This story is part of an editorial series created in collaboration with ASOS Supports Talent.
Hollie McNish’s poetry is frank. The author and performer has received acclaim throughout the UK and beyond for work that addresses issues like xenophobia, class, and the difficulties (and joys!) of young motherhood just as frequently as it does love, loneliness, and other matters of the heart. Earlier this year, McNish, 32, released her first collection, Nobody Told Me: The Poetry of Parenting, and she’s been quite busy with other projects that elevate the topics she cares about most.
Complex caught up with McNish about her newest creation, Poetry Versus Orchestra. The album and concert complement McNish’s verses with stunning instrumental arrangements, adding new dimensions to her impactful poems. Poetry Versus Orchestra was created with the Metropole Orkest and, as a part of the ASOS Supports Talent initiative, online fashion destination ASOS staged a free, live performance event so that hundreds of people could see her and the orchestra in action.
In addition to discussing her ASOS Supports Talent partnership, McNish had plenty to say about politics, art, and the rest of the world as she knows it.
You’ve had so much going on lately—like your collaboration with ASOS and the Metropole Orchestra! How did the live performance of Poetry Versus Orchestra at Cadogan Hall go?
Beforehand, I had nightmares that I’d forgotten the words to my poems for two weeks! [Laughs.] I was pretty nervous. But it was amazing—there were 900 people there, and the orchestra was bloody amazing. I don’t normally do anything with music, so it was very different. But it seemed to go all right! The feedback was good! My dad enjoyed it.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Poetry Versus Orchestra came to be and what it was like to work on the recording?
My manager had worked with the orchestra before, and they were looking to do more modern things. Like, they’d worked with a lot of grime MCs in the UK before—they were looking for different things than they do normally. My manager sent them my poems, and they said they liked them.
We recorded eight poems and songs, and then we did the gig at Cadogan Hall in London. The recording just got sent to the orchestra! It was made by Jules Buckley, the conductor, and one of the writers. He wrote scores around the poems—they didn’t send me the music and then I did the poems; they took the poems, wrote music around them, recorded it, and sent it back [for me to record over]. So I’d never met them before the Cadogan Hall gig, even though we’d done an album together!
Your writing covers parts of motherhood that are often overlooked in art, like breastfeeding and isolation. Do you find that other parents respond strongly to that?
I did a tour about two years ago with my first material from the album, which was kind of a mix of men and women. The last book I wrote, Nobody Told Me, is about being a mum, as well, and that tour was about 80 percent female [in the audience]. After every gig, there’s always a queue of people coming up either to buy the book or tell me their stories, and I tend to have a good hour-to-three hours after the gig just chatting to loads and loads of parents—often dads, as well!—who just want to get stuff off their chests. I think, with my work, when you stand up and admit something that other people haven’t—whether it’s being lonely as a parent, or being embarrassed, or overwhelmed, or happiness, which people don’t talk about, either!—it’s really nice to relate with people out loud.
I do a lot of literary conferences now, and that’s probably the funniest group of people. They say that they often sneak the YouTube videos [of my poetry] or my book into maternity wards! They use the book in quite a lot of classes now—for maternity students, it’s not compulsory, but it’s one of the texts they recommend for the course—specifically, “Embarrassed,” the poem about breastfeeding. It’s really good that there’s a practical use behind getting people talking, even just to have them realize some of the sides of motherhood that you might not see if you don’t have kids.
When breastfeeding is stigmatized, what effect does that have on a woman’s life?
The main thing that’s important to me is for us to stop focusing on the mother’s “choice” when it comes to breastfeeding and infant health. In loads of studies, you’ll read, “Oh, if this many more women breastfed, there’d be less diabetes,” or other health problems…and my main thing now is, just take all of the focus off the mum, because I think the idea of “a woman’s right to choose how to feed her baby” is just a pile of sh*t, really, especially in the UK and the U.S. There are so many reasons not to breastfeed, and none of them have to do with the mother’s choice. We live in a society where it is embarrassing to take out a part of your body—no matter how natural it is, you’re still exposing a part of your body that never, ever in your life before have you done publicly, and might have never seen anyone else do, unless you hang out with a lot of breastfeeding mothers!
There’s a psychological stigma: the idea that you’ve only ever really had breasts shown to you in a sexual way before, or used them in a sexual way before. There’s lots of body confidence issues—when you’re not comfortable with your body, breastfeeding seems harder. Physically, some women also find breastfeeding hard, but some also find it lonely! It’s hard to go into public doing it, which has nothing to do with the individual woman, and everything to do with politics and economics. It’s hard to go back to work when you’re breastfeeding, and maternity leave is even worse in the U.S. than it is here in the UK.
The idea that it’s a woman’s right to choose ignores the many reasons why many women don’t want to breastfeed. I think our focus on women’s “choice” here is rubbish, and I don’t really want to “convince” women to breastfeed. I’d rather work on all the issues that make it very, very difficult for people to do that in our society, and I guess once they’re sorted, you’d be free to make a choice!
In “Embarrassed,” you also bring up that companies that manufacture baby formulas are likely pleased with the idea that breastfeeding is shameful, since it contributes to their business.
