Poet Neil Hilborn on how writing helped him cope with mental illness

Hilborn is one of the most-watched poets in the world 

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 10 October 2017 09:55

Over 13 million people have watched Neil Hilborn's poem OCD, in which he lays bare the reality of being in a relationship while coping with mental illness, his face turning red as he speaks. It's safe to assume that his stark take on how his mental health can encroach into every aspect of a person's life struck a chord with a few people.

The 27-year-old from Houston, Texas, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as a child, and then with bipolar in college, and has used poetry as an outlet. Now, he's one of the most-watched spoken word poets in the world, having recently completed a tour of the UK including at the prestigious Union Chapel in north London.

To mark World Mental Health Day, we spoke to Hilborn about how poetry is therapeutic, his artistic process, and why he think OCD is such a popular poem.

You read a poem publicly for the first time when you were 19. Do you remember how that felt? Were you nervous? Was it cathartic?

To be honest, I don’t remember much about that first performance. We had just started a poetry slam at our college and this was our first time running a show, which of course meant that I was so nervous that I blacked out for most of my performance. I had never been on stage before, so the whole thing was rather terrifying.

My performance can’t have been that good though, the poem I was reading was about how I was in love with one of my friends but couldn’t express it because of stupid ninteen-year-old reasons. I knew she was going to come to the show, so the whole poem was pretty vague rhyming nonsense about skeletons and bicycles.

Why do you think your poem about OCD has been so popular?

The sense that I get from talking to people about that poem is that while most people don’t have experience with OCD, almost everyone has felt like they were ruining an important relationship because of unchangeable parts of themselves.

When I was writing OCD seven years ago, my main goal was to show my experience with OCD through the lens of how it complicates relationships, specifically because of how much time and patience it requires to be close to me. So I think that people connected with that sense of frustration and loss, the feeling that though you might love someone intensely, who you are as people will never be compatible.

How has poetry helped you to deal with mental illness? Is writing like a release for you?

Writing is quite therapeutic for me. When I write down my feelings I’m literally making my internal state external. If I’m right up against my thoughts inside my head it’s almost impossible to get any perspective on them, but if those thoughts are on a piece of paper in front of me I’m able to analyze them and turn them into something helpful and productive.

You have a huge following - do people often contact you to thank you for making them feel more confident in opening up about their mental health? Are there any particular instances that really stand out for you?

I get around 50 messages a day from people who say that my openness has inspired them to speak up about their mental health. Honestly, I’m still pretty overwhelmed by it all. So many people’s stories are so intense, and I’m still figuring out how to be receptive and present while still protecting myself and maintaining my emotional stability.

I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences with people sharing their stories, but the one that comes immediately to mind happened last week. I was at a hipster dive bar in Minneapolis—wood paneling, terrible beer in filthy glasses, delightful—when my friends mentioned that a poet I really admired would be joining us shortly. I was trying to play it cool, but this guy was the author of one of my top five poetry books of all time, and also I am not very good at playing it cool.

After a couple more drinks I said to him Hey, sorry to talk about work when we’re all hanging out like this, but I just wanted to tell you that your poems have had a huge influence on me, and I really appreciate the art you’re putting out there. He seemed really surprised, and he told me that he was inspired that work with my kind openness and honesty was getting such a large audience, and that seeing my success was inspiring to him. I’ve been trying not to obsess too much about that moment, but it was pretty amazing for me.

What is your artistic process like? How does an idea become a poem?

I have two distinct processes. The first is that one you always hope for, that lightning bolt moment of inspiration that demands you sit down and write. Those moments usually come whenever I’m doing something else, biking, washing the dishes, falling asleep, and a couple of lines will jump into my head that I just have to write down. Those lines go at the top of the page, and the rest of the poem just falls out after them. I can’t however, reliably depend on those moments, so the second one is much more methodical and intentional.

Every day when I sit down to write, usually in the tea shop where I used to work or in my office at home, if I’m not inspired to write anything in particular I pick up whatever book I happen to be in the middle of and I read until something inspires me. Maybe it’s a poem structure, an image, or a cool turn of phrase, and I write whatever it is at the top of the page and then free write until I have at least a couple lines that I like. Most of what I produce from these drafts is garbage, but I can usually get at least an idea that I can work into a full poem.

Is there anything you would never write about?

I wouldn’t say never, because there have been plenty of things in my life that I said I would never do only to find myself doing them, but there are definitely topics that I tend to avoid. I play an extrovert on stage and on the internet, but in my everyday life I am fairly introverted and shy, so I try to protect myself and maintain my sense of safety by keeping some aspects of myself out of the poems that I release publicly. I still write about those things, but those poems will stay in my notebook.

What is the most memorable experience you have had since becoming a famous poet?

The past four years have been absolutely wild. If you told me when I was sixteen that in twelve years I’d be making a great living as a touring poet I’d have called you a liar and also asked where you got your time machine. It’s hard to pick a most memorable experience, so I’m going to pick my favourite moment from my recent UK tour. About three weeks into the five week tour I had a show at Union Chapel in Islington, my third of three shows in London.

Union Chapel is an absolutely stunning church with wooden pews, stained glass, candles, everything an ignorant American imagines a church in London to have. When we walked into the venue for sound check, I turned to my tour manager and whispered, “Shut up, there’s no way they’re gonna let me do poems here.” I am constantly astounded by the places I get to go because of my dumb loud feelings.

Why do you think poetry and art in general is such an important outlet for so many people?

Lots of smart people have said smart things about this subject, so I’m going to go with Gwendolyn Brooks who said, “Poetry is life distilled.” For me, that’s always what’s been the most attractive about the art form. When I’m writing a poem I take all of my thoughts and experiences about a subject and try to relate them in as few words as possible. I think that a poem should tell you its story as succinctly as it can, and I think that’s what art does for people. It removes everything extraneous so that we can focus on the emotions and ideas that actually matter.

It's Mental Health Day today - what is your advice for someone who is struggling but doesn't know what to do?

Find a therapist or a counsellor, someone to talk to who’s an unbiased professional. Therapy has been the most important tool that’s allowed me to be at least partially functional as a human, so what I say to everyone who’s struggling is, if you can, please please get some help. I’m not sure what that process is like in the UK, but I know there is a process, so get on it.

Please add anything else you feel is important

I find myself saying often that I’m not a mental health professional, I have only the knowledge of psychology that I’ve gained from being a mentally ill person, so it’s important to take everything I say with several large grains of salt. What I can say with certainty, however, is that everyone should try writing poetry, regardless of their mental health state. It’s the cheapest art form to get into: all you need is a pen and a piece of paper, and you can steal those things. So please, for me, write a poem.

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