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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Slam poet Neil Hilborn discusses his work

People from all over the mid-Atlantic region came together in the name of poetry June 21. Youth poetry teams from Philadelphia; Camden, N.J.; Baltimore; Richmond, Va. and Hampton, Va. met in Philadelphia to compete in a poetry scrimmage. These talented young poets are preparing themselves for the international youth poetry slam Brave New Voices, which will take place in Philadelphia starting July 16.

The slam consisted of three rounds. In that time, each team performed three poems, one of which had to be a group poem. The teams all performed their pieces and shared parts of themselves on the stage while telling their stories. The topics varied widely, from the experience of growing up with immigrant parents and racism in college to autism and female circumcision. The scrimmage ended with Team Philly winning, but each team spoke beautifully. Their words were compelling and made audiences excited for what is to come, when the larger competition takes place later this month.

A College National Poetry Slam champion, Neil Hilborn, performed at Drexel during the spring term and captivated his audience with his poignant poetry and warm rapport. Author of the popular “OCD” poem, Hilborn’s work has promoted slam poetry to wider audiences while embracing heavy topics like suicide and mental illness. His work, like that of the many young poets who performed earlier this June, inspires audiences to embrace their inner demons and find resolution and healing through poetry.

Eager to spread his message, Hilborn kindly agreed to answer some questions. Ranging from writing tips to music suggestions, he gave unique and fervent responses, proving that he is not only a captivating poet but a captivating person as well.

The Triangle: At what point did poetry become more than a hobby?

Neil Hilborn: I started competing in poetry slams in 2009, and I took it as seriously as I would if it were my job, but there was definitely no money in it. I won $20 at a slam once, and I was ecstatic. In 2012 I went on my first tour with The Good News Poetry Tour, and we made a decent enough living, but only because we left home for a month and stayed in the region we were touring. We did the same thing in early 2013, this time touring the Northeast — and I also coached slam poetry teams and ran workshops, but still, I kept my day job. It wasn’t until “OCD” went viral in August of last year that I was contacted by what is now my booking agency, when I began touring in earnest. The whole thing is still super surreal. I’m still a pretty big rookie, and I can’t believe that poetry is my job.

TT: What/who has had the greatest impact on your style as a poet?

NH: Oh god. Big question. A couple of my biggest influences in terms of my writing are Paul Guest and Sherman Alexie — Paul Guest because he employs long, contrived sentences that barely mask his extreme emotions, and Sherman Alexie because of the effortless way he mixes humor into his work. Poets who have influenced both my writing and performance are Patricia Smith and Michael Mlekoday. Patricia Smith is one of the most successful slam poets and page poets I can think of, and her work is always impeccable, precise and heart-rending. Michael Mlekoday is a teacher of mine, and he, more than anyone else, taught me how to construct an image and how to speak precisely.

TT: Who are some of your favorite poets/authors?

NH: The poets I mentioned above, as well as Nick Flynn, Sharon Olds, Carrie Fountain, Nick Lantz, Matt Rasmussen, Jason Shinder, Franny Choi and Hieu Minh Nguyen.

TT: When did you first begin to turn to poetry as an outlet?

NH: I first started seriously writing when I was 14. I had always written poems, but only occasionally and never for catharsis or therapy. Pretty much every poem I wrote when I was a teenager was terrible, but everyone is bad at art when they first start out.

TT: What types of music do you most listen to/enjoy — favorite band/bands?

NH: I used to be a punk kid, but now I am an awful hipster, so I’m going to give you a few bands in a few different genres. Cool? Cool. Punk/hardcore: The Gaslight Anthem, Crime in Stereo, Against Me!, Modern Life Is War, The Bouncing Souls, The Menzingers, Streetlight Manifesto; country/folk/bluegrass: Lucero, Possessed by Paul James, Crooked Still, Robert Leather, Trampled by Turtles and some radio country, but don’t tell anyone; Motown: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Carr, The Four Tops, Diana effing Ross and the effing Supremes; rock/indie stuff/other stuff: Bruce Springsteen, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats (who also counts as a favorite author because his books are rad), The Horrible Crowes and Jason Anderson. Woof.

TT: Are you interested/involved in any forms of art other than poetry?

NH: I am interested in music, theater and graphic novels, though I have absolutely no skill in any of those genres. I am teaching myself the harmonica. Does that count?

TT: What are some ways in which you feel you’ve grown as a writer?

NH: Oh god, so many ways. … I will just say here how I am trying to grow myself now. I am trying to stay current on what is happening in poetry right now, submit my work to more journals and publications, and push myself to write in more than just my style, which I like to think of as snarky with something to say.

TT: What is your best advice for improving as a writer?

NH: Edit. Never stop editing. Edit until your keyboard breaks. Find a writing community that you love and trust and make them look at a poem 20 times. Along with that, let go of your ego; realize that the people editing your work aren’t trying to put you down or say you aren’t a good writer, they are saying that this particular line right in front of them isn’t doing all the work it could be. You’re never going to be perfect, and you certainly aren’t going to be perfect all the time, so allow yourself to write some crappy poems. Even if you come up with a line that is the corniest line in all the land, let yourself write it because it might lead you to the best line in the poem.

TT: How do you see yourself/hope to see yourself progress as an artist?

NH: I would love to spend more time touring professionally, and long-term I would love to be a professor and also an editor at a poetry press. I also have a goal to be the hands-down funniest poet alive, so tell Jeffrey McDaniel and Tony Hoagland I am coming for them.