, whether good or bad, and onto the things that people actually do.”
She tells me about her plans for the next year. “I’m doing an album of 15 poems, it’ll be a mix of music and plain words. I’m putting all my parenthood diaries into a book (poetry of course) and I’m trying to collect hoards of kids poems that I’ve been writing into something – but that’ll probably have to wait a while!”
McNish’s success so far has built on how prolific she is. But it’s also based on her performance, and desire to share her work with others. This, she says, is the most important thing for an aspiring poet. “Go to open mics. Go to groups. I spent years keeping everything I wrote to myself and walked past poetry cafes for about 2 years, too nervous to go in. I’ve met so many great people since I took the plunge and read out my first poem to others (I mean, other than my mum and boyfriend).”
It’s an approach which has set McNish on a successful career path. With several books and tours lined up, it’s only a matter of time before McNish is seen as one of the most interesting young British poets.