It is impossible to deny the prowess of poets Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. One was the UK’s slam champion in 2009, and the other has authored New Zealand’s fastest-selling book of poetry. Their similarities, according to Babble On’s co-producer Becky Fincham, do not stop there. Both writers, she argues, challenge our assumed place in the world and use humour to tackle usually off-limit topics. Throughout each performance, Bird and McNish give unflinching accounts of romance, pop culture, and political events that gently mock conventional attitudes towards them. Their candid writing feels freeing, and confirms Fincham’s summation that each encourages us “to be bold, be complex, and to laugh at ourselves”.
Both Bird and McNish spend a good proportion of their sets reading about relationships. The gushy metaphors that are stereotypically attributed to poetry are gone though, as Bird’s sardonic tone and bleak imagery give a cynical picture of falling in love. Descriptions of driving a car into a pool of battery acid out of jealousy are delivered brilliantly in the same deadpan manner as loving someone so much that the inevitable happens – after a breakup, the protagonist has to maintain some distance, carry out some self-care, and resent the ex-partner. It turns out that there is a lot of humour to be found in the incongruity between emotional intensity and objective reality.
McNish, who is reading from her new poetry collection Plum, gives a jarringly honest take on romance amongst the more humdrum realities of growing up. The book contains poems written from when she was fourteen right up to the present day, and so we get an insight into the private lives of women from every age. We hear about adolescent girls discovering their sexuality and working out how to explore it (and, through a comical mishap, how not to). Later, this comedy falls away into the sombre atmosphere of a wedding that is happening “because that’s what you do”. This frankness feels like an intimate conversation with a friend. McNish makes her poems relatable by stripping away any pretension.
McNish crosses many milestones in her writing, from thinking that a contestant on a home refurbishment programme is a “nob” to attending divorce parties, but it is her young daughter’s own turning corner that is without doubt the funniest. Politics today are strange, but no event has been stranger than David Cameron’s #piggate. The innocence of a four-year-old trying to work out if this is ordinary behaviour brings home again the surrealness of our political zeitgeist.