Hollie McNish is a spoken word performance poet and writer, known for her work on parenthood, race and feminism. She won the Ted Hughes Award in 2017 and her videos on YouTube have attracted millions of views across the world. I’m not ashamed to admit that, when her agent got back to me earlier in the year to let me know I could interview her, I span around on my spinny desk chair in glee and proceeded to tell everyone about it. We sat down with a cuppa over Zoom in February to chat about her new book Slug…and other things I’ve been told to hate.
Q: I’m really looking forward to this new book of yours, can you tell me a bit more about it?
It’s quite a chunky one! It’s not chronological diary entries like my last book Nobody Told Me. It’s seven sections on all the things I’ve been told to be quiet about that are actually totally normal and that I want to talk about. It’s a mix of stories – hopefully quite funny stories! Some are from childhood and others are about stuff that’s happened to me as a poet, like when I got asked to do an advert for Durex condom company.
They (Durex) wanted me to read poems about orgasm inequality, and when I arrived on set they’d arranged this single bed covered in all these big teddy bears and toys. I hate arguing with people, but I politely asked the set designer to remove them, and he replied that they added a ‘feminine touch’. I replied that it didn’t really look like an adult woman’s bedroom.
It’s so weird because I work for myself and it’s really difficult when you’re in that situation and you know all the cameramen just want to go home. It made me think of all the young pop-stars under contracts told to pose in certain ways and who can’t say no…but basically I ended up sat on the cleared bed with this single f*cking fluffy duckling on the radiator in the background the set designer wouldn’t remove, because it apparently made me look more womanly.
Q: Am I right in thinking the title is inspired by the nursery rhyme ‘slugs and snails and puppy dog tails’?
No you’re not, but that would be cool if it was! Hey, it fits though, so take from it what you want! Maybe I’ll say it is at my next gig. First of all, I really like the sound of the word ‘slug’ and that it can mean different things. Second, slugs are one of those things where everyone hates them and thinks they’re disgusting. I noticed that people are disgusted by slugs for the same reasons we’re disgusted with female bodies. It’s similar to words like ‘moist’ or ‘juicy’, whenever you say them aloud, people are often like, ‘eugh!’
Slugs are a bit like tongues too – they’re slimy and wet… a lot of the things that are considered ‘wrong’ about them are all the things I was brought up thinking was wrong about my vulva, when it’s actually a good thing for them to be wet when having sex, like those are the things you actually want them to be for it to be pleasurable. There’s this inherent disgust in it and I’m sort of wanting to question it. I’m still trying to question it with myself, I still find it difficult to say ‘vulva’ and ‘moist’, but it’s so f*cking ridiculous that we cringe at these natural things. People think slugs need rid of because they eat lettuce, like, they need to eat!
Also, I watched this thing about these leopard slugs and the way they mate. They’re both hermaphrodites and they climb up a tree…they hang upside down from their mucus and wrap together and wind their long blue penises together and do this sort of dance. I was thinking, god, we demonise these little creatures but there they are spinning around, upside down, shagging in this amazing way, which is so much more beautiful than the way humans have sex.
People are so disgusted by slugs for the same reasons we’re disgusted with female bodies.
Q: So it’s your second cross genre of prose and poetry to be published…do you feel this collection differs from your previous work at all?
I hope that the poems have gotten better. I don’t exactly know what ‘better’ means with poetry, but I feel like I’m sort of learning on the job how to write. I didn’t study poetry, though I think it would be a really interesting thing to study. So I don’t really know about structures and forms – not that you necessarily need to have to write, though I do think it’s good to keep learning.
I want to get better in terms of how to express things and I want to write things a bit more ‘beautifully’, if that makes sense. I think I’m still trying to find my poetic voice – between Nobody Told Me and Slug I’ve read a lot more poetry and books.
I guess Slug is more edited, and I suppose it’s really different in that it’s got a massive variety of subjects: it goes from grief over grandparents, to losing friends, to masturbation, to not trusting strangers in the park, to swimming nude in Finland…it’s a much more varied book and I’ve also put a short story between each section – I’ve never really shared short stories at all before.
Q: I’ve really enjoyed your posts online throughout lockdown, especially the one about spooning. Will there be some lockdown-inspired pieces in Slug?
The spooning one is in there! I was trying to translate that one into French yesterday – I did French at Uni – but ‘spooning’ doesn’t exist in French. There’s just a word for ‘cuddling’ and a word for ‘spoons’, so I was trying to find an alternative…they really need to add the word to their vocabulary!
I really enjoy that poem too. One of my friends who is gay was chatting to me about how the definition of ‘foreplay’ is so rude because that’s her whole sex life. It’s so true, if you’re having sex with a guy, everything I like as much as penetration is deemed as the ‘starter’, I really think it should be included as part of it. It’s like, my daughter was asking me what sex the other day was; it’s so tricky to explain what’s included under the term. There’re a few poems from lockdown in Slug, but most of it was written before. I’ve got another book coming out which is about 60% written in lockdown. I think it’s gonna be called Lobster…and other things I’ve learned to love.
Q: I think it was The Observer that said Nobody Told Me was like ‘speaking to a friend’. I feel like this is very accurate. Listening to your poetry feels like when you’re p*ssed off about one of the many things women have to put up with and you talk to another woman who’s had a similar experience, and you both just get more riled up and keep going, ‘yeah, and ANOTHER thing!’ I love Embarrassed in particular, it’s such a good conversation starter. Do you set out to encourage your readers/listeners to start having difficult conversations and questioning taboos in society?
Definitely not at the beginning of the writing. Maybe nowadays I do, because when I know people are going to read it it’s a bit different. It’s funny you mention Embarrassed because I didn’t originally include it, because I thought no one would relate to it.
I wouldn’t have bothered sharing it because I thought it was a bit long. I guess, now, especially after Embarrassed, I try and share everything even if it’s controversial. I guess I don’t ever really know what poems are going to be thought-provoking. I just really like writing and feel like I’m in a position now where I can embarrass myself about all these things that I don’t think should be embarrassing but have been made into taboos, like bloody breastfeeding!
Q: I know it’s hard to pick favourites, but is there a poem in your new collection that you’re most excited about?
I dunno, it’s weird picking your own favourite of something, isn’t it? The one I like reading the most – and the one I’m proudest of – is a poem about all the things my gran could’ve done in her life, but didn’t because of social pressures…and how I want to do them for her. For example, she always wanted to go to Italy and have a romantic time dancing with lots of men. I worked hard on it in terms of the images and language.
A lot of the poems in Slug are about conversations I’ve had with my gran and you realise gosh, things have got a lot better for a lot of people since her generation…not everywhere obviously, but things have moved on since then. It’s a bit bleak, but my gran passed away in this flippin’ pandemic, so I had to change all of the poems with her to past tense which is one of the worst editing experiences I’ve had.
Do you carry on giving a short introduction/explanation to each poem, like in your previous collections?
A wee bit yeah, I guess it’s because when I’m on the stage, I never just read poem after poem, I always chat…hopefully people will better understand my headspace when I wrote the poems and the situation a bit more because of that. I like having that chat element because sometimes when I’m reading poetry, I’d just love to have a bit more information!
At school, we read Seamus Heaney’s Digging but we weren’t told about the historical context of the famine in Ireland. It’s fine for analysing the language, but I think it’s so much more interesting when you know why and where someone wrote a poem.