Bloody hell, it’s great for them when women have problems breastfeeding, or feel embarrassed doing it! It makes them money. I think birth and death are quite similar, in that respect: There are a lot of people making a lot of money based on the most insecure times in our lives. Having a baby, all the things you’re told that you’ll need, you’re more likely to buy because it’s for someone else whom you’re supposed to be the main protector of. I think it’s horrible. [Laughs.] It’s such a guilt trip! It’s so ridiculous.
I really hate the industries around parenthood. It’s laden with guilt and plays on people’s emotions even more so than other industries—the beauty industry, for example, where it’s similar: The uglier you feel, the more likely you are to buy things that will apparently help you feel less ugly. Birth and death are the two that really grab people at their most vulnerable.
In your work, you point out that racist attitudes toward immigration are partially driven by economic anxiety, and how that’s hypocritical—like in your poem “Mathematics,” where you bring up that white people who have issues with immigration are often still using foreign-made products constantly. How do you see xenophobia connecting with not just money, but misogyny?
I guess you can be racist and not misogynistic, but I’ve seen no evidence of that! [Laughs.] It seems to be quite similar—they often go together. There’s a bitterness of prejudice that permeates in people—wanting someone to blame extends to both misogyny and xenophobia. I guess it’s a lot like the industry of motherhood: If you weren’t told constantly to be unimpressed with what you have, you might be quite content! Like, you’ve got a house, you’ve got enough to eat, you’ve got a little bit of disposable income. But you can have a million pounds and still want more, because you’ve been told to buy this and buy that and so on. If you’re discontented with what you have and you want someone to blame for this apparent reason that you’re not happy with your life, it can result in prejudice.
It’s a normal human trait to be wary of what you don’t understand. My grandma was quite xenophobic when she was alive—she was awkward about hearing people speak in a foreign language, because she didn’t understand what they were saying, or we’d go to a Chinese restaurant and she’d order chips because she was comfortable with it. The more you’re told that that’s the right way to behave, the more you might give in to it. I don’t think kids are like that—I think it’s something you’re taught by other adults, or by the media. No one tends to celebrate difference or multiculturalism—all the rich British history that’s come from people who moved here from other countries. I’ve been thinking about this a lot particularly after Brexit.
Recently, I went to my daughter’s school and about 70 percent of the children speak other languages in her classroom. The kids don’t give a sh*t! They can mostly speak English in addition, but when they can’t, I asked my daughter, “What do you do if the new girl that’s come over from Bulgaria can’t speak English? Is she all right?” She said, “Yeah, she’s fine!” I said, “Well, what does she do if she can’t understand the teacher?” “She looks at what we’re doing and copies it.” “How do you play with her if she can’t understand English?” She looked at me like I was totally stupid and said, “Well, we obviously play games where you don’t need to talk!” [Laughs.] Like, obviously! They pretend to be dogs, where you don’t need to talk—and you don’t need to talk to pass a ball! And [this girl] is learning like that—these kids are totally fluent in English after being here for six months. But the amount of fuss that parents make about people speaking other languages “affecting their kids” is boll*cks. I’ve never heard, instead, in the media what a great effect it has on kids’ development and brains to hear other languages and pick up other cultures. You don’t really hear those stories.
With so many of these issues, it’s partially a matter of what you’re being told is the “right way” to live in the world. Is making and receiving art a useful alternative to that?
It can be, but change has to be made through politics, as well. There’s only so much you can do, and if the actual laws don’t change, it’s quite hard to give people a natural foothold. Policies can still just go over any agitation caused by art. I’m not saying I don’t think it’s important—culture can be an important aspect of any political or economic issue, but you’ve got to have both. You can’t ignore the fact that the people in charge are still going to be making laws based on these issues. It’s great to make a point that affects people’s opinions, but the practical side shouldn’t be overlooked. I can write as many poems as I want about breastfeeding, and people can share them and feel more empowered, but it’s not going to change the fact that if a woman is on zero contract hours, she’s going to find it very hard to do, because she hasn’t got the power to tell her boss that she needs longer maternity leave. Nothing I do is going to change that policy, and we can’t ignore that.
What projects are you excited about in 2017?
I’m most excited that Nobody Told Me, the book I wrote about parenthood, is being translated into German and Spanish! I’m trying to learn German by reading my own book in the language, so I’m hoping to tour in Germany if I can learn it well enough—and Spanish, I’ve always wanted to learn. I’ve also got another book coming out in June: Plum, a collection of poems I wrote over the last 30 years. There are some poems from age 8 and my teenage years interspersed with newer things I’ve written about looking back on life up until now. It’s mainly about sex—another thing I find quite badly interpreted in our culture! I’ve got a play that’s touring in March that I co-wrote with another poet about the history of women’s football in the UK from 1900 until now. I’ve not seen it, so I’m quite excited! I want to get more of my poems from Nobody Told Me online—I know a lot of people can’t get to gigs and might want to see it, and that’s quite a free, democratic way to watch poetry.
ASOS Supports Talent is a global initiative from online fashion destination ASOS, providing up and coming creative talent with funding, mentoring and support to realize personal passion projects. Find out more here.