Taylor Edmonds was at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to see Ted Hughes Prize-winning performance poet Hollie McNish.
An evening with Hollie McNish at her sold-out show at Wales Millennium Centre’s Ffresh, supported by Clare Potter, consisted of poems about boobs, strange turn-ons, motherhood and granny’s, along with many laughs.
McNish started by reminiscing about her first Cardiff gig, at Womanby Street’s Moon Club, which was attended by drunken members of a parent’s club. Cardiff was happy to have her back, as the audience was completely captivated by both performers. McNish read poems spanning her collections, taking the audience on an intimate journey from adolescence through to motherhood. She often paused between lines to comment on or explain a piece, breaking down the barriers between performer and audience, which encouraged a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.
Launching into her poem ‘Embarrassed’, which is based on being forced to resort to breastfeeding her daughter in public loos, McNish criticised a society that is made uncomfortable by women breastfeeding ‘In a country of billboards covered in tits.’ Her poems celebrate womanhood in a way that is uncensored, without shying away from the ‘ugly’ parts, and their relatability is apparent in the reaction of her audience, as there are many all-too-knowing nods and laughs in response. McNish turns the ordinary things about sex and womanhood that people only discuss with hushed voices and turns them into bold, matter-of-fact poems that demand the attention of the room. A success story of the slam and spoken word scenes, McNish is a natural behind the mic. Her poems, frank and un-filtered, need to be heard aloud to be truly experienced.
Clare Potter’s support set was intimate and personal, exploring similar themes of motherhood, family and the female experience. She treated the audience to new and in-progress carefully crafted poems that were playful with rhythm and sound, many rooted in her Welsh upbringing. A particular highlight was her final poem ‘Still’, a tender and the nostalgic piece about her grandmother’s house and garden. Both performers held a warm stage presence—shy, humble and willing to be open—which enabled them to really connect with the audience.
The topics of McNish’s poems vary, often taking inspiration from her everyday experiences; from chats with her gran about the legalisation of gay sex to her doctor telling her she was ‘ready to have sex again’ after giving birth. Some highlights of her set were ‘Bricks’, a poem about her pregnancy turn-ons of bricks and ice, ‘Breast’ about sharing her body with her partner and daughter post-birth, and ‘Magic Show’ which explores the orgy fantasies that she indulged in when bored at children’s birthday parties.
McNish’s style is simplistic, no-fluff-around-the-edges, rhyming poetry that clearly appeals to a contemporary audience. Honesty and accessibility are at the core of this movement, which allows poets to connect with a wider audience via social media and video platforms. This style has come under fire by critics concerned with craft and linguistics, such as a PN review that hit out at Hollie and her style, which she rightfully responded to in detail on her website. As consumers of poetry expand, this kind of accessible, uncomplicated and relatable poetry is what thrives. Hollie McNish addressed this head-on when introducing her poems, which were often squeezed in between being a mum. The power of her poems is evident in the way she makes the women in the room feel empowered, the reactions of her audience when she spouts off all of the different names for a vagina and tells of the time she slept in the hallway to avoid sex with her partner. Poets like McNish challenge the ideology that poetry is only for the elite, and are a testament to the fact that poetry has room for everyone. Go and see her for laughs, education, or even a hen do, and you’re guaranteed to be won over by her charm and honesty.
Hollie McNish is a poet and author based between Cambridge and Glasgow.
Wales Millennium Centre has regular performances.
Taylor Edmonds is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.