Hollie McNish is a couple of minutes late to the Folkestone Quarterhouse stage. She keeps peering through the curtains throughout the hour long show. Like she’s not quite fully focused on the audience.
Which of course she’s not. Because she’s a mum. And since she unexpectedly became pregnant at the age of 26, her life has changed. Becoming a mother (her daughter, now 6, sits backstage watching Harry Potter) has been the best, hardest, most tumultuous, bizarre, emotional experience of her life, and is the subject of Nobody Told Me, a book of poetry and parenthood. It’s a collection of extracts from the diaries she kept from learning she was pregnant to her daughter’s third birthday, written in a mix of prose and poetry.
The reading is part of the Quarterhouse’s International Women’s Day Festival, and listening to McNish it’s clear that feminism and raising awareness of these issues is still needed. The book and show connect her own experience of motherhood with the political, society, race, relationships, commercialism and gender. Whilst occasionally admonishing herself for not being practical enough in delivering change, she knows that ‘creativity really is one of the best parts of humanity. It often brings out the structural and political issues I think and makes them easy to engage with in so many different ways. I’ve definitely felt before like I’m not being practical enough by doing poetry – my last job was working in planning and youth work. But actually, it is. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. Hearing midwives say they’ve snuck my poems into hospital wards is probably the current highlight!’
You can see why they do. McNish is startlingly honest. Her writing and reading is conversational and real. Gritty and explicit. And this openness is needed in a world where pressures on new mothers are unrealistic and stressful and the practical aspects of such a dramatic life change aren’t discussed and the difficult elements side-stepped. She tells us about poo, sick and bleeding. About how alone she felt. The anxiety that comes from not knowing what you should be doing. How you’ll feel like a kid yourself, but have to get on with it. How she would find herself breastfeeding on toilets because after waiting ‘eight weeks to get the confidence to go into town / Now, the comments around me cut like a knife / As I rush into toilet cubicles / feeling nothing like nice.’
She admits feeling guilty because she doesn’t want sex again when her baby and boyfriend paw at her and ‘I just wish sometimes no one needed me / and I don’t want to feel guilty and tired all the time / I just want a body that’s mine.’ As celebrities pop back into shape in a few weeks her ‘stomach bulges like a water balloon / Her hollowed-out body lies like a carcass consumed.’ And she catalogues the scathing looks resulting from a toddler tantrum that comes out of nowhere, being judged on how fit she is to be a mother on that one moment and feeling like a ‘wretched human’ as a result.
But there’s also the beauty of what a child can teach you, and one of the first pieces she reads is about her year-old daughter looking in the full length mirror she has just reinstalled in the house, too disgusted by her own body to use it. Her daughter is in awe ‘hands clapping in applause to it / naked, bold and proud / her mouth open wide and round like / wow / my body is amazing.’
Spoken word has recently become fashionable, and rightly so. A new generation of poets including McNish, Kate Tempest and other contemporaries are on the national curriculum and McNish herself runs a company focusing on poetry in education. The entry of 11 April where she writes how she ‘wrapped my lips around my baby’s nose and sucked the snot from it’ is taught in schools (‘probably as contraception,’ she deadpans).
Perhaps young people connect with her. Dressed in laidback trainers, hoops, shirt over t-shirt, bright eyes and blonde hair in a ponytail McNish doesn’t look to be in her thirties. She’s friendly, warming the audience with her vulnerability, and invites us all to have a birthday drink with her in the bar. She has always written, ‘all my days, love it.’ But ‘Nobody Told Me’ was meant to be just another diary, like her teenage ones, a way of articulating herself and dealing with the emotion of pregnancy and motherhood, not a book. After an evening of entertainment and wisdom, I’m so glad that she was persuaded, that ‘Nobody Told Me’ is out there in the world and Hollie McNish’s bold voice is being heard by men, women, old and young.
Hollie McNish’s play Offside, which she co-wrote with Sabrina Mahfouz, comes to the Marlowe Studio, Canterbury on 10 & 11 April 2017.