Blog: Hollie McNish

The poet on Maggie Thatcher, Eddie Izzard, breastfeeding and bilingualism

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On 2 June I’ll be reading some poems in Hull’s City Hall, followed by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Charlotte Church and the Young Fathers. It’s one of the most exciting line ups I’ve been on and I’m petrified.

Other than London, Hull is the city in England that’s invited me to perform the most. I’ve no idea why but I love the place. Last time at Humber Mouth Festival, with Wrecking Ball Press and at a lovely bar called Kardomah 94.

The gig I’m doing in June is part of a weekend entitled Where are We Now? a celebration of counter-culture. When I got asked to do it, my first thought was honestly: ‘what the fuck that does that even mean? Counter-culture?’. I write poems about breastfeeding, fruit, friends, immigration sometimes. Mainly motherhood and bodies at the moment.

So where am I now? I’m sat at my kitchen table drinking tea, listening to a brilliant singer called Rachel Sermani and attempting to work out a set list for this gig. Last night I watched The Iron Lady in an attempt to understand or find empathy with the minds of people whose ideas I despise. I’m also cooking a pot of rice and beans for my daughter’s dinner. When I woke up this morning, I did my daily half hour of German, attempting to learn the translation of a book I wrote. I keep mispronouncing ‘scheißen’ and turning extracts about shit into shooting.

My current dream is to stop watching Eddie Izzard on YouTube and instead to follow in his footsteps and try to learn my poetry sets in other languages the way he’s so well-mastered with his comedy. The book I wrote – Nobody Told Me, a diary of parenthood – has now been translated into French, Spanish and German. I am more excited about this than any other work-related thing that’s happened to me.

I went on the school French exchange at 15 years old and discovered a world of teenagers who rode mopeds, drank wine without vomiting and who I could barely understand but loved awkwardly listening to. I sat there with them for a week, smoke and blurred words wafting through the air. I discovered the music of Louise Attaque and rapper MC Solaar and I was hooked.

When those same kids came to my school in England, they were mocked for their accents, for having hairy armpits and apparently smelling of BO – mainly for ‘being French’. I don’t think I’ve ever been so pissed off or disappointed with my friends.

Twenty years later, little seems that different – English politics appears increasingly psychotic about it’s own importance and England still has some of the lowest rates of bilingualism in Europe (I get it, what’s the point, everyone speaks English). Even the England arts scene, or at least the poetry one I find myself in, seems only slightly more welcoming to foreign tongues than my old school.

I’ve been gigging for about ten years and have been welcomed across Europe, reading in English to crowds in Latvia, Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal and France. Occasionally, I’ve seen England welcome other languages into the arts mainstream – organisations like Southbank Centre for example, or the BBC’s Asian Network playlists. Still, compared to elsewhere, it’s pretty embarrassing how little regular connection with other languages we bother with.

The one time I heard an impromptu foreign language reading at a Poetry Slam was in London. The French poet, on tour across Europe, was given a whacking ‘nil point’ from two audience judges because, in their exasperation, they couldn’t ‘understand a bloody thing he said’.

One of my favourite poets in England is called Bohdan Piasecki. His poetry is so, so beautiful, he reads in both English and Polish and he is, to the best of my knowledge, the only promoter here who invites poets from outside the English language to read regularly. The night is called Hit the Ode, run by Bohdan with Apples and Snakes and held in Birmingham’s The Victoria. From his many guests, my top recommendations would Sebastian 23 (German), Laura Wihlbourg (Swedish), Wojtek Cichoń and Weronika Lewandowska (Poland). Each night also welcomes a performer from Birmingham and one from the UK.

I’ve been referring to England here, not the UK in general, because I live in England. I know England best. Wales is a mecca of bilingualism, Northern Ireland I don’t know enough about and Scottish politics is so different, particularly with regards to immigration and the acceptance of different cultures. I’m really excited about the Scottish lead of this Where Are We Now? weekend for that reason, and about the emphasis they’ve put on getting performers who are genuinely representative of the entire UK, not just England, as is so often the case with UK events. The line up I’m on – Linton – is a pretty stark example of this effort.

So right now, I’m sitting in my kitchen, kettle boiling for another cup of so-called ‘Yorkshire’ Tea, trying to learn my own diaries in German, I’m thinking about Maggie Thatcher as a mother and Eddie Izzard as a mentor and Bohdan Piasecki as an inspiration, and wondering what poems I should read at this gig – poems about breastfeeding? Poems about immigration? Poems in other languages? I guess they are all counter-cultural themes, even if I wish they weren’t.

Hollie McNish is part of Where Are We Now? at Hull UK City of Culture 2-4 June. For further information visit: Hollie can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @holliepoetry and

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