The evening of Thursday the 19th October was particularly wet and cold, but spirits were not dampened as people arrived with eager anticipation for an evening of poetry with Hollie McNish and Jackie Hagan at Manchester’s Central Library. Decorated with fairy lights, the library’s performance space provided an intimate setting for the sold-out Manchester Literature Festival event.
To begin the evening, host Naomi Frisby (The Writes of Woman) informed the audience of the layout of the event, before introducing Jackie Hagan’s colourful set.
The poet, playwright and comedian, instantly put the audience at ease and set the tone for the evening as she took what remained in the bottle of wine her and McNish had been given and urged the audience to pass it around and take “a swig”. This communal act had a similar effect that performance poetry does in uniting the room in a shared experience, beginning what will be a night of informality and laughter.
Hagan introduced her first poem of the evening by describing her encounter with an old woman called Edna she met in hospital when having her leg amputated in 2013, who looked “like a threadbare tennis ball with eyes”.
Hagan’s comical, yet meaningful advice poem, You Can’t See Through Another Man’s Eyelids, captured what she has learnt so far on her journey and touches on how her amputation caused her to gain perspective on life. Initially embarrassed about her prosthetic leg, Hagan now actively embraces it, calling it her “glorified stick” and adorning it in glitter and lights.
In her chatty Liverpudlian accent, Hagan also explored ideas surrounding class and poverty, approaching the subject from what she believes is an “uncommon” view, and took her ten years of writing to write about.
Her fierce use of humour teamed with passionate insight about working-class life is portrayed in her brilliant delivery of her poem: I am Not Daniel Blake, a new poem from her solo show This is Not a Safe Space which she will be performing at Manchester’s Contact Theatre later this month.
The set ended with the audience in hysterics as Hagan performed “stump puppetry”, taking a marker pen and drawing eyes on her stump. For her finale, she then downed a glass of wine from her prophetic leg, winning Mancunian approval.
Jackie Hagan’s set seemed like a hard act to follow, but as the host, Naomi, admitted as she introduced Hollie McNish, she cannot think of any poet better able to follow, other than Hollie. McNish’s debut collection
McNish’s debut collection Nobody Told Me was the winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2016 and its honest discussion of motherhood is perhaps why many of the audience were present. However, McNish this evening instead read from her new collection Plum.
Plum, the first of McNish’s works to be published by Picador, merges her recent writings and memories with poetry she wrote as a teenager- conflating the past and the present in a candid look at life and the discoveries that are made as one grows up.
Like Hagan, McNish was instantly likeable, addressing the audience like a close friend with a casual “Hiya”. A poem on hand jobs fittingly called Yanking begins McNish’s set, based on growing up aged 14 and dedicated to a friend who, McNish joked, gave a hand job that resulted in a trip to hospital.
Compelling honesty of personal experiences and memories from childhood to attempted adulthood accompanied by a natural humour are what allows the works to be highly accessible. The audience is not alienated by the personal content of the poems in the collection but instead invited to relate and celebrate the ups and downs that occur as we discover ourselves and the ways of the world.
The pressure to fit social norms is a theme that runs through many of the poems. McNish’s performance of Beautiful was particularly powerful and left the audience in silent contemplation. In the poem, McNish questions ”what they mean by beautiful” as her friends discuss and compare themselves to “The beauty of Victoria Beckham”, struggling to accept their own natural body, and embrace the unmaterialistic beauty that McNish believes exists in the world.
McNish’s then performs Aspiration — a poem fuelled by her recognition that watching Grand Designs and witnessing people being told they were brave for paying for a barn conversion was making her feel like a “total f-ing failure”. McNish may not “write in order to be funny”, but one cannot help but laugh frequently throughout the reading of the collection.
At the end of the evening, the rush to the merchandise stand indicated the effect the poets had upon the audience. The evening seemed too short with the audience left wanting to hear more from the two poets, who luckily stay to chat and sign books.
The truly powerful performance poetry of Hollie McNish and Jackie Hagan is made accessible through the friendly relationship they form with the audience. Sharing their brutally honest personal views and sometimes embarrassing or uncomfortable experiences, both address social issues, whilst encouraging that life should be celebrated.