Lobster: Poet Hollie McNish on why her new poetry book comes with an adult content warning

‘As soon as I’m honest or relatable it’s like ‘stop her from talking!’

As the morning stun streams into The Portobello Bookshop, bestselling author Hollie McNish is in her element. Words rule here among the towering shelves filled with tomes and titles laid out on tables, and it’s a place you want to linger and finger the pages.

“And look, Liz Lochhead looking over us, as ever,” says McNish noticing the poet and playwright’s face beaming down from a book cover above her shoulder, pleased because Lochhead is one of her heroes.

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McNish, who divides her time between Glasgow and Cambridge, is in Scotland promoting her new book, ‘Lobster and other things I'm learning to love', a mixture of poetry and prose on everything from friendship, flags and fellatio to Volvos, vulvas and verrucas.

Hollie NcNish's latest poetry and prose book, Lobster And Other Things I'm Learning To Love. Pic: LittleBrownHollie NcNish's latest poetry and prose book, Lobster And Other Things I'm Learning To Love. Pic: LittleBrown
Hollie NcNish's latest poetry and prose book, Lobster And Other Things I'm Learning To Love. Pic: LittleBrown

The instant success of her first book, the parenting memoir Nobody Told Me, won her the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry and was the writing on the wall for a meteoric career that has allowed her to become a full time author and Sunday Times bestseller, touring the UK and beyond with signings and live shows. The first poet to record at London’s Abbey Road Studios, she is loved for both her books and appearances.

She’s here to sign copies of Lobster while she tours and with her is boyfriend, fellow poet and author Michael Pedersen, currently Writer in Residence at The University of Edinburgh, who often appears with her on stage and they chat and laugh among the shelves, a beaming rhyming couplet.

McNish wrote Lobster out of both hate and love for the world, her way of ‘learning to love those things which I do not think should disgust me or which I do not want to hate (any more), but which for some reason or another I have been made to feel that way towards’.

It’s funny, sad, heartfelt, honest and comes with an adult content warning. She was driven to write it because writing brings her joy and relief, a world of information from her research and delight in the discovery of favourite new words, like “arachibutyrophobia – a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth” – and nebulophilia – an arousal by fog”. She also explores words people find difficult, such as ‘moist’ - they’d rather say ‘murder’ apparently, and why.

Hollie McNish having a shot on the bagpipes as a child. Pic: Hollie McNishHollie McNish having a shot on the bagpipes as a child. Pic: Hollie McNish
Hollie McNish having a shot on the bagpipes as a child. Pic: Hollie McNish

“I discovered that moist was more hated when it was used in terms of female sexuality and it’s the same with vulva; people say they don’t have any problem with their body but they just hate the word and I think, do you just hate it, or is it cultural?”

For McNish clump and cluster are trigger words, mainly she thinks because her mother was a nurse and conversationally frank about body matters, for ever ruining romantic poems that mention clusters of stars. “For me that’s verrucas, or a rash,” she says and laughs.

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“But I loved that idea about the fog,” she says. It’s so weird because I really like writing short stories and I’d written one about a fog covering the mountains and people using it to set their hair so a hairdresser sets up on the foggy mountain and people making love in the shadows of the fog when no-one can see them so they’re covered in the moisture of the fog so it was quite exciting when I found this word. I thought maybe I’d got it right.”

We’re straying into moist territory and this puts a whole new slant on the haar that rolls in off the North Sea.

Hollie McNish performs poetry from one of her books at a live reading. Pic: John DevlinHollie McNish performs poetry from one of her books at a live reading. Pic: John Devlin
Hollie McNish performs poetry from one of her books at a live reading. Pic: John Devlin

“Yes, I remember the haar in Edinburgh from when I was little and we used to go to my aunty’s caravan at North Berwick,” she says and talks about happy holidays with trampolines and donkeys - it’s easy to digress talking to McNish as she’s full of stories and knows how to tell them.

So what can she tell us about Lobster?

“Probably the main themes are shame and love. If I just say shame it sounds too negative and I don’t think I’m a negative person.”

She’s not, and in case you think it’s all getting a bit serious, there are lots of laughs in Lobster.

Funny and frank, Hollie McNish's latest book of poems and prose is a bid to love the thingsFunny and frank, Hollie McNish's latest book of poems and prose is a bid to love the things
Funny and frank, Hollie McNish's latest book of poems and prose is a bid to love the things

“I think there’s so much awful stuff going on and it’s ridiculous a lot of the things I spent a lot of time and money being ashamed of or embarrassed about, but I think I wanted the main theme to be love, which is why there are a lot of poems on friendship. It’s love, but with shame as the backdrop sort of moving towards love, just unpicking the ridiculousness of a lot of the hate.”

While McNish smiles as she holds her shiny newly printed book, she admits to also feeling petrified.

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“I’m really excited when I’m writing the poems and when someone says they would like to publish and while I’m editing it, but when I actually see the book, I quite often feel sick. I try really hard not to upset people. There are a lot of things I disagree with but I’m not in the habit of shouting at people or acting like I know and someone else doesn’t and I try to do loads of research. Like there’s a poem about The Queen and I’m really not a fan of having a monarch but lots of people I love very dearly are, so it’s the idea of making my point without being an offensive git. So sometimes when I see the finished book, because I can’t change it and know people are going to read it, I get a bit panicky.”

She laughs.

“It’s ridiculous because the whole point for me of writing poetry is to pick things apart but when I see it in shop windows, first of all I get very thankful and then my heart’s like ‘ohhhh’.

It’s this awareness of the sensitivities of others that has caused McNish to flag up the adult themes of some of her poems in the first page dedication to her family to ‘please, never read the oral sex section of this book’.

