Out of rhyme

Hollie McNish made her name with straight-talking poetry that refused to follow the rules so Chester’s Storyhouse thought she’d be perfectly placed to shake up a Greek classic

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If life truly imitates art more than art imitates life, Hollie McNish had better watch her back. When the poet and author was asked to adapt Sophocles’ titanic, violent tragedy Antigone for the modern stage by Chester’s Storyhouse theatre, she turned it down three times before taking it on.

“I thought, whoa, this is a massive Greek tragedy. I know nothing about that stuff. I know nothing about Sophocles. And I don’t know much about theatre,” she laughs.

The play follows Oedipus’s daughter Antigone after her brothers kill each other in a battle for the throne. Their uncle, Creon, crowns himself king, burying one brother but declaring the other a traitor and leaving his body outside the city walls to rot. Antigone seeks to honour her betrayed brother, her journey woven through with themes including fate and free will, women and femininity, and power.

“I was watching Trump on TV a lot when I was working on the play and his speeches are so similar to Creon’s,” says McNish. “It’s fascinating and totally miserable that so many of the issues in Antigone are still relevant 2,000 years on: women’s place in society, the power of monarchies and dictatorships.”

The guts of McNish’s existing body of work are made up of her values and politics, each poem with its own take on social equality, sexual freedom and personal revolution. She writes about parenthood, poverty, class and privilege. She writes about periods, orgasms, cups of tea, football and how bad the loos smell in Debenhams – normal stuff. Her style is sweary, seemingly unedited and “of the people”, her poetry uncensored outpourings of the heart and brain. Every word she writes, she means.

Born in Reading to Scottish parents, McNish, 38, studied modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, where she now lives with her 11-year-old daughter, before landing an office job at a charity. It was while studying for a masters in international development and economics in 2014 that she read at her first open mic night in Covent Garden.

“I was writing poems loads but only reading them out to my ex. He was like: ‘Why don’t you read them for other people?’ It took me six goes [of walking past the venue] before I went in and read. I was totally, totally petrified. This sounds ridiculous but I still try not to take gigs that are downstairs – because even a tiny thing like that can stop people going in. Art spaces can be so intimidating.”

Above: rehearsals for Sophocles’ Antigone. Main image: Hollie McNish (photo: Kat Hannon).

This inclusive stance is one that holds fast in McNish’s work. Her collections, which include Plum (2017), Slug (2021) and Lobster (out 2022) feature poems about hipster racism and stories about the absurdity of being made to feel like a criminal for breastfeeding in public. And there’s never a minced word when it comes to her Tweets. “Cleaning your vagina is like cleaning your oesophagus. It’s not a thing. Don’t let any business tell you otherwise.” Her first solo play is no exception. This retelling of Antigone is not solely for the intellectual elite or classics majors – it’s for the everyman.

“Unless it’s a pantomime or a musical, I just feel awkward in theatres. I’ve fallen asleep in plays because I find it so hard to sit quietly in comfy seats in the warm. But Ancient Greek theatre wasn’t like that at all. It was like a massive football match, theatre, cinema, soap opera and orgy all in one – like the EastEnders Christmas special. So I’ve tried to add a bit of that context. The last thing I want is for anyone to sit there feeling stupid or not following what’s going on.”

McNish is no stranger to “feeling stupid”. Dogged by purist critics determined to confine poetry to a box of strict rhyme and metre, her raw, chaotic style of self-expression continues to be determinedly misunderstood.

“I’ve had a few really negative reviews that made me feel like I was just humiliating myself – like people were judging my whole life by a few poems. In the last thee years I’ve got over that by remembering that I love writing. I just love writing!

“Knowing that poems I’ve worked on for years have been ripped apart by critics made adapting Antigone a bit daunting – I know much less about Sophocles than I do about poetry. But I worked really hard on it and not everybody likes everything. If I’m scared of trying anything new in case people call me stupid, I’ll never do anything! I like learning from criticism but don’t let it spoil my enjoyment anymore. That’s part of why I said yes to the play in the end.”

The angle from which McNish’s work is penned is as personal as it gets. Her 2016 book Nobody Told Me, for which she won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, is a collection of poems and stories on parenthood lifted from her diary. Its pages brim with what many would consider deeply private moments – a shattering admission of lost love followed by a pregnancy announcement the most poignant case in point. These moments are juxtaposed by the absence of her daughter’s name and tactful ambiguity surrounding the identity of her ex-partner. She doesn’t post photos of her daughter on social media. Is Hollie McNish The Writer a character that allows her to bare her soul?

“I guess my idea of privacy isn’t about the embarrassing stories or things I’ve cried about. I haven’t shared arguments. I haven’t shared anything to do with my parents’ relationship. I’ve never shared details like my daughter’s favourite teddy or her favourite song.

“I’ve actually had people in the marketing world tell me to post pictures of my daughter on Instagram because mixed-race families are really popular at the moment – horrible stuff. When I do live readings on social media, I sit in a chair that belongs to my landlord because it’s not a personal possession of mine so I don’t care if people see it.

“I spend loads of time writing about my own life so it was nice to do something different with Antigone. I liked writing about things that had nothing to do with me, getting into other characters’ heads.”

But can an artist ever really separate themselves from their art? Not in the case of McNish and Antigone – not in their familial centre, their rage against the patriarchy or their pursuit of fairness. The line where one ends and the other begins is positively blurred.

Antigone is showing at the Storyhouse, Chester, 13-23 October (storyhouse.com)

McNish on Poetry and parenthood

“My daughter’s been coming to gigs with me since she was a baby. We had a couple of nightmare scenarios where the car broke down and we only just made it. There was one where she was crying in the audience and I ended up bringing her on stage. She sobbed into my legs while I read a poem about parenting.

“We try and arrive two hours early to make sure we get some dinner, get pyjamas on, get settled… She normally sits behind the stage curtain and watches films so it’s easy for me to check on her. She watched some comedies once and was hysterically laughing in the wings – everyone could hear. It was sweet but Harry Potter is basically the one now because it takes the length of a gig and a book signing, and it’s also not really funny. It’s also not so scary that she might need me!

“My tour is based around childcare, just like everyone else’s job. I book most gigs when she’s at her dad’s, who lives five minutes away. If it’s the summer holidays, I try and get gigs near the beaches.

“Lockdown was pretty great for us. I wrote a lot for my daughter during that time. Some of the boys in her class weren’t in touch as much as the girls, so I wrote a little book about boys in school and the school disco and stuff. We did a lot of letter-writing on Monday mornings where we’d write to people we missed and then we’d have a couple of hours’ office time. I could only do admin – there was no point in writing because I’d be interrupted after five minutes to be asked where a ruler was or what this graph meant. I had to lower my expectations of what I was going to get done and be OK with that.”

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