Hollie McNish: Versus tour — Open Banking Hall, Norwich. Hollie McNish has been on this particular tour for a long time now, having had it extended from the first set of dates. In the format that one would expect a music gig to be in, this proves — if nothing else — that poetry can work in this setting. As a poet, part of what I loved was McNish’s refusal to write something more theatrical with lots of movement, or to strive for a narrative arc. A poet who likes to keep things simple — this stripped down approach was refreshing and inspiring.
She took to the stage to introduce her support act, Norwich-based John Osborne. The vibe was very relaxed, and Osborne’s work set the tone for poetry that was both serious and light-hearted. Both often touching on deep subject matters, they also both have a knack for bringing in humour, whether as bookends between pieces, one-off lines, a slight ad lib, or even a pause in the right place. It was nice to hear the audience laugh along to familiar pieces such as ‘That money would have turned you into a bastard anyway,’ about a man who dropped out of the lottery syndicate just before a big win.
A poet who likes to keep things simple — this stripped down approach was refreshing and inspiring.
McNish started off her set with her top five most hated poems, which created a sense of anticipation, ending with a sad revelation that my assumptions were correct; with the lead-up to this immigration-obsessed election, the poem winning the title was ‘Mathematics’. The audience shared her frustration at those whose ‘maths is stuck in primary,’ as poem after poem was applauded. In fact, before McNish had even done anything, there was a loud squeal from the crowd, reminiscent of music gigs. Other poems touched on motherhood, feminism, and grandmas.
McNish offered stories as preludes before poems, allowing us an insight into her life. One highlight was when she spoke of being commissioned to do a poem with Kate Tempest for Channel 4’s Random Acts, and revealed her parents’ confusion at why people would want to make such an offer. I laughed at the description of this as ‘arty farty’ because it was a comment I could relate to. This is one of the important things about McNish’s poetry. Some may question her poetics, some may send her hate mail for the views she presents in quick rhythm and rhyme, but what it comes down to is that McNish’s work is, at its core, meant to be spoken, and moreover, it’s meant to be accessible, relatable, conversational — it’s deliberate.
Additionally, on this topic, McNish can bring everyday politics to her poetry in a way that is digestible, its simplicity meaning it’s not so much didactic, but just seems right. She does this through her poems, but also in the natural way she speaks to the audience, the same way she speaks off-stage. Again, when talking about Random Acts, she mentioned the idea that was put forward to have her and Tempest naked in the video, eliciting laugher, shock, and anger from the audience. In the end, there was some nakedness, but not theirs, and in a way that is not only appropriate, but also beautiful. Although there was a slight throwaway comment about porn; ‘Touch’ manages to contrast the language of mainstream porn referring to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ with ‘screaming softly for more.’ McNish is inspirational, entertaining and she’s here to stay.