The wonderful and talented Neil Hilborn had a famous piece, OCD, go viral in 2013 being featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Upworthy, and plenty of other news outlets. Not only this but he has put together a book featuring poems such as Joey, Dust Mop, Clatter, and much many more. Neil travels around the country performing some of his works, and I was honored to pick his brain for about an hour about his poetry style, his favorite poets, and many other cool and rad things he had to say..
Brianna: How were you able to get involved with Button Poetry?
Neil Hilborn: For me Button Poetry is almost weird to talk about as an organization, because it started as a something ran by my friends and still is ran by my friends. Originally it got started because all of has lived in the twin cities, we had been going to tournaments and poetry festivals. We always thought that spoken word was such a cool genre and such a cool thing for people to experience but all the media around it was so bad. Literally it was stuff recorded on cellphones, those were some of the best slam poem videos that you could get. So we were just like, "This sucks," And so, Sam Cook and Dylan Gardity who are...I don't know their exact titles, but effectively the President and VP of Button Poetry. They wrote a grant to get an HD camera. The first tournament they really filmed at was Rusetbelt in Madison, WI where they recorded my video of OCD, the first tournament ever that they filmed at.
B: That’s super cool!
N: Yeah, and they were really just trying stuff out. OCD, my video that blew up was going to be the last time I ever performed it. I had already retired it, but when I made individual finals at that tournament. Same was like, “Hey Neil, I don’t have a good video of OCD just do it,” And I was like you know what there are 400 people in this room, this could be a good way to go out with this poem. I’m never gonna do it again. Now, I do it every show. Anyway, it just started out as those guys were my friends, I’ve just like stayed involved with them because as I’ve grown as a performer and writer, the organization has grown with me. Just being together, it just started as us doing this DIY shit and now were just a real business that employs people.
B: I remember my friend, I remember her showing me your poems and then later rediscovering it, because I’m one of those people who rediscover things myself. I performed your poem OCD for speech and went to state with it. Next question, where do you find inspiration?
N: I experience two kinds of inspiration, there’s the kind that you always hope for. Where it’s like you sort of get that divine lighting bulb. Normally it’ll be like when I’m trying to do something else, like if I’m driving somewhere, trying to cook dinner a couple lines just jump into my head and then I have to stop whatever I’m doing and write it down. You always hope for that but you can’t depend on it, it just kinda happens. So, because writing is my job also obviously performing and touring and stuff like that. It’s core just writing poems, I very intentionally make time every single day and I just sit down at my desk and I just read and read. Once I find a structure or an idea or a thought that I like and I just write based on that. Most those poems are probably gonna be bad. Some people write perfectly their first drafts or they think about it for months, then suddenly write a perfect poem. That’s not me, I just write multiple poems every day and ninety percent of them I never show to anybody. I feel like that practice of writing and just intentionally thinking about other ways to write poems and how to forward your craft, it’s important especially to a professional. Yeah man, I just sit and down make myself write even if it’s gonna suck.
B: Is there ever a time you find yourself with writer’s block?
N: Everyday. Maybe it’s different for other people, to me writer’s block is just the unwillingness to write a cliché. Often when I have writer’s block, I describe it as when I get to a certain line, my brain throws a cliché at me. Thinking it’s garbage, I make myself stop writing it. I feel like the first draft needs to be about not limiting yourself and not stopping yourself. What I’ve done to sort of remedy that is I sort of write the cliché down, whatever trash my brain gives me because whatever is behind it there is a new thought. I think writer’s block is not having this idea that whatever, if it’s not perfect then you’re not a good writer. That’s stupid, not everything you write is going to be genius most of it’s gonna suck. If it’s a bad poem then just don’t show it anybody.
B: What is your writing process and if you have one, what do you do?
N: Very specifically, I wake up at 4 AM every morning. Because I’m a professional artist and I don’t have to get up at a time, it’s a time where there will be few distractions as possible. I make myself sit down writing a poem or two or reading. I got that from one of professors in college, Marlin James, he told me…I think he was totally screwing with me. He told me he was doing the same thing, but now that I think back on it he was just trying to get me to wake up at 4 AM. I saw him recently he just won the man booker prize, I went to a celebration for him and I told him I’m all, “Hey dude, thank you so much for telling me the thing. It’s really helped me.” Then was like, “You really wake up at 4 AM?” I think he made it up, but, it’s been super helpful to me. But yeah. I don’t skip it ever and you can’t mess with me and this is how I have to do it.
B: Who are your favorite poets, personally?
