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This article was written on 07 Mar 2015, and is filled under Performance, Poetry, Writing.

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Hollie McNish: Poet


Hollie McNish is a poet. You may well have seen one of her online videos; Mathematics, a poem focusing on UK immigration went viral, receiving over 1 million youtube views in just over a week.

So what does it mean to be a poet in 2015? You’re just as likely to catch Hollie at Glastonbury festival as at the Royal Albert Hall. Her poems have appeared everywhere from Radio 4 to MTV, and she’s been commissioned by everyone from The Economist to Woman’s Hour.

As well as performing, Hollie runs a poetry in education organization, Page to Performance.

Here Hollie talks us through the reality of juggling poetry and parenting.

OM: Can you describe an average day at work?

HM: Erm, that’s hard; I work freelance so it totally depends what I’m doing! I’ll give you my last few days:


8am: Get (woken) up. Pack lunch and bags for you and four year old daughter. Get in car with partner and daughter and drive to Reading Festival. Sign in, get van to backstage area and check mic on stage. Run around with daughter for an hour.

12am: Go on stage and do poetry set. Finish set and breathe out. Get back in car and drive home four hours. Get home. Go to the park with daughter and have dinner.

8pm: Partner puts daughter to bed. Go on computer and do 2 hours of admin. Email replies. Train bookings for gigs. Write a poem for BBC World at One.

9pm: Record poem for BBC and send to them and carry on working while watching great British Bake Off. Wash up.

8am:Get (woken) up and play with daughter for two hours.

10am: Meeting with guy designing my album cover. Then back home, pack bags and food and get in car. Drive to Shambala Festival. Get to backstage area and chill out for the afternoon with daughter

8pm: Do poetry set on stage, then watch poetry for a few hours and try and put daughter to bed.

1-2am: Sit with friends and have a beer in the backstage area

8am: Get (woken) up. Go to kids area at Shambala.

12pm: Leave Shambala and drive home, shower yourself and daughter and go to one year old’s birthday party.

8pm. Work at desk on album artwork. Phone meeting about videos for album. Watch question time repeats and every documentary possible to prepare to write a poem on housing.

Midnight: Go to bed.

7.30am: Get up. Cycle to town and find internet cafe. Sit in it all day and do all the admin from the last week. Includes album work, five interviews for blogs and magazines, order school uniform and school labels and present for grandma and friends’ kids. Get birthday present for kid’s party tomorrow. Listen to final album master. Edit three poems.

OM: Have you always wanted to be a poet ?

HM: Not at all.

But I always wrote poems, since I was a little kid. My diaries have always been in rhyme, but I never thought of it as a career option.

I did French and German at Uni, then an MSc in Development Economics and wanted to work in Development of some form. I specialised in civil Society Movements and The Drug War and Forced Migration, so somewhere in that area was my plan.

OM: What was the hardest part about becoming a poet?

HM: Giving up a job with a regular salary. I was working as an education officer for a charity that looked at getting young people more say in planning issues. Another thing was that I was worried that doing poetry would be really impractical. I’m not really interested in art for arts sake (I mean for myself).

I really wanted to do something practical in life and ‘poet’ sounded a bit arty farty!

OM: And what’s the best part of the job?

HM: The variety. My last job was sat in the same office each day.

With this job I can work anywhere and get involved with a lot of diverse things, from UN conferences to Jazz Club nights and rock festivals. It’s hard to travel all over the place, and as with every job, it is really hard juggling work and parenting.

But I’m bloody luck in that respect. I have one kid so I can take her with me a lot. And my partner is a freelance emcee, so his gigs are way later than mine and we can swap over quite easily; I’ll get home at midnight from a gig and he’ll leave at 1am for his. But it’s also tricky having no stability of income at all.

OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?

HM: Not really; I mean, mostly it’s cool. But in the same way I know that brown skinned friends get ‘tokenised’ at gigs, women do too.

For example, I have gone to lots of gigs where there is an all male line up. Fine. But I have never gone to a gig where there is an all female line up and it is not called a ‘ladies night’ or ‘all woman special’ etc.

I also get asked to do gigs a lot because ‘they realised they didn’t have a woman on the line up’. This has happened in radio as well as stage gigs. Also, recently, I’ve had quite a few gigs where they wanted Kate Tempest and she couldn’t do it so they asked me as an alternative. That annoys me. Because we look similar. Short, white, blonde, female. But our poetry is not at all similar and I’m sure there are many male poets wit a more similar style to her. But they replace ‘female poet’ with ‘female poet’! For sure it’s the same with ethnic minorities. People have asked me if I know of any ‘young black male poets’ for example, because they’d had another ‘young black male poet’ drop out or double book.

Also – the pay. That is a big difference. Female poets I know charge way less. I was asked to do a gig by the Southbank Centre once and I gave an estimate that was half of what the male poet gave. The organiser emailed me and told me to up the price and resend the email. Then told me that every freelance fee that they’d had from males was about twice as much as the women gave. Its not the guys’ fault, it’s just the inherent bias.

OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a poet ? What qualifications and experience do you need?

HM: If someone is charging entry for a gig, ask for pay. When you’re starting out; fine, but if you are an established artist, this is your work. You deserve to be paid. If they are getting paid, you should be too.

You don’t need qualifications for this, but aside from writing poetry, I think it helps if you can do a bit of html and excel!

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?

HM: Saying yes to every gig because I felt guilty saying no. And being snowed under with work so badly paid that I actually lost money getting the train fare to gigs.

OM: What does success mean to you?

HM: Doing something helpful.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?

HM: That we will be able to say the word vulva with the same nonchalance that we say penis. And that little girls, as well as little boys, will have an actual single word in the english language for their vulvas. i.e. the female equivalent to willy. I feel like the fact that they don’t is where so much shame and worry starts. Boys all have willies. Girls have erm flowers, fandallys, front bottoms….. The day that it is normal to hear those words spoken without shame or embarrassment, is the day I’ll think we’ve come far.

You can buy Hollie’s album here.


The Poetry Society

Apples and Snakes

Page to Performance

Tongue Fu

Masterclass: Poetry for Beginners (part of the Roundhouse’s excellent Spoken Word programme)

Masterclass: Producing your own show

 Photo by Chris Scott 

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