“…in my health I deal with it so much and what I’m dealing with on a day to day basis is my personal mental health so I think for me I think it’s always been so important to be as genuine and as honest as I possibly can about my mental health and hope that it inspires people to be genuine and honest about theirs…”
From Release: The Viral poet has garnered critical acclaim with over 75 million views of his internationally successful poems including ‘OCD’, ‘Joey’, ‘The Future’ and author of Amazon bestseller ‘Our Numbered Days’. His poems often detail personal experiences and battles with mental illness or other disorders. For the first time ever Australian fans will get their chance to witness NEIL HILBORN live this December and to say he is excited about the tour is an understatement. “How incredible is it that I’ve wanted to see Australia for so long, and now I get to travel there and perform my work. Life is pretty cool sometimes. I’ve wanted to hug a wombat since I was eight years old, and now it’s going to happen. Oh and I guess I’ll perform some poems too. If you had asked me five years ago if I thought poetry would bring me to Australia, I’d have said there’s no way. Now here we are, and here I go.”
At home in St Paul Minnesota, we gave Neil Hilborn a call to talk about his upcoming first tour of Australia, writing poetry, writing books, mental illness, and much more. We know it’s something different for us, and it may not be your thing, but we support his work and his messages and definitely consider Neil one of the Best Things You’ve Never Heard.
I’m gonna call you a rockstar of Slam Poetry so I can justify having you on the site *laughs* but I was introduced to your work through a best friend of mine so jumped at the chance to talk to you.
*laughs* Cool, man, I’m with it.
Of course we’re here because you’re coming to Australia for the first time, tell us what it will be like presenting your work to an audience in a new territory?
I mean it’s always super surprising, man, this is going to be my second international tour ever, the first one that I did was in the UK this past fall. It was funny, as I was in the middle of my tour I though my set hasn’t changed that much like it’s not going to be that different but I looked back and kind of compared from that tour that I’ve been doing in The States and I ended up searching out a whole bunch of stuff so it’s gonna be a lot of adjustment for me and just figuring out what’s gonna work and specifically what’s funny and what gonna fly and stuff like that. I think the sadder more emotional poems like tend be a little more universal but the humour I change up so much between sets. So it’s going to be a very fast learning process for me.
So what can people expect in terms of structure from one of your shows?
It kind of depends on what the promoter wants but the general structure is there will be an opener or two which usually got for about half an hour and it’s not always poets sometimes they have musicians and then I go one for an hour to an hour and a half depending on what the show wants that night, then I just talk, man. I’ve messed around with music and video and all that but for me what the most authentic thing I can do is just doing poems and storytelling and comedy, so my set and the set I’m doing right now starts off pretty funny and lighthearted, like a couple of hints of sadness at the beginning but mostly it’s just me being funny and stupid. Then transition to some more sad poems because you know you wouldn’t be going to a poetry show if you didn’t like being sad and then at the end I kind of transition into something a little more uplifting. So it’s basically a pretty intense wild emotional arc *laughs* is what you can expect if you come see me perform.
As a form of expression much like music sometimes does with lyrics, poetry also tackles real life issues, but when creating one of your poems what’s the process in terms of how they reach their completion?
So for me I’m much more focused on editing more than the initial writing process, I know a lot of people who will sort of think about a topic and have an idea in mind for months and months and just write a poem that’s pretty much done. That’s not how I work. I’ll write a first draft and it’s mostly a free write and it’s mostly garbage, those first drafts I’ll keep maybe two to four lines and I’ll cut everything else and I’ll re-write the poem around it and then I’ll keep eight lines and then I’ll re-write the poem, so for me it’s more of a grind, I feel like once a week and every day as I’m going on I’ll kind of rotate which poem I’m looking at and it ends up being each one that I look at once a week and just re-write it and re-do it and draft it and draft it until I’m happy with it, until it feels like it’s done. So yeah, just beating my head against a poem until it’s over basically *laughs*.
Mental Illness is a topic that is and has been at the forefront for a while now, we’ve seen rockers pass away recently because of depression…
Yeah, I’m pretty bummed out.
…how important for you is it to get the word out about mental illness via your work?
Sure, you know it’s funny and it feels gross to even say this and advocate for mental health, because in my health I deal with it so much and what I’m dealing with on a day to day basis is my personal mental health so I think for me I think it’s always been so important to be as genuine and as honest as I possibly can about my mental health and hope that it inspires people to be genuine and honest about theirs and to communicate to people around them and people that they love about what’s really going on in their heads because I think that so often what’s so hard about dealing with mental health is the isolation and feeling like you’re incapable of talking about what’s actually going on inside of you. So I just hope that me talking about my stuff helps and inspires other people to talk about their stuff.
Yeah I mean a poem like ‘Joey’ is just wow.
*laughs* Thanks man, like I wrote that poem forever ago and it’s still hard to perform, and normally poems get easier and you sort of get tired of stuff when you talk about it over and over but that one just stuck and I do it because it seems important and people seem to get a lot out of it but it’s hard, man. *laughs*
You’ve written best-selling books, much like an album how hard was it for you to put together a book and what would be published for the world to see?
