Neil Hilborn is single-handedly bringing poetry to the mainstream. The Viral poet has garnered critical acclaim with over sixty million views of his internationally successful poems including OCD, Joey, The Future and author of Amazon bestseller Our Numbered Days. Neil Hilborn is a poet of the people: his work is accessible, honest, and he has undoubtedly left a deep impact in the history of contemporary poetry. Neil is in the country now for a quick run of dates and promising to return for an extensive tour in 2018. Neil spoke to Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles about his first visit to Australia.
Great to be talking to you. You sound like a really fascinating performer and person with your Australian tour almost up us.
Yeah, man! I’m super excited. I’ve never been to Australia before, so I’m really stoked that I not only get to work there, but get to have some time in your country. I’ve got some extra time built in afterwards so I can hang out for a while.
Coming to Australia for the first time, are there any particular things that you’re really excited about being able to experience or go see or?
Yes! Wombats have been one of my favourite animals ever since I was a little kid and also, the musician, John Darnielle, singer of Mountain Goats for a long time had his Twitter profile picture was him holding a gigantic wombat in Australia. So when I announced this Australian tour on Facebook, I kind of posted, sort of sarcastically, like, “Oh, I’m gonna hug a wombat,” and then somebody emailed me immediately and said, “Hey, I work at this small zoo up by Brisbane. I’m a fan. Do you want to come hang out with our wombats?” So, yes, definitely yes. I’m really, really looking forward to hugging some wombats. A person told me they’re the only animals in Australia that’s not going to kill me so, so I’m really stoked about it.
Pretty much, pretty much. Some of those kangaroos get a bit nasty.
Dude, I’ve heard. How upsetting is it that kangaroos, one of the shittiest-looking animals on the planet, will murder you? Anyway!
Yeah, they’re absolute savage beasts! Did you ever think that poetry would be taking you all around the world?
No, absolutely not. If you told me in 2000, like 2008, when I started doing spoken word that people would pay to see me in Australia, I would have said, “You’re crazy. There’s no way. Absolutely no way that poetry … Definitely isn’t that popular!” It’s still a huge surprise to me. I did my first international tour this past August. I was in the UK for like five weeks and almost every show was sold out, but I was still surprised every time I walked into a venue and saw it like totally packed and saw people waiting to hear me be sad loudly. You know? Maybe I’ll get used to it at some point, but it’s still so surprising in the end when people interested in what I have to say.
What do you think it is? Do you think it’s the fact that you are offering something different than just going to see someone play guitars, drums, and keyboards?
Yeah! I think that’s probably part of it. I mean, obviously, spoken word is really experiencing a huge explosion right now and I think that there’s something about the way in which the genre, it’s so expressive and so raw and it’s like you take a lot of the emotion that’s happening in the music and you kind of strip away all the barriers to it, right? Like if you’re a person that really likes to feel things intensely, poetry might appeal to you because it’s literally just me, or any poet on stage, is up there by themselves saying, “These are my feeling and I’m very sad,” and you can’t help but experience those emotions. I don’t know why people like what they like, but I think that’s probably it.
Did you find that, personally, that poetry and writing poems was some sort of form of therapy for you to work through what you’re going through at a particular time? Or probably even, possibly, still now?
Absolutely, writing is a very therapeutic process for me. It always has been. I think there’s something really helpful about taking whatever is going on in your internal state and literally externalising it. If I take my thoughts or my feelings that are huge and incomprehensible and I put them on a piece a paper in front of me, suddenly it’s a thing that I can study, a thing that I can get distance from and actually look at and analyse, and then it’s something that I have to experience right in front of my face all the time. So, yeah writing is the most therapeutic thing I do for myself other than therapy.
Was sharing your poetry and thoughts it in a public space something that was quite confronting or difficult to do initially?
Yeah! I mean, it is terrifying. I don’t really come from a performative background. The first time I was ever on stage in front of anyone was my first poetry slam, which was at my college and ironically, I was running that poetry slam. I was also performing in it. It was so scary. I literally was freaking out so bad, I threw up in my mouth a little bit and I had this moment where I had to stop the poem, like I’m just vomiting in my mouth. What do I do? I just swallowed it and finished the poem ’cause I’m a professional, but yeah. Stage fright was a really, really, real thing and I’m really, thinking back on it, I’m still not sure how I got over it because I’m a very, very anxious and shy person anyway. I got through it and now, I still get stage fright for the minute or two before I get on and maybe the first thirty seconds of my first poem in a set, I’m kind of freaking out, but then, after a little bit, I’m just like, “Oh, no. This is my job. I’m good at this. I do this all the time. I know what I’m doing,” and then I kind of settle into it. So yeah, it’s not scary anymore.
