“No matter how embarrassed I feel as she sips”

Autobiographical Spoken Word Poetry as Feminist Activism


In 2018, poet and literary critic Rebecca Watts launched a fierce diatribe in PN Review against “the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’”, which she considered “buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work” (Watts). Among the poets she explicitly mentions are Instapoetry star Rupi Kaur and Spoken-Word poet Hollie McNish.

McNish, who is currently on tour performing poems from her latest collection Slug, has made a name for herself in the British spoken word scene as a poet who addresses themes such as sexuality and motherhood from an overtly feminist perspective. Her work and career are of great interest in my 5- year project “Poetry Off the Page” (ERC/FWF), which examines the significance of poetry performance to recent British and Irish literary history. Rather than reflect on the “literary” quality of McNish’s work, I would here like to point to the cultural work of her spoken word performance. For this purpose, I will introduce McNish’s poem “Embarrassed” (2013), which addresses the social and emotional perils of breast-feeding babies in public:

What interests me about McNish’s performance, to put it in a nutshell, is the way it is framed autobiographically and draws on an “aesthetics of sincerity” that is typical of spoken word poetry. Underneath the YouTube video, McNish notes,

I wrote this poem in a public toilet after my 6 month old baby fell asleep. I was in town on my own a lot with her and the first time I fed her someone commented that I should stay home. … I was embarrassed and for 6 months took her into toilets when I was alone without the support of boyfriend, friends, mum etc. I hate that I did that but I was nervous, tired and felt awkward.”

She thus frames the poem as a direct reflection of her personal experience, an idea that is reinforced by the accessible idiom of her poem and by her conversational performance style: McNish looks straight into the camera rather than reading from a book, as though she were spontaneously telling her audience a story. The authenticity effect thus produced serves, in “Embarrassed”, to render McNish’s poem an embodied feminist critique of dominant attitudes towards public breast-feeding in the UK: It amounts to a performative counter discourse. Re-claiming the visibility that she was denied as a young mother in public, McNish uses her personal experience as a launch pad for a feminist critique of a systemic social injustice.

As such, McNish’s autobiographical video performance can be understood as a manifestation of the so-called fourth wave of feminism that relies on the affordances of digital technologies and the internet. The popularity of “Embarrassed” points to its role in forming a counter-public: On YouTube, “Embarrassed” has garnered almost 1.5 million views and provoked more than 2000 comments to date. Viewers write about how much McNish’s performance has moved them, they express surprise, often they confirm McNish’s experiences, they thank her for speaking out about them, and share their own personal stories. McNish’s video thus demonstrates how autobiographical spoken-word performance can function to draw attention, and establish a counter-discourse, to gendered forms of discrimination.




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