Interview: Viral slam poet Neil Hilborn

Viral slam poet Neil Hilborn is in Australia for a set of exclusive shows on the east coast. Since his seismic emergence into the pop culture consciousness in 2013, he’s been a very busy man indeed, performing up around 100 shows a year for his ever-expanding fan base.

Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Nuclear Blast, we had a chance to chat with Neil recently and hear his thoughts about his career to date and what it’s been like to bare his soul and work in the dynamic and always evolving realm of the spoken word.

SR:   We’re really excited that you’re heading down our way, Neil. What’s it like being a ‘viral poet’? Did you have any inkling that you were set to become such a runaway success?

NH: No, never. What, are you kidding me? I went to college to study creative writing and I thought I would do poetry in some capacity, whether it was teaching or something like that. But I never imagined in my life that I’d be touring and selling books for a living. When OCD went viral in 2013, I didn’t believe it. When it first happened, I woke up in a hotel room in Cleveland, Ohio. I was there with my poetry team. Because of the timing, I think somebody posted it on Reddit at midnight. I think they were Australians, because that’s how the interplay works.

So I woke up at 7 in the morning and one of my friends was on his computer. He was like, ‘Hey, Neil, OCD’s on the front page of Reddit and it has a million views.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s not. Shut up. You’re messing with me. That’s not real. Don’t lie to me, dude!’

So, it was a total shock. It’s still kind of overwhelming. Secretly, I’m a shy, introverted sort of person. In interviews and stuff, that’s all me. That’s all Neil Hilborn. He’s the extroverted part of my personality. He likes the attention and talking about himself and stuff. I just put all of that onto Neil Hilborn so that every day I can just be Neil. And I’m pretty shy and introverted and I don’t like to speak to people (laughs). So it’d be pretty overwhelming if I didn’t kind of protect myself from that stuff, you know?

SR: It goes without saying that in order to work in that scene, you have to be a person who’s comfortable with making themselves very vulnerable and being really raw. Have you ever felt too exposed or hesitated about covering any particular topics?

NH: Yes. Every day of my life.

(Both laugh)

SR: Really?

NH: Yeah, and when I sort of realised that this was going to be my life… Well, even before it was the thing I did as my full-time job and when I was touring in an amateur capacity… When I realised I was going to commit myself to talking about my internal life, I picked a couple of things that I wouldn’t talk about and would just keep to myself, so that I could maintain some semblance of control over my life. So yeah, there are definitely a couple of things that I won’t write about or talk about in a professional capacity, because I want to feel that I have a little bit of control over what happens to me and my story.

SR: Given the fact that slam audiences are typically encouraged to interact, is the unpredictable nature of the crowd ever a daunting prospect, or do you welcome that?

NH: I don’t really come from a performance background. The first time I ever performed was the first poetry slam I ever participated in. I mean, maybe if you come from a theatre or comedy background you get used to playing with an audience a little bit—I didn’t know what I was doing. But I think I’ve really learnt how to handle audience reaction a lot more, which is good. (Laughs). I was just on tour in the U.K. and U.K. crowds love to heckle. They love it! (Laughs). It is their favourite thing. But they’re good at it, so it’s fine. They’ll spend the first 5 or 10 minutes kind of learning my timing and figuring out how I pause and how long I pause for, and then they’ll just start throwing stuff at me. And if I responded, then it was on. I actually ended up cutting stuff out of my set because I was just talking to people for so long. And every show felt like a unique experience. I mean, even two or three years ago, that would’ve scared me so much but now I’m kind of ready for it. I feel like I’m good enough at improvising and thinking on my feet that I can handle stuff like that.

SR: There’s a real sense of controlled chaos to your performances. You’ve got such infectious energy. Is there a sense of camaraderie with the crowd, where they’re all with you? How connected do you feel?

NH: Yeah, I mean I think some of the worst shows that I’ve ever done were the ones where I wasn’t paying attention to the audience and I wasn’t reading the room at all… Where I was sticking to my setlist for whatever reason. But I think that the most important skill that I’ve learnt is how to read a room, how to feel the energy in a room and really react to it. And I think any performer will tell you this: reading a room is one of the most important skills you can have. Even if it’s not explicit verbal or visual feedback, audiences are still giving you hints about how you’re doing if you’re paying attention enough. I always try to connect with the audience and see how they’re doing and see if I should keep being funny or if I should stop making jokes and start being sad or whatever. The audience is always telling me what to do if I’m paying attention.

SR: You’ve mentioned Paul Guest, Sherman Alexie and Patricia Smith as influences in the past.  Which other artists and art forms have inspired you along the way?

NH: I pay a lot of attention to stand-up comedy. You know, if I’m up there for an hour or an hour and a half or so the audience isn’t trying to have intense feelings for that whole time. So I’ve really had to learn how to be funny. Since I’ve started touring by myself, I’ve done so much research into comedy. I’ve tried so hard to figure out how to be funny. That’s more recent, but I grew up in the punk rock scene. I went to hundreds of punk shows and I think that influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, the way I am on stage. It’s like, I was watching all of these really cool punk rock people and they were so cool and so invested and so present. But they’re also doing the punk rock thing of like, ‘No, man. I don’t care. We’re just hanging out and I’m doing this.’ I think I’ve tried to emulate that performance style of caring so much and being present, but also being able to have fun and pull back and realise that what you’re doing is kind of ridiculous, you know?

