Hello 30th blog post! Who better to include in this than my favourite spoken word artist, Hollie McNish? This new spoken word collection printed by Picador Poetry (who also publish the likes of big names like Carol Ann Duffy and Kate Tempest) is brilliantly timed, as McNish has recently won the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry this year with her collection called Nobody Told Me, which I’ve also reviewed on this blog. I was lucky enough to meet McNish last year in Bristol at Raise the Bar.
After discovering McNish’s spoken word in late 2016, I’ve been very excited for this new collection to come out. After gaining millions of views on YouTube, and also recently receiving literary recognition – McNish is becoming more and more familiar to the public both online and off and it’s well deserved. She is a forefront promoter for spoken word poetry and its spread across the UK.
McNish’s writing style is honest and emotive, and she carries this well in Plum. From reading two of her publications, what’s so refreshing about McNish is she writes about topics we don’t often pay any notice to, often to political effect. One instance of this was in ‘Voldemort’ where McNish remarks on the lack of a female counterpart for the trivial and accepted slang word ‘willy’ – She seems to argue that girls have no equivalent, and can’t mention their genitals as children as boys do without scorn. McNish is great at recognising and writing poetry about sexist social norms and addresses feminist issues which aren’t as prevalent in mainstream media and debate.
Whether the title Plum gains its title from ‘Voldemort’ or ‘PICKING PLUMS’, both are equally moving poems. A few are written on the subject of a mother and daughter relationship, but are not as dominantly featured as in Nobody Told Me – ‘PICKING PLUMS’ is one, where McNish writes: ‘PICKING PLUMS in the park, we are gods; my shoulders, your throne, our backbones as tough as the trunks’. McNish masterfully evokes the beauty of natural imagery, another defining feature of her style which crops up a lot in Plum. I particularly loved this line from ‘FINE’: ‘I am lying on my bedroom floor / a starfish on the rug / glass of wine, stinging eyes / desperate for a hug’ – McNish’s imagery is easily imagined and helps to create her beautiful yet concise storytelling via spoken word.
Although her writing is very politically-charged, a cluster of poems in Plum verge on funny to hilarious. Her blending of comedy and politics proves her versatility as a poet and storyteller. ‘Yanking’ was by far the funniest poem, addressing McNish and her friends’ lack of sexual knowledge as teenagers. Ducks brought out a laugh.
What is demonstrated well in Plum is McNish’s will to experiment, as ‘PICKING PLUMS’ is written in the form of a tree. Yes, this type of formal experimentation isn’t unique, but I felt that it added to the childish and blissful tone of the poem that recalls the experience of a daughter and mother picking plums together.
I also think that having Plum separated in two parts, (mind) and (body), worked well for the collection and made it even more enjoyable to read. The (mind) part focused on reflections and memories, whilst the (body) section held fun, observational poems, being called ‘head’, ‘mouth’, ‘shoulders’, ‘breasts’, ‘belly’, ‘vulva’, ‘bottom’, and ‘feet’ which were presented in a way that reminded me of the childhood song ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes‘. I was especially fond of ‘shoulders’ which indulges in self-love in an unapologetic way:
‘my shoulders are fucking delicious / smeared with freckles, blodged / like dirty, speckled come-ons / jumpers always ‘fall off’ one / shoulder, flesh to show off / t-shirt tops near sacrilegious covers / of these perched, glowing, dappled, oval beauties!’
What isn’t present in Nobody Told Me, but finds its way into Plum is bilingual poetry. Just when you think McNish has wowed you enough, another language slips out of her pen and mic. One of my personal favourites in the whole selection is ‘Language Learning’ – a love poem that fuses English and French together:
‘You make my toes curl up in two languages / My heart pump across the Channel / And as the beat gets faster / The waves race after my thoughts / Flicking from London to Paris’
The poem details the English and French behaviours in a relationship dynamic, and it was great to see McNish use her talent for rhyme in another language, similar to the way Keith Jarrett does in his poetry, another great spoken word artist to look out for.
Another form of experimentation present in Plum is the incorporation of McNish’s poetry written from a young age, with the collection beginning with her first poem ‘How the World Should Be’, written at eight years-old and the seed of her political poetry.
As expected, her poems written growing up aren’t great, but I really admire Hollie McNish for including them in this collection, especially when her career is flourishing. I, for one, look at spoken word figures like McNish and think I’ll never be able to reach her standard of excellence, yet by reading her childhood poems alongside her current writing, it seems to send the message that anyone can be successful with determination (excuse the cliché). Including ‘How the World Should Be’, her first poetic form of activism both at the beginning and end of the (body) section of Plum was very effective, and implied that regardless of years and writing ability, McNish is set on changing the world for the better on page and through the mic.
A feature that spanned across Nobody Told Me and Plum was McNish’s distinctive intimate tone. Mixed with diary entries, Nobody Told Me leans towards a parenting memoir more than a poetry collection and often explained the inspiration of some poems. I’m glad McNish has held on to little captions before her poems in Plum, as without, I’m afraid it would create a page-poet distance from the reader to McNish as a spoken word artist. The captions personalise the poetry and achieve spoken word’s mission of making poetry accessible to everyone.
This is all I have to say for the page publication of McNish’s work, I only hope that I can see some of these poems from Plum in performance as they were intended when written. McNish’s performance style is just as enthralling as her writing talent. Hollie McNish is currently touring across the UK with Plum until November. She’s performing in Bristol on 22nd June and I’m so gutted I’m away from uni and can’t go. If you can make any of her tour dates, I highly recommend that you go! Plum is well worth the read / and watch!
Update: I posted my review on Holly McNish poetry and the poet herself saw it!