After queuing outside an ominous door, the poetry fans of Nottingham swamped the “Old Cold Store”. There was a buzz of excitement to see Hollie McNish, whose poetry has the magic elements to go viral on YouTube. Once we’d grabbed our beer (Castle Rock sponsored the event and we appeared to be sat in their brewery), Chris Lanyon started his set.
Chris – President of the Poetry and Spoken Word Society at the University of Nottingham – made us yearn for our student days. Rocking groan-inducing puns including “an offal shame”, his poems celebrated everyday joys such as flatmates, girls who smoke and starlings. He was a celebrity reference king; convincing us that Helen Mirren “fucking loves drunk driving” and that Greg Wallace from Master Chef is edible. I mean, really: Who else has a batch of poems where the last words of each stanza add up to make Taylor Swift songs? He was a cheery host, super enthusiastic about poetry and full of potential.
After more beer and a toilet break “through the abattoir doors”, we cheered as Cleo Asarbre-Holt announced her all-clear from a melanoma scare. Cleo is a Nottingham-based Spoken Word poet and owner of the prestigious M3C Scholarship to undertake a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. Beginning with “A Rant at Anxiety”, she stated a list of all-too-familiar effects of this devastating mental illness – confidence-killer, sadness-maker, “really, really mean”.
Cleo continued with a poem about her walk to work, interspersed with a beautiful sung refrain of “Oh Morning Walk, Oh Morning Walk...” which is still buried in my brain. I recognised her landmarks; the homeless people she sees daily, the street names and stressed-out suits trapped in the daily grind. Her “Bakery Blues” was hilarious and melancholy in equal measures; making fun of posh southern students hungry for Pan Au Chocolate at ungodly hours. Her poems encouraged us to imagine a world where we are less uptight and inhibited, freer to express our true selves.
Lastly, Hollie McNish made her way to the stage and immediately put us at ease with her universal charm. Hollie is effortlessly funny, self-deprecating and humble – she got the whole room on her side within seconds. She mixed poems with stand-up-like anecdotes, cracking us up with a story about her granny confiding in her that she was “so fucking bored of Christmas”. Her honesty about family, sex and motherhood kept us enthralled.
Uncomfortable subjects became easy to laugh at, without lessening their impact. “Breasts” laid bare the strangeness of swapping between being a mother and a lover. From wearing three different t-shirts (Participatory, Non-Participatory and No) to sleeping in the corridor between baby and partner, there were plenty of “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” moments.
After a pick of her earlier poems, Hollie read from her latest book “Plum”. A collection of poems from childhood to adulthood, she could not resist telling us how its 50-year-old male editor (a nature fan) had looked forward to her poem “Thrush”. The audience shook with laughter at “Yanking” – a retelling of her friend’s ill-fated experience with an unlucky willy. “Your divorce party was better than your wedding, that guy we never liked wasn’t invited.” melded with her trying to make herself cry during a wedding dress-shopping trip.
Unlike the smug couple in her poem about “Grand Designs”, Hollie’s work feels genuinely adventurous and brave. I left a solid convert and look forward to sharing her sometimes rude, always warm stories with anyone who needs a bit of cheering up.