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Holly McNish: Personal & Political Poetry

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Hollie McNish is one of the leading poets of her generation. We last interviewed her in 2014 (NT#67), when two of her poems had just gone viral. Since then she's won The Ted Hughes Award for Nobody Told Me - her memoir of poems and stories about motherhood - released another poetry book from Picador called Plum, written an award-winning play about women's football called Offside that's just finished a run at the Edinburgh Festival, and performed hundreds of gigs up and down the country. She's at the front of a new wave of poets, alongside Kate Tempest and Tony Walsh, who are bringing new audiences to poetry. We caught up with her ahead of her performance as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words on 20 October at Firth Court.

Could you tell us a little bit about your latest book, Plum, and how it differs from your last book, Nobody Told Me?

It's different from Nobody Told Me because it's more of a standard poetry collection rather than a diary, there's not as much prose and I've also included poems that I wouldn't necessarily read on stage. I often write very short pieces that I don't perform because they haven't fit the format of live gigs. It's quite similar though. There's still a few diary entries and blurbs before poems. I don't really like the idea of someone reading a collection of my poems and not knowing what I'm talking about. I am coming around to some poems needing repeated readings, but it's not really how I write.

I think all writing is intrinsically political

It's chronological, so it starts with poems I wrote at the age of 8 and goes to 34. None of them were written especially for the collection. There's a lot of things in there I've never talked about before and a few things my family definitely didn't want me to put in, like getting chlamydia. My mum didn't want people to know! But with a lot of these poems I don't want to be embarrassed by them. All the taboos and shame around so many topics can really mess with people's heads.

Do you find it difficult to put so much of your own life into your writing?

It comes naturally while I'm writing but I've still got poems I would never share with anyone. It's difficult. I do feel sick sometimes, thinking I've said too much, but I feel more strange about that sort of thing on social media. I often get told that I should put more stuff up online. People want to know about you and your life and your children, especially because I talk about motherhood a lot in my work. I feel putting a picture of my daughter online would make me feel a bit sick but I don't mind sharing it in my poetry. You want to keep some things just for yourself.

How did you find the process of working with [Picador editor] Don Paterson and working with a more traditional poetry publisher?

I thought it would be much more strict than it was. I kept asking him what he thought, and he asked me what I thought. I imagine it must be difficult to edit people's work when they write in completely different ways. It was embarrassing and funny though, especially when you're sitting with somebody trying to work out how to edit a poem about blowjobs. It's quite a hard thing to talk about from a literary perspective. I don't think I can think of another part of my life where I've spoken to a man of his age about some of the things in my book. It was great though. He was really encouraging. We talked about how women's stories aren't deemed to be literary, like childbirth or pregnancy or periods. By the end it was very funny and he's a lovely man.

Could you tell me about your play, Offside, how you became interested in the project and where the play came from?

A London theatre company called Future Theatre wanted to write a play about the history of women's football. The political history of women's football is fascinating because it was banned for 50 years. They'd originally commissioned Sabrina Mahfouz to write the script and she loved researching the women's game, but she hasn't played much sport, so I was asked to come in because I used to play a lot of women's football. There were scenes in the changing rooms, captain's speeches and being on the bus to a game with all your mates, and she asked if I would collaborate with her on those. Then I ended up writing all of the monologues for [pioneering female footballer] Lily Parr. I just loved it.

I hope people do more with it. There's so much more politics in that story than we could fit in the play, partly because we were worried about libel. There were thousands and thousands of people watching the game in the 1920s and none of the women were paid. All of the ticket receipts went to charities, like hospitals, and some of them went to miners who were striking after the war. Then quite suddenly the FA banned women from playing and justified this move by citing one doctor's note that said it could harm a woman's womb. The week before the ban, over 60,000 people travelled to Liverpool and paid to watch a women's game and all that money went to charity.

You've had such a huge reaction online to some of your more political pieces, such as those on immigration and breastfeeding. Do you feel like your writing is intrinsically political?

Yes, I think all writing is intrinsically political. Pretty much everything I do is constrained by laws, attitudes and social culture. I think breastfeeding is one of the biggest issues at the moment. You see all these documentaries and articles about capitalism, chain shops, fast food, McDonalds and Starbucks, and none of them include much about breast milk companies who are making billions every year from women who have difficulty feeding. It's ignored by debates and documentaries because people don't want to talk about a woman's body.

Poetry and advertising have become unlikely partners in recent years, with everything from chips to food delivery services advertising through poetry. Was it a difficult decision to get involved in the Nationwide TV campaign?

It was a difficult decision. I've turned down a lot of money in the last three years because I didn't want to promote a thing. It depends on what they want you to do as well. I'm not into just writing a poem about a product. I've also been offered a lot of voice-over work reading poems written by a marketing executive board, and I think 'Who do you think I am?' If you're going to offer me that, at least ask me to write the poem as well. I also know they ask me because I have a lot of hits on YouTube. It's not because they love my work.

Obviously I'm not totally against it. I've done two myself. The two adverts I've done were poems I'd already written, and part of my decision-making process was thinking that these might be poems that would be nice for people to hear. If I just do them at poetry events or in my book they're probably never going to be heard by anyone like me when I was growing up, or who doesn't like poetry, or who doesn't have money to travel to a city to go to a reading. A lot of people have come to my gigs after seeing an ad. It's a hard balance.

Joe Kriss

Holly McNish performs at Firth Court on 20 October as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words.

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