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Hollie McNishPhotography Amy Gwatkin

The radical wordsmith using poetry as a form of protest

After her show with ASOS Supports Talent, Hollie McNish discusses poetry elitism and why she doesn’t like being called a feminist

Every so often, Hollie McNish’s poem “Mathematics” – a razor-sharp diatribe against anti-immigration rhetoric – goes viral all over again. When the US elected Donald Trump as president earlier this month, legitimising his hate-fuelled promise to build a wall between the country and Mexico, the poem seemed more important than ever – and its two-million view count continued to rise. “He’s just a disgusting man really,” says McNish, whose ability to make topics like breastfeeding, gender stereotypes and xenophobia engaging and accessible in the form of spoken word poetry has earned her a big following on social media.

She might be unabashed when it comes to voicing her opinions through her poetry, but when it comes to performing onstage, McNish still sometimes finds herself riddled with nerves. These days she no longer throws up beforehand like she used to, but “it’s still bloody nerve-wracking” – so much so, she gets anxiety dreams for weeks in the run-up to important shows. And few were as important, or as impressive, as her performance alongside the Metropole Orkest at London’s Cadogan Hall as part of the ASOS Supports Talent initiative – an ongoing global initiative helping nurture young creatives. 

The day after the hugely successful free event (that nonexistent price tag was important to McNish), we sat down to discuss nerves, elitism and why she resists the label of ‘feminist’.

How did you get involved with the ASOS Supports Talent initiative?

They approached me and offered to sponsor a project that I’d done with an orchestra in Holland, where they’d scored music to six or seven of my poems. It was the poems that had been the most shared on social media, and were also seen as the most controversial – even though I don’t think they are. A lot of people that can sponsor things like that shy away from it because there’s stuff to do with breastfeeding and immigration and economics, but they didn’t seem to shy away from supporting that, which was really good. They offered their help and I took it.

You decided to make your performance with the Metropole Orkest free – was that important to you? 

Hollie McNish: Yeah, the whole point was that it was free, so that it didn’t discriminate on who could pay for a ticket, which is often the case with the arts. Just to be able to go to the theatre or a poetry night often costs between five and 50 quid for a ticket, which is pretty exclusive. That was the point – that young people could come, people out of work could come, anyone could get there if they wanted to.

“I hate overcomplicating things, I find it quite elitist. TS Eliot, for example, used to write in metaphors that only the upper classes could understand” – Hollie McNish 

There is a class divide in poetry – how do you think we can tackle elitism in the arts? 

Hollie McNish: I think, like most things, it needs to come from the politics and the laws. I think there’s always gonna be elitism in art, because people that are in a more desperate situation obviously don’t have time to take part so much, and they certainly don’t have the sort of money you need to be able to do that as a job. It’s tricky, and you’re often doing stuff for free – of course somebody that’s from a much poorer background can’t spend any time doing gigs for free or travelling to them. I didn’t really do it that much, I was quite lucky, but I still had to sometimes pay to come to London and perform at a gig that maybe paid me 30 quid. If I was from a very poor background that’s just not possible. 

Do you feel like there’s elitism in poetry itself, too? This idea that language should be impenetrable in order to be valid? 

Hollie McNish: I think those ideas about poetry are slowly fading. I didn’t study poetry at uni, I studied French and German, but I got told quite a lot that the way that I wrote my essays was not academic enough, even though the content was fine. Tutors would score out a certain word and change it to a word that meant exactly the same thing but was a higher register language, and that sort of snobbery in language I can’t stand. I get it, the English language is amazing, and it’s got one of the richest vocabularies in the world, but personally I hate overcomplicating things, I find it quite elitist. TS Eliot, for example, used to write in metaphors that only the upper classes could understand. 

‘Mathematics’ was one of the poems you performed with the orchestra – and its challenging of anti-immigration rhetoric feels almost more relevant now than when you wrote it, given that Brexit and Donald Trump have happened since. 

Hollie McNish: Yeah, I guess so. I think it is needed now, especially if that dickhead says he’s gonna build a fucking wall. It’s just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, really. About five years ago I got asked to do a poetry project where there was a guy that photographed the Arizona desert border between Mexico and the US, and it was just pictures of skulls, empty water bottles, corpses – people are literally crossing deserts and dying (trying) to have a better life, and this knob says he wants to build a wall. It’s just unreal. And the economic cost of policing that border is almost as much as any of the fucking benefits he’s talking about. It’s just ridiculous, I wish it would be covered more intelligently in the papers. It’s farcical. He’s a disgusting man. 

You used to get so nervous you’d throw up before going on stage. Has your confidence improved with time? 

Hollie McNish: I’ve definitely improved, but it’s still bloody nerve-wracking. The gig yesterday, I had dreams for like the last seven days about it, all these dreams that I was stood on stage and couldn’t keep up with my words, and then everyone was laughing at me, and I had dreams where I forgot what day it was and didn’t turn up and got screamed at. I don’t really like that – I know some people thrive on that nervous feeling but I really hate it. I know a lot of people give advice that if you’re really nervous then that’s a good thing, but I’m more of the (view) that if it’s actually making you stressed out, don’t. (laughs) It’s probably not very good advice! But what is the point of making yourself ill? 

“I don’t like people just saying ‘she’s a feminist poet’, because I feel like that ignores economics, wealth, race and sexuality” – Hollie McNish

You said that in one of your first interviews someone referred to you as a feminist poet and your initial reaction was to disagree. How has your attitude towards that label evolved? 

Hollie McNish: I was like, ‘I’m not a feminist, don’t ever call me a feminist.’ Just because I wasn’t really brought up with that being a good word. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really rude, to call me a feminist.’ Meeting people that were doing poetry as well, when I said I wasn’t they almost chopped my head off. I still find it hard to say. It’s a bit like the word vagina. I know I’m meant to use it to my daughter, so I do it, but I still find it hard. I said ‘volvo’ for, like, three years. It’s a bit like that with ‘feminist’. But I don’t like people just saying ‘she’s a feminist poet’, because I feel like that ignores economics, wealth, race and sexuality. I feel like it puts one label on you and not a lot of other ones. 

Lastly, are there any up-and-coming poets that you think people should be listening to or reading? 

Hollie McNish: That’s a nice question. Yeah, lots and lots. I think the person that I like reading at the moment is a guy called Raymond Antrobus. He’s been doing poetry for quite a long time, but I just think he’s so talented. Deanna Rodger is another one, Bridget Minamore. One of my favourite poets at the moment is a woman from Jamaica called Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, she’s just released a book called The Verandah Poems and it’s brilliant. Vanessa Kisuule and Salena Godden were the two that I did the gig with last night and I absolutely love their stuff. There’s too many to say!

You can watch Hollie’s videos of her poetry on her YouTube channel.

ASOS Supports Talent is a global initiative from online fashion destination ASOS, providing up-and-coming creative talent with funding, mentoring and support to realise personal passion projects. Find out more here