N: Just to list some of them, Patricia Smith she wrote my favorite book of poetry ever, Blood dazzler. It’s about Katrina, it’s just formally perfect it’s a perfect book of poems. I really like Paul Guest, Nick Flynn. It feels weird to say this but one of favorite poets is one of my best friends, his name is Hughman Winn we’ve like toured together and competed he just happens to be one of the dopest poets in America. Matt Rassman’s book recently it’s called Black Abriture it totally messed me up. To me with that question is like “What are the good books you’ve read recently?”
B: Was it your goal to ever inspire anyone with your work?
N: That’s always a hope. Not a goal necessarily, I never made a consuis decision to like be a perform or tour professionally. It was just kind of like I wrote, I started when I was a little kid and I always knew that I wanted to go to college for writing. I sort of got into slam poetry and spoken word. OCD blew up, I started touring, and it kind of just naturally fell into place. There was never sort of a moment where I was like, “YES! I’m going to set out to inspire people.” I was like, “oh cool, people like poems that’s dope! Guess I’ll keep doing them!” I’m so happy that’s happened, I definitely think about it. But I also push it to the back of my mind, what I feel like always connects with people was the stuff where I was just trying to tell my story. Just trying to genuine and honest as possible, the more I try and think to try and connect with people I feel like that’s the less genuine that is going to be. I’m definitely aware of it but I try and forget about it when I’m writing.
B: How does it feel when people get inspired by your work?
N: It’s really cool man, and still really excited about. I still get extremely surprised, people have been telling me that for years and I still somehow am able to hold onto a sense of wonderment about it. I think it helps that I’ve been able to effectively, I think of it as like me on stage or me in video or writing poems or whatever. That’s Neil Hilborn. That’s the guy who can inspire people. Neil, just me every day I’m actually pretty shy and introverted. I sort of took all the aspects of all my personality that like attention or loving to hear “Oh you inspired me,” That’s Neil Hilborn, that’s where all the angulation goes. So that me personally, I can look at and be like, “Oh shit this is me? This is my life?”
B: Do you ever have doubts when it comes to writing poems?
N: Everyday of my whole life, are kidding me? I feel like it’s healthy to have doubts, I think that if you’re not critical or constantly evaluating your work and improve it, what are you doing as an artist? I think that the second, I’m wholly satisfied with my work and say “Yes this is perfect,” and I have no concerns about it at all that’s when I’ve stopped growing as an artist and that’s when I need to do something else. But I also have an anxiety disorder, so I doubt everything I think and say or do. The struggle is been separating the generalized awful feelings that I have with the healthy doubts and concerns.
B: What influenced you to put together ‘Our Numbered Days’?
N: I wrote it over a couple years. The impotence behind it being a book in the first place was that OCD has blown up. Then it came out the next year I believe, then Button Poetry approached me, saying that it was bonkers that you haven’t published a book. I sort of collected, all the poems that I really liked that I had written over the past two or three years putting them all together cutting out the ones I hated. Then figured out where the holes were. It was kind of like “oh shoot, I need to release a book! Oh these poems kind of tell a story,” It came together naturally and it was a lot of fun.
B: What was your favorite piece that you have written?
N: That’s a very interesting question. It always changes, it always goes back and forth especially when I perform because there are certain spoken word pieces that I center my set around. There are smaller pagey pieces that rotate a whole lot. I’ll do a poem three or four times then get stoked on it, then next “That poem is stupid!” I have a poem that I never read because it’s like, “Why would I?” It’s called I’m Sorry Your Kids Are Such Little Shits and That We Are in The Same Zen Garden. I get that it’s not a good poem, I really enjoy writing weird comudturdly poems and I really enjoy gently or not so gently making fun of things that generally people think are wonderful. Like children, I’m like “Nah children, children are terrible like most of the time children are,” Like I wrote poem recently on how cats suck, I don’t know if I could ever publish it or release it because I understand who my fans are.
B: My sister would secretly hate you because she loves cats.
N: I try to funny with it and try to make it clear that I’m kidding. But also cats are terrible. There’s no reason for cats.
B: I love dogs way too much
N: Right man! I feel like dogs are just sort of a personification about everything that is good about people and cats are a personification of everything that is evil. I feel like dogs are good with a few terrible acceptations, and generally cats are awful with a few good acceptations. When people are like “my cat is great!” I’m like, “I’m glad your cat is basically a dog!” But most other cats are awful.
B: Where did you find inspiration for OCD?
N: I wrote it, I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 11. I started writing that poem when I was like about 20, for a long time I was trying to describe what having OCD was like and why it was difficult for me to have many close relationships because of the way that OCD takes up your time. The way that it makes me inflexible inter-personal relationships and things like that. That poem started off as just a funny poem, it was a stupid fake break up letter to women who was breaking up with me because I had OCD and asthma. As I edited it and as others edited, it gradually became more and more serious. Like, the jokes about asthma dropped out of it a little bit, a few of them are still in there weirdly. For example, “ I can’t breathe he only kisses her once,” There had been a whole bit about how I couldn’t go jogging with her, for example, “She can run away from this but I just can’t,” It gradually just became way more serious of a piece because a lot of people had eyes on it. In fact one of my favorite jokes I’ve ever written was in it extremely paraphrased to the actual set up, “You wouldn’t have left me if I were more physically fit, if I would have ever gone jogging with you sometime well I can’t go jogging, cause I can’t go jogging and my lungs don’t work. Also, jogging is a scam.”
