Neil Hilborn on Self Care as a Poet

In 2011, Neil Hilborn’s poetry slam team placed first in the US College Poetry Slam. Since then he has toured with Button Poetry and published two collections of poetry, Clatter and Our Numbered Days. Freddie Alexander met him to chat about self care, the show, Neil Hilborn – Live Poetry, and the differences between the UK and US scenes.

Cut the bullshit, say what is really going on

Have you enjoyed your first Edinburgh Fringe?

I’ve had so much fun. It is less overwhelming than I thought it was going to be. My show is pretty late, so I spend a lot of my day doing tourist stuff. I see occasional shows, and try not to get too worn out.

You have described yourself as an introverted person. What do you do to look after yourself while on tour?

I intentionally make time to sit around and watch garbage TV, or go for a walk in a part of town that I know is going to be quiet. Something in which I don’t have to have feelings, because I have feelings professionally.

It is funny, usually I am by myself while on tour. In America I tour a lot of colleges, so I’m driving eight or nine hours a day by myself, which I love. However, this time I brought my friend and tour manager with me, and he is filming a travelogue that we are going to turn into a DVD. As such I have to intentionally take time to be by myself.

It is just about intentionally doing things that aren’t travelling, doing a show, or drinking.

Many of your fans have a strong emotional reaction to your poetry. What is your method of dealing with that?

When I was a kid I did a lot of a japanese martial art called aikido. Aikido is about taking the other person’s energy and redirecting it, while applying as little of your own energy as possible. I try to do that in my own life.

I know so many people have an intense visceral reaction to my poetry. I try to notice that energy, acknowledge it, thank it and the person, and move the energy somewhere new without attaching to it myself. I have heard thousands of really traumatic stories, and if I attached to each one I would die. I try to take care of myself in that way.

What is the best piece of criticism you have ever received?

I started doing spoken word about nine years ago. A few years into it I was on a competitive team, and we were going to the college national poetry slam. I had a coach who sat me down and said, ‘Neil, these poems are good, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Cut the bullshit, say what is really going on.’

Something there just clicked, and I started to write about my personal story. I then wrote about a whole load of really traumatic experiences, and shit got really dark for a year. Now I’m back in a place where I feel that I can be authentic.

What would you say are the major differences between UK and US slam poetry?

American spoken word is really focussed on narrative, telling a story and then unlocking the lyricism. A lot of UK spoken word does this the other way around. UK poets will open with two or three really dope lines, and unravel the narrative as the poem goes on. That is really cool.

I’ve seen a Scottish group called the Loud Poets, and they do that really well. They will set up tone, give an image set, and let you figure out what the emotion is going to be for the whole poem. Then they will gradually drop in narrative pieces and settings. It is a really cool, subtle way to do poems. Most of the time I will spend the first 20 seconds saying ‘I’m sad and this is why, now here’s some good writing.’

The trajectory of a spoken-word show either seems to be towards a showcase, a collection of poems, or a theatre piece with a connecting narrative. Is there one that you feel particularly drawn towards?

My show is much more like a showcase. I read my poems, and between them I will do some storytelling or comedy. When I started doing spoken word and going to poetry slams, that was the first time I had ever performed. I had no performative background before poems. I’ve always loved comedy and storytellers, I guess I wanted to do that too.

I think people aren’t trying to have strong feelings for an hour straight, so I try to break it up with a bit of humour and levity. I try to let people into my internal life. I’m envious of someone who can put together an hour long cohesive set, because I just can’t.

I think it was Springsteen who said that ‘Artists write the same song over and over, just with different chords.’ Is there a particular story, or feeling, that you feel you keep returning to with your work?

Definitely. It goes in about one or two year cycles, after I publish a new book. Looking back on those books, it is interesting to see what I was dealing with at that time.

I have just finished up my next book. Looking back at it, I realised I was dealing with how to be honest in an interpersonal relationship, suicidal ideation, and what it is to travel for a living. Those are the main themes I keep writing around, trying to find what is at the centre. It is so hard to be honest with yourself.

You can follow Neil Hilborn on Twitter at @neilicorn. Full listing for Neil Hilborn’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe can be found here:

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