“I think the more you learn and the more you listen, the more you’ll find your own voice”

Interview: Olivia Atkins, Picture: Helmi Okbara

You may recognise her voice; the raw and rare cry that spouts reality. Whether it’s an honest portrayal of breastfeeding in public (Embarrassed), comparing the way that boys and girls are raised (Pink or Blue) or challenging society’s obsession with fame (Famous for what?), poet, author and spoken word artist, Hollie McNish has a knack for telling it how it is.

McNish’s skill lies in her ability to transform everyday topics into relatable anecdotes and recount them poetically. Sometimes confronting, oftentimes hilarious, each piece is constructed simply and easily gets her message (and personality) across.

But becoming a working poet was never the plan for McNish, although it was a hobby she pursued passionately. Her journey of self-discovery happened accidentally; her career unfolded organically with every gig she took on and the more her YouTube channel grew. With five poetry books, a spoken word and music album and a play beneath her belt, calling McNish ‘busy’ is obviously an understatement. McNish has also won various poetry awards, runs regular poetry workshops and has even starred in a number of adverts, providing her with plenty of fodder for her current poetry tour.

Olivia Atkins caught up with Hollie McNish to find out how her love for writing poetry was constant, her discovery of the importance of reading and finally having the time to catch up on Games of Thrones.

Olivia Atkins: Were you always writing and at what point did you think to pursue writing poetry and spoken word as a career?

Hollie McNish: I’ve always written poems since I was little. No more than doing drawings or playing catch but I’ve always loved writing. I never thought to pursue spoken word as a career - I’d never even heard of that term until I started getting called a ‘spoken word’ artist. I found it weird, because all my poems are written first and it wasn’t like I was being called a ‘writing poet’ or a ‘book poet’!

I feel like it just sort of took over. I kept getting asked to do gigs until I had to choose between a part-time admin job I was doing or the poetry. I was working for a charity and was about to be made redundant anyway, which helped in making the decision. I always thought I’d do it if it worked out. If not - I mean if no-one wants to hear my writing anymore - I figured I would go back to my planned career around development and economics, which I loved as well.

OA: Your work is very provocative and often deals with very relatable, sometimes personal, subjects. What inspires your pieces?

HM: Mainly books. The more I read, the more I write. I mainly read factual books, though I’ve started trying out more fiction. But yeah basically, the more I learn - from books or people or film or whatever - the more I want to write poems, to work out all my ideas and feelings in my head.

OA: What does identity mean to you? Has this concept evolved over time in your perspective and in your work?

HM: I haven’t really thought much about this before. Perhaps the fact that I question a lot of things around me is because of my upbringing and my interests. I studied philosophy a lot at uni – German philosophy mainly. But, in all honesty, I just get on with things! Sometimes I think I’ve had enough of questioning concepts but in truth, I don’t know what my identity is. I just write what I’m thinking about and try to remember to make my daughter’s packed lunch on time.

OA: You've published five books, most recently Plum, which is about growing up and finding your voice. What advice do you have for others who are trying to find theirs?

HM: Read other people’s work, listen to other people and keep writing. Just write. Not for any reason. Not for anyone else, otherwise it might become more of a show than your own voice. Unless you want to write scripts, in which case, fair enough. I think the more you learn and the more you listen, the more you’ll find your own voice. Saying that, I don’t think anyone is so individual that there won’t be other people with similar voices to yours!

OA: You hold various poetry and spoken word workshops. How important are these for you?

HM: I guess I simply enjoy doing them. I really enjoy them because they give me a chance to hear a lot of people’s writing. I think people have so much on their minds, so many hidden worries and passions that our society likes to suck out of everyone. Poetry often reveals that and it’s a real privilege to share in it in some way

OA: What are you working on at the moment?

HM: I’m trying to catch up on the last series of Game of Thrones! I’m also putting together all the writing that I’ve done over the past two years to see if I can do something with various poems and stories that I’ve written. And I’m working on the translations of Nobody Told Me, learning it, I mean, in between doing lots of gigs, which are scheduled in until next August.