SR: I can really see the overlap between those two forms. What was the first slam performance you saw and when you saw it, did you immediately realise that it was your thing?

NH: The first person I ever saw doing a spoken word poem was my buddy Dylan Garity. I didn’t know Dylan at the time but he showed up to a meeting and did a poem. It was genuinely awful, honestly. But he meant it—he was so genuine about it. I was like, ‘What is this? What are we doing?’ He took me to some poetry slams. This is probably not true, but the first spoken word performer that I remember seeing was a poet named Patricia Smith. She’s from Chicago. She’s an OG spoken word poet. She’s one of the founding members of slam poetry. She founded two of the biggest venues in slam poetry in the States. And I saw her playing at a college that was up the road from mine in Saint Paul. And she did this reading that just wrecked my life, dude (laughs). But I really liked poetry. I’d been reading poetry for all my adolescence and I knew it was what I wanted to do. And she’d even do these dense academic poems and she made me cry—she’d do a metrically perfect sonnet. I was like, ‘Oh! You can use poetry?! Cool! Great!’ And that was early, man. Patricia Smith has been a huge influence on my art for a really long time.

SR: And before you’d even discovered her, and considering your literary background, did you gravitate towards Ginsberg and The Beats?

NH: You know, I actually really rejected The Beats a whole lot—partially because I was very intensely straight edge growing up and the Beats were all about drinking and doing drugs. I mean, that lifestyle can be great and really productive. But I was too intense. I was really not interested in The Beats. I think I focused a lot more on the confessional poets who came after them in the sixties and seventies. I was reading a lot of Stevie Smith and Philip Larkin and a lot of people who were talking about, (raises voice dramatically) ‘I’m very sad and this is why!’ (Laughs).

I tried to go back and read some of the Beat poets, and I can sort of appreciate some of what Ginsberg’s doing, and I can appreciate someone like Ferlingheti. But if I try to read Bukowski, I get so mad. I’m like, ‘No! You’re just an alcoholic abuser. This isn’t even fun. You’re just a jerk. Sorry, dude.’

SR: You self-published your chapbook Clatter back in 2012, which was picked up by Button Poetry the following year. And Our Numbered Days hit the Amazon best-seller list. The Future is slated for release in April of 2018. What can you tell us about that collection? I read that you wrote it on the road?

NH: Yeah. And with Our Numbered Days…what it really was is just a collection of my favourite poems that I’d written over the previous two years. Since it became clear to me that I was going to be a professional artist, I’ve tried to write a poem every day. Most of them are bad, because I’m not the kind of person who just produces brilliant work on the first draft. But with Our Numbered Days, when it became clear that it was time to put out a book, I just went through all of my poems and picked out my favourite ones. And this next book, The Future, is pretty much the same thing. I just write every day. And actually, I wrote a lot of it when I was on the road, yeah. I mean, because for the past few years or so, I’ve been doing a hundred shows or more per year. So I spend a lot of my time on the road. Obviously people play more shows than that, but I think for a poet, it’s pretty far up there. There are definitely poets who have done more shows than me a year, but a hundred is kind of this mark that makes people think, ‘You tour a lot!’ (laughs). So yeah, I wrote a lot of the book on planes and in airports and at rest stops on freeways and stuff like that. But I think I produced a lot of really good work. I mean, it’s got a story in it that I won’t spoil; but, I think it’s just my favourite poems that I wrote over the course of two years. And I think it’s good, man. I know I’m supposed to be humble about my own work, but I worked really hard on it and I think it’s a really good book.

SR: You’ve also coached slam teams, co-founded the Thistle literary magazine and run workshops. How are you currently dividing your time, for the most part?

NH: Oh, it’s a balance. But I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road—certainly over the last couple of years—and I’m trying to balance that more.  I mean, last year I did like 103 shows and I was like, ‘Next year I’m going to do less. I’m going to cut this out.’ And then this year, I’ve done 108 shows, you know? (Laughs). So my planning is for naught. But when I’m not on the road, I’m mostly just hanging out at my condo in Saint Paul Minnesota that I own with my fiancé, Annie, and our little bunny rabbit, Beatrice.

SR: Oh, you have a bunny?

NH: Yeah, she’s asleep right now, but she hangs out in the living room. She’s taking a nap under the coffee table right now. She’s my favourite and I love her so much.

SR: You’ll be down here next month and I heard you’re excited about meeting wombats, in particular. What can your fans expect from these shows?

NH: (Laughs). Yeah, I’m so excited. I think they can definitely expect some intense emotion, you know? But also—and I think this surprises a lot of people—they can expect me to be pretty funny. I think I’ve worked really hard on my storytelling and comedy ability. I think that, first and foremost, my job is to be an entertainer. People pay a lot of money to show up and be distracted for a while, you know? The world is really terrifying right now. My country’s to blame for a lot of that. I think people just want to forget about their lives for half a second. And what I try to do is just be entertaining and engrossing and let people just exist in the show for a while. I mean, they can definitely expect some sadness, and some comedy, and I think they can expect a genuine connection.