B: Instead of poetry what else are some of your passions?
N: I really like my bicycle, I bike everywhere because I’m an awful hipster. Some of the stuff that I like are so dorky. I always feel a little bit reserved when talking about what I actually do with my day to day life because I want people to think I’m cool.
B: Nerdiness is cool it’s okay.
N: Sure, but like very complicated board games, I really enjoy playing DND (Dungeons and Dragons). That weird hyper-nerdy shit that like people aren’t into. Another secret I’m kind of a jock in a weird way, I really like basketball, which I’ve played a lot of. I really love playing sports, like I was a fencer growing up. I was junior Olympian and I was internationally ranked as a fencer, I played a shit load of racquetball. Most of what I do is so not poet like, I’m not hanging out in cabins being sad like no I’m biking around and hitting people with swords. It’s kinda bro-y shit really.
B: What is a feeling you get after you write a new poem?
N: Depends on the subject matter, if it’s funny poem I feel energized. If it’s a sad poem, just exhausted. Writing is very therapeutic but it still takes energy to like confront whatever is going in your life and whatever is hard to deal with. There is always some sort of sense of accomplishment. And I’m just like, “Yeah! I did some shit, now I’m gonna eat a sandwich,” Treat yo’ self!
B: Where is your favorite place to perform?
N: Some of favorite shows is Button Poetry live, if I had to have a home show that would be it. In downtown St. Paul it’s in like a gay bar that has a cabaret theater in the back. It’s really dope man, we have been totally selling it out every Monday, the first Monday of the month. I really love the Boston Poetry Slam, it’s one of best god damn shows in the country, it’s this tiny venue and it’s downstairs in their basement. You can fit maybe sixty people in there, the subway runs under it and interrupts poems sometimes, the only show that I’ve been to that is four hours long and I enjoy it.
N: I’m sorry?
B: I said Iowa, but I’m just kidding.
N: I’m super stoked to be back here honestly, I was here you know what a couple years ago. The show was so much fun. When the contract came in I was like, “Fuck yeah!” I honestly love performing in Iowa. Fuck driving through Iowa. Every time I stop in Iowa, the people are so nice, I always have a great time. Trying to get anywhere, I’m just like, “Kill me,” Love performing in Iowa, never had a bad show here.
B: Would you say poetry could be lyrical in a way?
N: Yeah, for sure. Lyric and lyrical are two terms that I always talk about when talking poetry. It might mean something different in poetry circles to me lyricism is you cannot have a good poem, especially a good spoken word poem without abstraction and lyricism. Narrative is important, necessary to writing a good poem. I think lyricism is what separates poetry from prose. I think you need a narrative to kind of place people and say, “Alright here is some concrete ideas we are working off of,” Lyricism is what allows a poem to transcend, it’s not the most important but it is a defining feature of poetry.
B: Is there anything else you would like to be known for besides poetry?
N: Nah, it’s the only thing I’m really good at. I really enjoy a lot of other things, I think I’m pretty good at a lot of stuff. I don’t even think I’m excellent or the best at poetry by any means. I feel like it’s the only thing I feel really good at. It’s funny I’m known for this, I think I’m a much better editor than a writer. Eventually, I would like to be known for editing and helping people produce work rather than producing my own.
B: What is your favorite place in Iowa?
N: In Des Moines, there is this place called Tacopolyse. It is my favorite part of Iowa, it’s the best thing ever, oh my god it’s so good. If you haven’t been, fucking go!
B: Does social media help out with your poetry? Kind of like getting it out there in a sense?
N: My career wouldn’t exist without social media, which is weird because I’m a terrified of it. Thank god for Dylan from Button who runs my Facebook, that’s a large part of why I get to do this. I run my Twitter and Instagram, even though I don’t really get Instagram but I sort of get it. But I really get Twitter, they’re more concentrated than Facebook which is terrifying on its own and it’s extremely big.
B: I don’t think I have any more questions for you, I was wondering if we could take a picture for my article?
N: For sure!
Meeting and talking to Neil was a surreal moment for me, he has inspired me so much for a long time now. It was so cool to pick his brain and know cool stuff about him both as a performer and person. Seriously, thank you so much for letting me interview you Neil you are a wonderful and kind soul, not to mention talented!