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Award-Winning Poet Aims To Push Boundaries Of Conversations On Motherhood


Hollie McNish is a British poet and a spoken word artist whose videos have millions of views on YouTube, like this one, entitled "Embarrassed," about all the flak that McNish got for breastfeeding her daughter in public.


HOLLIE MCNISH: And I'm not trying to parade it. I don't want to make a show. But when I'm told I'd be better just staying at home and when another friend I know is thrown off a bus and another mother told to get out of a pub - even my grandma said maybe I was sexing it up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This poem appeared in a poetic memoir that McNish wrote about the travails of new motherhood, starting with the day she found out she was pregnant and spanning the first three years of her daughter's life. That book, "Nobody Told Me," won the Ted Hughes Award for poetry earlier this year.

And Hollie McNish joins me now from the BBC studios in Glasgow. Thanks for being with us.

MCNISH: That's all right. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have gained a reputation as someone who is willing - how should I put this? - to take on all the gory details of birth and motherhood...

MCNISH: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And put it out there for people to read and hear. Do you think we don't talk about these issues enough?

MCNISH: Yeah, absolutely. I think it probably affects the U.S. and the U.K. maybe more than other countries to do with motherhood and breastfeeding especially. The only sort of hate I get for that poem is mainly from people from the U.K. and the U.S. Everyone else seems to be asking me what I'm talking about (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say you got a lot of hate. What do people tell you? And why, do you think, that it still inspires hate when a mother is giving food to her child?

MCNISH: I don't know. It's so weird. Isn't it? And this sort of hate, I guess, is mainly the idea of flaunting. And it mainly comes, I'm assuming, from people that do not have any experience of having a baby or a child. And it's mainly things like, why would you want to go to a cafe to feed your kid? - this idea that babies are robots and that if you could, you would just time their feeds perfectly at home and that it doesn't have to be fed every, you know, two hours or whatever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You called the book "Nobody Told Me." Why do you think there is such mystery still around what women go through when they become mothers?

MCNISH: I think it's just this whole old-fashioned idea of, like, the lady or what makes you feminine. And actually, blood and sweat and all of these things aren't associated with femininity. They're more associated with masculinity, which is strange when women are the ones that have periods and give birth and all these sort of things which are strangely still taboo. I think we've - sort of the wrong things are taboo in our society. We can talk about murder, but we can't talk about birth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to take a step back and just talk a little bit about how you got onto the path of poetry. You went to Cambridge University, where you studied languages. You then got your master's degree in developmental economics.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where did you think you were going at that point? What were you hoping that you were going to do with studying those subjects?

MCNISH: I was working in urban planning and charity, basically - trying to get young people involved in town planning so nothing arty at all (laughter). And that's where I thought I'd be working, really, for a long time. I liked it a lot.

But I - I've just always written poems since I was about 8 years old. And as a teenager, all my diaries were in poems. I used to write poems about physics equations to try and pass my exams. And there's a - I've got a poem up when YouTube, which has had a lot of views as well, called "Mathematics." And that - I wrote that in a lecture when I was doing development economics, about migration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, let's listen to some of your poem "Mathematics," which is about xenophobia in the U.K.


MCNISH: A British business stood there first, he claims, before the Irish came. Now British people lost their jobs, and bloody Turkish, they're to blame. I ask him how he knows that fact. He said, because it's true. I ask him how he knows that fact. He said he read it in the news. Every time a Somalian comes here, they take a job from us. The mathematics, one from one, from us to them - it just adds up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have just come out with a new book of poems called "Plum." And you include poems that you wrote at all different ages of your life. Some, you admit, are terrible...

MCNISH: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That you wrote when you were younger. Why did you want those included?

MCNISH: Oh, I just think they're funny really.


MCNISH: And I thought I was - when I was choosing poems for this collection, there were loads that were sort of me at 30 looking back at teenage years or back at childhood. And I just thought, like, you know, if you're writing about being 8, then let your 8-year-old self, like, have a bit of a say as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When do you tell your daughter? She's 7. And you do write a lot about women's issues that are taboo - about sex, about motherhood, about bleeding. What are you hoping to teach her by being so open?

MCNISH: Some of my stuff she's not allowed to read until she's older (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fair enough.

MCNISH: Obviously - mainly the sex. Like, periods and stuff is totally non-taboo in my household. I think all I want her - I just don't want her to be ashamed of her body or ashamed of, like, being horny or feeling sexy when she does or ashamed of periods. I think that's such a massive thing globally - that we're to so ashamed about periods. It took me a year to tell my mom (laughter) when I started, and I used to steal sanitary towels and stuff. But yeah, it's just to get rid of that shame. Like, be ashamed of things that you should be ashamed of, like being horrible to someone, but don't be (laughter) ashamed of these natural processes in your body.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hollie McNish, poet and Ted Hughes Award winner, thank you so much for being with us.

MCNISH: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "A LOOK BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.