So how would you describe the show to people, particularly, Aussies that are just starting to catch on and looking to buy tickets to your shows?
You know, it’s funny. I’ve experimented a lot with music or video or other visuals and stuff, but I think the way that I feel, I feel the most genuine and that I’m putting on the best show if it’s just me talking for an hour. The ark of my set, I think it’s funny. People come into it, come into the show expecting me to be very, very sad for however long I’m on stage because it’s a poetry show. What else would I do but be very sad?
It’s hard to think people are surprised when, for the first third to half of the set, I’m pretty funny. There is genuine emotion in there, but I take a lot of cues from comedians and storytellers and I try to be funny and entertaining because I don’t think people are trying to have intense feelings for a whole evening. Every show does that. I do some poems that are, yeah, more personal and pretty depressing. At the end of that, I try to make it more anthemic and take it to kind of an inspirational place, so I try to get a whole range of emotion because I think contrast is really important.
Is there a message that you hope that people take away from the show? Is it the sort of thing that they’re probably driving away talking to whoever they went with in the car, thinking, “Oh yeah. Okay. Penny has dropped. A light bulb moment. I get it”?
I think there are probably a couple things. One is, I hope at least this is what people see me doing throughout the set, is they see me making fun of myself and I’m allowing myself to laugh at, specifically, my mental health issues or really anything in my life that seems big or scary or overwhelming, that I’m allowing myself to have fun and enjoy that because that’s what allows me to feel not as freaked out, if I can find the humour in something. Another thing is, I talk about this at the end of the set. I have a whole thing that I do, a whole bit that I do before I do my last poem to feature. I talk about how important it is to forgive yourself for all the stuff that’s going on in your head and in your life that you can’t really control, and to love yourself no matter what your mental health state is. That’s two big things. It’s important and necessary to laugh and forgive yourself and love yourself.
Do you think we’re getting better at looking after people and caring for people that struggle with mental illness and things like that or do you think that there’s still a long way to go?
There definitely is a long way to go, but I do think we’ve made significant progress even in the last 10 years. I remember when I, not to talk about my own personal experience and try to pretend it’s everybody’s, but when I first started doing poems publicly in 2008, I remember feeling really freaked out and terrified to talk about my mental health because I thought that people would treat me differently and that people would think, if I said like, “Oh, I have OCD,” or “I have bipolar disorder,” they’d think I’m dangerous or pitiable in some way. I think just the shift that I’ve seen in the last, like I said, ten years has been really different. I think that people are a lot more willing to hear your story and to share their own stories of mental health and I think people are more willing to accept that you might just be a regular human who just happens to be going through something. Your mental health isn’t the whole of who you are, it’s just a part of your entire character as a human being.
Do you feel that sense of satisfaction that your stories and particularly when you connect with someone who’s probably going through their own struggles as well, that it might help them through a particular tough spot or get through a tough spot or help them to say, “I need to get help,” or support or something like that?
I do, it’s really cool. I never set out to be an advocate for mental health. When I started writing poems, I was never like, “Man. I’m gonna try to change somebody else’s life,” but I think there’s a power in trying to share your own stories as genuinely, as honestly, as possible and I think that people that have connected with anything in my work get that I’m trying to just be as open and honest as I possibly can about what’s going on in my head. I think it’s definitely overwhelming sometimes. I have trouble sort of accepting responsibility for that because I’m like, “No. I’m not that important,” like, “I’m not gonna change anyone’s life,” but people tell me a lot after shows that my work really helps them. I’m trying to be as accepting and as present for that as I can, and still not freak out every morning that I wake up because I’m responsible for them to whatever.
What do you see as being the big plan for 2018?
Next year, my book’s coming out. It’s going to be called, The Future, coming out April 17 on Button Poetry and it’s going to be available on a whole bunch of platforms. It will be released in Australia and in conjunction with the book I’m going to be doing a promotional world tour but I don’t have the specifics right now, but I’m doing a whole U.S. tour, probably a couple actually and I’m doing a bunch of festivals next summer in Europe. I’ll be going to Asia going and coming back to Australia, so it’s going to be a lot of long plane flights for me next year. I’m so excited about it. I was really bummed that I couldn’t get to Adelaide and Perth this time. The timing didn’t work out with the tour, but this tour sold so well that it was like, “Hey, when are you going to come back? Let’s hook you up. Let’s go to every city.” So yeah, I’m coming back. We’re going to make it happen.
Interview by Rob Lyon
Catch Neil Hilborn on the following dates…