Guest Post, Hollie McNish: Life-Changing Poetry in Colombia

Since my exceptionally stroppy years as a toddler, I’ve pretty much never raised my voice. Save the occasional lonely outbursts after skimming Daily Mail headlines, I don’t shout, I’ve never had a proper argument with anyone and I don’t really see the point in it all. A waste of breath and nothing appears to get achieved. It’s not that I’m some meditative guru of calm and tranquility, it’s that every time I’ve felt that rage heat start flooding my cells I’ve held it in, run off to some quiet corner and scribbled, pushing pencil to paper pathetically forcefully and breathing deeply through my nose. At 5 it was mainly about rainbows and littering rivers, by 10 about my asthma, 15 about politicians and boys and not ever losing my virginity, and by my mid 20s aimed generally at Coca Cola, Kraft foods and GlaxoSmithKlein.

‘What you gonna do Hollie, write a poem about it?!’ came the blag from my mates and mum after years of the dirty habit. And it was embarrassingly true. Of all the injustices and angst that plagued my pages, the poems lay in piles of pointless stacks, filling up cupboards and bookshelves. Writing, it seemed, had held me back from smacking a few people around the face, but apart from that, what was the point of it? I’d never read any of the words aloud, I’d tried and couldn’t do it.
I stopped writing.
And when lines came into my head, I let them go just as easily. I changed course, took up political economy and forced migration studies and set about getting qualified to do at least something practical to affect the topics I’d been privately moaning about for years.

Then Antanas Mockus strolled in. To a tiny room filled with all 12 of the Colombian students that studied at my uni, a load of empty chairs, my friend and me. A middle aged philosopher-turned-politician, best known for moonying a group of his unattentive students. He was now mayor of Bogota, one of the most renowned urban spaces on the globe, and was spending city budgets and tax payers money hiring mime artists for zebra crossing control, painting deceased dwellers names in stars on the pavements and dishing out ‘thumbs up / thumbs down’ cards in a bid to curb violent behaviour. Years later, despite heavy conservative protest, his term as Mayor had seen numerous unexpected outcomes: sharp declines in homicides, traffic fatalies and huge advancements in drinking water and sewerage accessibility.

His policies weren’t flawless and obviously included more than the arts-centred approach which met the public press, but it reinstated in me the importance of cultural movements and arts in the advancement of social justice.

I spent the last year of my part time studies selling T-shirts by day, selling vodka at weekends, raking up tips by overcharging irritating drunk customers and saving for the conflict resolution ‘research’ trip to the International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia. Established as an expression of poetry’s capacity for mobilization and the rebuilding of a social fabric lacerated by a legacy of drug cartels, violence and social upheaval, the festival is now the world’s largest international poetry event, an Alternative Nobel Prize winner and completely free.

Sitting in the central library listening to Rosa Chavez, poet and activist for the indigenous Maya Nation, surrounded by giggling groups of Colombian school kids, I started writing again. All that to say: If you ever get a chance, you should go.

HOLLIE MCNISH is a performance poet. Her first album, Touch, a collection of both poetry and beats, was released in 2010, including production by Farma G of Taskforce, Dj Toe and fellow artist / singer Zayna Daze. Previous performances and highlights include: Glastonbury Festival, Cheltenham Literature and Science festivals, UK Farrago Slam Championships, performing at the Big Chill festival, Munich Substanz Slam and coming third in the World Slam Championships in Paris 2009, first female behind the US and Canada. She has appeared on BBC2, been commissioned by Radio 4 as part of the Glastonbury Poetry Diaries and recently been invited to participate in poetry projects in Argentina and at the Maison Folie Theatre in Belgium. As well as straight spoken word, she has also participated in a number of music nights, including playing the Junction Theatre with renowned drum-n-bass acts Beardyman and Jungle Drummer and Inja.


About Charlotte Morgan Nwokenna

Editor and Public Relations Officer
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