“I thought ‘oh no, why have I put that at the start because my family will now definitely see that there is one’,” she laughs, now 41 and mother to a teenage daughter.

“I normally give my dad an edited version but I think I’m caring less and less now. I don’t really mind strangers reading or hearing anything I write but if there are family or friends in an audience or going to read the book then it gets to me. But I don’t think they actually care. And with Lobster I’m more worried about my dad reading some of the stuff about Scotland and England than I am him reading the oral sex section. But I think that will be also fine, it’s quite a loving look at that kind of nationality discussion.”

Born in England to a Scottish family - they made sure she knows how to blow into a set of bagpipes as witnessed by a photo of a young Hollie doing so in the book - and dividing her time between the two nations, McNish is perfectly placed to look at issues of identity from both sides of the Tweed, questioning stereotypes that divide as well as unite.

Why was that something she wanted to write about?

“Watching all the conflict in the news and the horrendous atrocities that go on because we can be convinced that somebody because they’re from another country or over the border or have a different accent or skin colour, that we can be convinced to hate people so much, I was thinking about that more and more. Also when I was writing about sexuality and the different sexual preferences people have I started to look up all these philias and phobias and there didn’t really seem to be much of a correlation with where people were. People from all over the world think these things.

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“Phobias are amazing as well. My friend has an apple phobia and it’s incredible how petrified she is of anything apple related.”

I throw in ‘velvet’ and McNish says, “Oh yeah, velvet, my uncle was sick if he touched velvet and crushed velvet used to make me want to vomit. I’m OK with it now. Anyway, I started to think this is ridiculous how much we generalise about different nationalities or people. I feel we just love to divide people and was trying to get my head around the Scottish/English thing because they’re so close as countries.

“I was brought up in England and my family is Scottish and I feel both, and I find it fascinating the opposite reactions when I’m travelling whether I say I’m Scottish or English. So many people have dual heritages and I wanted to look into that. I love feeling Scottish and being accepted as Scottish in Scotland but I don’t want to play on that ‘you’re nicer because your family is Scottish’. It can easily tip the other way. I find it fascinating, these national stereotypes we have, and quite scary at the same time.”

Where and when does she think she writes her best poems?

“Literally anywhere. I’ve got more time now my daughter’s older but any snapshot of space. I think on trains. And especially that Peterborough to Edinburgh line, I absolutely love that, on that journey I write well. Other than that, anywhere, but I often write in other people’s poetry books, because I always read them before I start editing my own poems and that inspires me - Caroline Bird and Andrew McMillan, I just scribble in all the pages. Liz Lochhead as well, I think I’ve written on every page of her book. But in pencil,” she adds quickly, “although it’s still not a very good habit. I write poems in other people’s books then lose them in the pages of some other poetry. And I sit in cafes and libraries because I love people, just being among them. People are fascinating.”

McNish has been writing poetry since she was eight years old, sporadically at first then more in her teens.

“The first poem I was eight years old and I’ve got diary scrapbooks of poems and pictures from 10-13 then 13 plus it’s just the writing. There are a lot of poems trying to convince myself I believed things I didn’t actually believe. Like sitting outside a nightclub at 17 while all my friends were inside and how this was much better. I think all my life I’ve written poems. As a kid I used to write them as presents for my mum. The first poem was an angry one about not being allowed a cat and I insulted my whole family by writing words with cat in them to describe them all. My mum found it when I was about 21 and it’s quite offensive about my family, but I didn’t know that when I was eight.”

After studying languages then economics, she started writing again in her twenties while working for a government funded organisation trying to get young people involved in town planning.

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“I loved my job but the Conservatives closed it down so the poetry was going well and I had a baby by then - I was 28 - and started doing workshops and writing articles. I got an Arts Council grant to develop a one-woman show based on the poems I’d written about motherhood that turned into a book, Nobody Told Me, and from there I got more gigs and publishing opportunities. It’s all worked out well.”

So well that McNish is already working on her next book, as editing one inspires her to write the next one.

“It’s a collection of poems called Virgin around the idea of virginity, a mix of political and sensual poems. I wanted to get the idea out of my head of the brainwashing about purity and virginity that there are people that are a virgin and then you have a penis in you for three seconds and then you’re literally a changed human being. The fact that we’ve made that a thing has been solidified into our consciousness. It’s a mix of very soppy love poems - whilst I don’t believe that stuff any more - and some funny poems, like one about going to see my parents for dinner after I’d had sex for the first time and wondering if they could tell, and the ideas we have in our head because of the power of that word.”

McNish’s genius is to put into words thoughts and feelings others have experienced and wondered if it was just them.

“No, it’s so many people,” she says, “and it’s nice, that sense of community.”

Of course you can’t please all of the people all of the time and her humour and frankness haven’t always landed well, which is why she no longer takes commissions for adverts.

“I was asked to write a poem about period poverty and there was a line that said ‘I know sanitary towels aren’t the best for the environment but with every pack they’re giving a penny away’ and the speed at which they got back…! They’d approached me because they liked my honest relatability, but as soon as I’m honest or relatable it’s like ‘stop her from talking!’” She laughs.

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“I just love writing. I like the chat and think I can share my opinion more easily telling stories and writing poems. If I’m going to take things apart I want to do it in a way that’s not pointing fingers or scapegoating because that gets us into trouble politically and socially, and I don’t want to do that.”

I leave McNish armed with coloured felt tips to sign her books, and step out into the sunshine, noting that the lack of any haar today makes the chance of spotting a nebulophile slight.

Hollie McNish, Lobster, Littlebrown, £18.99

Hollie McNish is currently touring the UK and Ireland and will return to Scotland with her live show in October 2024. See holliepoetry.com for dates.