Hollie McNish: Plums, Mums and Football Coaching

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Plum.    **** (Four stars)

Hollie McNish.  Winchester Poetry Festival, October 2018

Hollie McNish was the perfect headline finish to a hugely successful 2018 Winchester Poetry Festival.  Her honest, pithy words coupled with her hilarious and authentic ‘girl-next-door’ delivery make her entertaining and endearing in a way that few performers are able to emulate.  Ostensibly Hollie was there to deliver her latest show Plum, “I’ve been told I called it Plum because that’s a word for female genitalia, but, no, I just like plums and there’s lots of plum trees where I live, so...” but she snuck in plenty of her previous material around the edges as well, her subject matter always being deeply personal and focussing on relationships, pregnancy, motherhood and sex.  “Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s Push It was not as funny during childbirth as I hoped it would be”. 

The largely conservative sold-out Winchester crowd laughed and cheered her enthusiastically, somewhat inexplicably forgiving her the fairly frequent use of profanity that accompanies her performance.  Indeed, Janet, the charming lady (of a certain age) sitting next to me in the audience couldn’t put her finger on it. “I don’t mind it at all when she uses that language” she told me, “if it had been anyone else I would have left the theatre”, and she meant it.  Whatever the appeal of Hollie McNish, she delivered a knock-out set, delighted the crowd and garnered an extremely hefty queue afterwards at the book-signing table.  If you’ve never seen her perform then you are missing out on something quite special; you may or of course may not love her material, but you will almost certainly be drawn to her sheer likeability and she will definitely make you laugh.

Hollie spoke to me about her life so far in poetry:

Hollie, you've published books and plays, won major awards, done stuff with the BBC and had all sorts of other achievements.  Was there a point when you thought that you had "made it" as a poet?

Yeah, when that PN Review came out about what an awful writer I was!  Just kidding. I guess I wouldn't say 'made it' but in practical terms, when my daughter was two and I was earning the same in poetry as my admin job and had to choose between them. I was gonna be made redundant in 6 months anyway but still! The day it was my full time living I guess. Don't know if that's 'made it'. When I write a poem I actually think is alright, perhaps then I'll feel that more!

Did you go to open mic nights when you started out?  How useful are these kind of events to grass-roots poetry?

I did. Not many, but yes it is the only reason I was ever 'seen' if that's the right word. I think it is! I went to the Poetry Café night Poetry Unplugged. It was like another world. Intimidating though. I walked up to the door about three weeks in a row before I even dared go in the café. It's a shame these spaces can seem so scary. Also, I'm from a village so just being in London was pretty exciting at that time too. After the first reading, i got invited to do another gig, and that happened each time. So I was really lucky. I only planned to do it once just to get it out my system and see what it felt like. I was fairly happy just writing for myself,

You're a very busy professional, for example juggling six gigs in five days all over the country this week alone.  That doesn't leave much time for writing does it?  Do you prefer performing or writing? Or do you just have to find some kind of crazy balance to sustain a career?

I prefer writing. The idea of being 'the entertainment' for an evening still wakes me up with a sore stomach on gig mornings, especially if I'm not feeling great or just feeling like being quiet. But writing is also pretty lonely so that side of performing is great - the travelling, meeting people, book signings etc. Everything except the actual reading! But I wouldn't want to pass that on - get someone else to read it, cos normally, when that has happened, they make me sound much more angry than I am about a lot of the poems!

Go on now be honest, do you get nervous about appearing before a big crowd at a place like Winchester Festival?  Do you have a "thing" to deal with nerves or butterflies if you get them?

I don't have a thing, no, but I get nervous. More if it's light in the audience or if it's a daytime gig i.e. a setting that feels less relaxed, especially to speak about things I speak about! I just always think of my mum's wise words: What's the worst that can happen, someone doesn't like your poems?'. The thing I get most nervous about is people paying money and spending time on you and being bored! I always cut my poems shorter in panic before I go on. It's where most of my editing is done!

Carol Ann Duffy's Poet Laureateship is up next year, who would be your choice for her successor? Fancy a crack at it?

Ha! I'd rather get a poem on the national curriculum I think. Do school visits rather than royal visits! I reckon Simon Armitage. I like his poems a lot. Or Alice Oswald. Jackie Kay - if you can be Makar and Poet Laureate. Don Paterson would be great.

What's next Hollie?  Another play?  Another poetry collection? World domination?

That's the one! I want to do something helpful, as shite as that sounds. I'd be more veering towards film than theatre, if by any chance I could give that a try. I totally respect theatre but it's not my area at all. I've seen about eight plays in my life and am much more into film and going to the cinema. I've also got loads of poems and stories sitting on my computer and in notepads so am just working out whether to do something with them or leave them in peace. Will wait for the editor to inspect! I'd like to renew my kids football coaching qualification too. But that's nothing to do with writing!

Catch up with Hollie’s work at her website here.


Write Out Loud reviews: Five stars – Truly exceptional. Four stars – Brilliant.  Three stars – Really good.  Two stars – Some strong points. One star – Not recommended.

◄ So Many Highlights at the Winchester Poetry Festival

The Other Guernica: Derek Sellen, Cultured Llama ►


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