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 as a child, and then with bipolar in college, and has used poetry as an outlet. Now, he’s one of the mostwatched 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 thinks OCD is such a popular poem.
Q You read a poem publicly for the first time when you were 19.Do you remember how that felt? Were you nervous?
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. I knew she was going to come to the show, so the whole poem was pretty vague rhyming nonsense about skeletons and bicycles.
Q 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 OCDseven years ago, my main goal was to show my experience with OCDthrough 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.
Q How has poetry helped you to deal with mental illness? Is writing like a release for you?
Writing is 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 analyse them and turn them into something helpful and productive.
Q 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.
Q 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.
Q Why do you think poetry and art in general is such an important outlet for 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. The Independent