‘I know not everyone likes poetry.’
I’m pretty sure I’m one of the ones that doesn’t, but I’m surprised this statement is part of the intro about Hollie McNish, poet and artist in residence at the recent Chester Literature Festival. She continues, ‘I don’t even like all poetry.’ Well, I know I’m with her on that, as my last memory of reading poetry was being made to, at school, with painful word by word analysis of Sylvia Plath and Wilfred Owen. The only poem I carry in my head is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and then only the first verse, (sorry Mum, I know you tried).
So it’s strange that I find myself drawn to the exhibition at Storyhouse, not because of what I’d seen in the programme but because of the picture of a warm, smiling, hands-clasped-in-glee Hollie on a large banner in the foyer. She doesn’t look like a poet, I thought, she looks fun. I was there for some other events so I thought I’d keep a look out for the poems on display. It didn’t take long as I came across one in the ladies loo – it made me smile when I spied the short verses on the back of the cubicle doors, (I find out later there is a different one on each door!) It was refreshing to see art taking the place of adverts, and the poem itself highlighted the issue of adverts making you feel ‘rubbish’ and the resulting sneaking to the fridge. It was simple and short but connected easily on a subject that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Thought provoking in a loo break. This isn’t the poetry I remember from school.
I was delighted and impressed with the creative use of different media; realising that recordings of the poems were being piped in via the sound system while I applied my lipstick in front of a mirror adorned with lines about stretch marks and wrinkles. A quick nod to Hollie’s approach – I don’t like poetry but I’ve engaged with it three times in a quick visit to the loo. This girl knows how to win her audience.
Shiny vinyl-stickered words help the poems stand out against the white walls of the venue in unexpected places – there’s one under the stairs, one next to the men’s loo (note: it feels weird to take a photo of the entrance to the men’s toilet). She describes them as ‘dotted about the place’. I love that they’re so seamlessly everywhere; subtly disruptive but hugely in keeping with the space. It feels more like a poetry installation or immersion than an exhibition, and encourages you to stop and ponder while you’re waiting for a theatre performance, just wandering, or make the effort to seek out more if you’re in the mood. I think I’ll miss them when they’re gone.
I linger at the indoor blossom tree hung with beautifully designed postcards in soft colours that feature a poem on the front and a space for a message and address on the back. In a fabulous and generous gesture the signs said that Hollie will pay to post them if they’re put on the tree after being filled in. It makes me thoughtful and really consider who I would send to, but I’m not revealing who got postal poetry from me!
These little details really make it something special and well-considered, I imagine an enthusiastic Hollie being excited about the different ways the poems can interact with people. All the better that it’s discovered gradually, as you use the theatre naturally, rather than all at once or sequentially as you would in a normal exhibition (though I typically have to rebel and go the wrong way). The displayed poems also have short intros, which somehow makes it easier to engage with them.
There are two that really strike a chord with me; Getting Dressed is perfectly placed on the wall above a real life dressing up area with overflowing props and costumes added just for the exhibition. Here, Hollie marvels at her daughter’s eclectic dress style and powerful sense of self and delight when dressing herself, but ends up reflecting back on her own uniform of ‘sensible’ t shirt and wonders who is really the sane one. It’s a simple, fun way to make a key point about being yourself and how easy it can be to conform and lose your identity. You get the sense Hollie feels like the plain faceless foil to her daughter’s unchecked happy uniqueness. I identify with this hugely, having recently, on a whim, added a fedora hat, a bright skirt and red boots to my wardrobe after realising my clothes were lacklustre and just not very inspiring any more. (And possibly because I still have a dressing up box at home).
Fine – I only see on a postcard but it makes me really stop and think. I’ve had conversations with friends lately where we were all guilty of saying things were fine when perhaps we should have said we could really do with a coffee and a chat, or resolved to phone and meet up instead of just relying on easy-to-fib social media.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how easy accessible the poetry is – not just the displays but also the subjects. It makes it easy to be caught off guard by some of the sentiments, as they’re so lightly introduced, and in such unusual places, but on such universal themes. I think it’s a little stroke of genius to put poetry in front of people in such a non-threatening and engaging way – no planning, no booking, no paying, no commitment at all – just an open invitation to look, see, feel – exactly my kind of type of criteria for falling into something new.
I pick up a funny but helpful guide to Hollie’s exhibition poems, and in the intro she says she’s liked writing poetry since she was little, saying it helps her ‘get ideas out and thoughts off my chest.’ Her concise poems seem to deal with every day issues, things she has noticed, thoughts that cross her mind, that connect with people on subjects that join us all.