Breast-feeding in public, balancing the demands of your partner and your baby, and talking about your vagina can still feel like taboo subjects in 21st century Britain, but Hollie McNish’s upfront poems tackle the everyday challenges of being a mum as well as the joyous side of raising a child, striking a chord with thousands of people who follow her on Twitter. ‘Embarrassed’, her poem challenging attitudes to breastfeeding in public, went viral with over a million views on YouTube. Known for her unpretentious attitude and spontaneous style, McNish won the Ted Hughes poetry award in 2017 and attracted a full house at West Bridgford Library on Wednesday night (12th July) when she read from Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood and her new collection published by Picador, Plum, as part of the week-long Inspire Poetry Festival taking place across Nottinghamshire.
Poking fun at surreal online pregnancy updates informing women that ‘today your baby should be the size of a banana’ (‘Banana Baby’) and addressing issues around post-pregnancy body image and breastfeeding in public, McNish’s candid and heartfelt poems and diary entries from Nobody Told Me challenge idealized images of parenthood. When a well-meaning nurse told her six weeks after giving birth (aged 26) that she could have sex again “I thought, fuck you,” said McNish, graphically musing on whether, if men gave birth through their penises, they’d be in a hurry to start having sex again afterwards. She admitted that one night, after oscillating between the needs of her partner in the bedroom and her baby in the nursery, she grabbed a blanket and slept in the corridor between the two rooms.
McNish’s latest collection, Plum, juxtaposes poems written during childhood, teenage years and adulthood up to the present day. Some of the early poems she reads engage with the highs and lows of youth, including a wank that goes horribly wrong, giving a blow-job when you don’t really want to (‘Polite’), and teenage discos (‘Macarena’), while insightful poems from her twenties and early thirties (she's now 32) wryly address marriage, divorce, death, friendship and interior design TV shows. McNish’s warm conversational style, peppered with anecdotes and humorous checking-up – is the audience drinking enough wine? Is there too much sex and swearing content for a public library? – switches to rhythmic urgency when reading her poems, a style that suits her personality, making the show feel natural and relaxed. Although early in her career she resisted the limitations implicit in being termed a ‘feminist poet’, feeling her poems address wider social concerns, McNish’s work continually questions how to be in the world as a woman and why we sometimes treat each other so badly.
Her close relationship with her 90-year-old grandmother clearly enriches her writing. ‘While You Can Still Dance’ inspired by a dream her grandmother has of still being able to dance, serves as a reminder to make the most of life at every stage. While her Grandmother is generally pleased by increased openness in society, for McNish it doesn’t go far enough.
In ‘Voldemort’, she bemoans that ‘everyone says willy/but no girls’ word/is the same’. In the park where parents chat while their kids play, ‘everybody laughs’ when a mum tells how her son fiddles with his willy, but when the mother of a girl agrees her daughter’s ‘hands [are] always down her pants’, ’everyone is awkward’. McNish’s poem goes on to list over 70 names for the vagina, including a few crackers like ‘wizzie’ and ‘foofadoof’ that sound more like cocktails or dance styles. ‘Baby hole’ draws a groan from the audience, but McNish says ‘but it’s true, though’ which is essentially the subtext to all her writing. The poem is called ‘Voldemort’ because in Harry Potter, Dumbledore cautions Harry to always give things their correct names. Clearly, McNish would like people to stop discriminating between what is acceptable behaviour for boys and girls and how we talk about it. I’m not sure if calling your fanneh Voldemort will catch on, but time will tell.
Despite not having kids myself, there was plenty in this show I could connect with and I can see why McNish has such a huge (almost rock-star) following. The bookseller’s table was nearly empty by the end of the evening and most of the audience was in the book-signing queue, a pretty big accolade for her skills. Not wanting to exclude people who can’t purchase her publications, McNish offered to sign ‘anything’ but admits this has backfired in the past, when she was (perhaps unsurprisingly) asked to sign someone's boobs in Manchester. I wonder if they’ve washed them yet?
For more information about Inspire poetry Festival, please visit their website
Don't miss out on Afternoon tea: at Home with Mahendra Solanki and Candlestick Press at Southwell Library on Sunday 16 July