Yeah it’s kind of scary you know? It’s this weird sort of thing because the thing that people interact with the most is the videos and those especially are the poems that have taken me twenty drafts and the poems that I’ve worked on and thought about too much and I’ve just really been stuck on for a long time. So it’s harder to put together a collection of shorter poems that have maybe only been through four or five drafts, I don’t feel they’re all perfect and exactly what I was trying to say because I’m kind of a perfectionist but ultimately I think it’s an important part of the process I think people sort of appreciate things that are imperfect because they feel maybe more genuine and less polished and I feel like if you’re buying the book you’re getting more of a sense of my internal life and what it’s like to really be me, spoiler alert it’s terrible *laughs*. I mean it’s scary, I don’t know, it’s the kind of thing where a book that has like sixty poems I started off with a manuscript of a hundred and twenty poems and got rid of half of them because I’m like “No this doesn’t represent who I am as an artist” anyway I’m rambling but the point is it’s terrifying. *laughs*
Speaking of your book ‘Our Numbered Days’ draws on relationships, paints a picture of Minneapolis, and pays homage to other poets and judging by the Acknowledgements within button poetry books, it seems to be a supportive crew. What is life like inside the world of Slam Poetry, and subsequent publishing life?
For sure it’s pretty cool, man, it’s the community that I came out of and it’s a really interesting dual community because you’ve got sort of your local scene and around the country it’s pretty small especially when I was starting off the spoken word scene in Minneapolis and St Paul was like maybe twenty people and there would be more people that came to shows and came in and out but I could name for you every single person that went to every show. Then you also have this national community because there’s all these tournaments, there’s the College National Poetry Slam, the National Poetry Slam, there’s a high school event, regional tournaments, so you fairly frequently throughout the year get together with poets from other parts of the country and other communities and it’s this really like close knit weird supportive artist group and of course there’s drama in there because you get a bunch of crazy people together and stuff’s gonna get weird *laughs*. It’s been really cool to come up in this community in the twin cities and then to be able to go around and use whatever notoriety and whatever attention I’ve sort of gotten to promote the people that inspired me and that are coming up right now, so yeah it’s a cool community, man and I’m really happy that I can still be a part of it.
Your poems move across several platforms; written to spoken to Video and (maximizing reach thanks to shares by pages with huge readerships) through social media ; what changes for you as a writer across these platforms?
You know ideally you want nothing to change, you want your poems to work the same on the page as they do on stage or an internet video and obviously that’s different like I’m not gonna pretend to know why a poem goes viral, like for instance I’m writing a new book right now and in writing it I was thinking ok so what are like the singles, if I was thinking of it like a music album what are the lead singles that I’m gonna put out there and videos on the internet and definitely in editing mode I was thinking about things like pacing and accessibility and I was trying to figure out maybe what made my past poems popular, and not replicate that but use it to form the new stuff I was writing. So I think that’s a little more specific form and then general more specific stuff I just put on stage I think that’s a little bit looser and use the experience I’ve done from doing hundreds of shows that I’ve done in the past four years. Mostly at this point I’m just trying to write stuff that I like, if I write a line that makes me laugh or I write something that makes me go ‘huh, interesting’ that’s usually the stuff that gets included in the book, I don’t know I think people are coming to me for me, at least I hope coming to me for my sense of taste and my aesthetic so I’m just trying to trust that and trust my instinct as much as I can.
Australia is super grateful to be able to get you out this far for a live tour- can you tell us any other poets you’d recommend that we should be getting into?
Yeah 100%, so some of my favourite poets in the world, one of them is names Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and he’s editing my new book actually and is one of my favourite poets in the world, his debut book on Button Poetry it’s called ‘The Crown Ain’t Worth Much’ and he also has a book of essays about pop culture that’s just come out called ‘They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us’, he’s one of my favourite poets in the world. A poet from where I live in St Paul, his name is Hieu Minh Nguyen he’s got a book called ‘This Way To The Sugar’ and also his book ‘Not Here’ is going to be coming out on Coffee House Press next year, and one of my favourite poets of all time, her name is Patricia Smith and she wrote a book called ‘Bloodbath Water’ about Hurricane Katrina, and it’s a formally perfect book and it may be the best book of poetry that’s ever been written and everyone should read it and I don’t know why you’re listening to me talk when you could be reading her book. So yeah, those are my top three and my three favourite poets right now, certainly.
I know a few zine writers and have dabbled in it myself, what would be your advice for those wanting to write or get into poetry?
Get ready for a lot of failure *laughs* that’s obviously a snarky way to say that any art forum that you’re trying to get into you’re gonna face a lot of rejection and a lot of people not caring or getting what you’re trying to do and I think the most important thing for me has just always been removing my ego from any result like either success or failure in my work. Like if I was competing in a poetry slam I always try to tell myself the same thing whether I won or lost I was always trying to say ‘that’s great the judges in the audience just happened to be into this certain thing tonight, if it was me that’s great, if not then that’s also fine’ most important what did I do wrong, what can I improve? What did I do well, what should I keep doing? So it’s mostly just a matter of like using other people’s opinions and take criticism and feedback into account but you have to ignore a whole bunch of stuff and not getting hurt if somebody doesn’t like what you’re putting out there.
Lastly let’s look ahead to the future and even though you’ve written about ‘The Future’, let’s just look at next year so finish this sentence for me, in 2018, Neil Hilborn will…
In 2018 Neil Hilborn will tour the world to be real *laughs* in conjunction with my book coming out we’re doing a future world tour, I can’t release specific dates and places but I can vaguely tease that I’m doing like a big US tour, a tour of like festivals in Europe and I’ve heard rumours about maybe India and East Asia and things like that. So yeah, I’m gonna be flying around the world a bunch in 2018.
Well hopefully we’ll see you back here.
Yeah, oh yeah definitely this tour has sold so well the promoter is like “great, when are you coming back?” So yeah it’s happening, I can’t wait.
Thursday 7 December – The Zoo, Brisbane – 18+
Friday 8 December, Bald Faced Stag – Sydney – 18+
Saturday 9 December – Howler, Melbourne – 18+
proudly presented by Destroy All Lines, Chugg Entertainment and TKO
From: St Paul, Minnesota, USA