Honesty, poetry, and mental health

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Honesty, poetry, and mental health

Spoken word artist Neil Hilborn performed 11 of his poems for a crowd of 150 people in Marty’s on  Friday, Sept. 7.

Spoken word artist Neil Hilborn performed 11 of his poems for a crowd of 150 people in Marty’s on Friday, Sept. 7.

Natalie Nelson (‘19) | Chips

Spoken word artist Neil Hilborn performed 11 of his poems for a crowd of 150 people in Marty’s on Friday, Sept. 7.

Natalie Nelson (‘19) | Chips

Natalie Nelson (‘19) | Chips

Spoken word artist Neil Hilborn performed 11 of his poems for a crowd of 150 people in Marty’s on Friday, Sept. 7.

Natalie Nelson, Staff Writer

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SAC Entertainment sponsored a performance by spoken word artist Neil Hilborn in Marty’s on Friday, Sept. 7. During this performance, Hilborn shared stories of his own struggles with mental health and how he copes with them through artistic expression.

Hilborn performed 11 poems during the performance. Most notably, he performed “OCD,” his poem that went viral in 2012 and has reached over 14 million views on YouTube. Hilborn ended the night with “The Future,” which he called his favorite poem.

“I never thought I was going to live that long,” Hilborn said before reading the final poem, “The Future.” “I had a certainty I wasn’t going to make it past 22 or 23 because OCD and bipolar disorder isn’t really a combination that tends to produce long-lived people. This is my poem for the future and I wrote it the first day that I realized I was maybe going to make it. It’s the reason I’m here.”

SAC Entertainment co-chairs Olivia Enquist (‘19) and Claire Hess (‘19) requested Hilborn to perform at Luther at the National Association for Campus Activities conference in St. Paul last year.

Enquist was interested in bringing Hilborn to campus in order to showcase a wider array of performing arts to the Luther community.

“[He] really stood out because we hadn’t seen anything like that at Luther before,” Enquist said. “The opportunity to see different types of acts was something that we were really passionate about when we were thinking about booking this year.”

Spoken word pieces are performed similarly to monologues in theater. For this reason, Enquist thought theater and English majors would be especially excited about the event, but all students would find something to connect to in the performance. Enquist believed this event would be an opportunity for a variety of students to hear poetry about relevant mental health struggles from a performer who is open and vulnerable about his experiences.

Hess was excited by the prospect of addressing mental health at the beginning of the school year.

“We thought it would be good to get students in that mindset while first-years are still getting to know people,” Hess said. “We can advertise some of the resources on campus. Hopefully, it can start a dialogue.”

Hilborn has been starting dialogues based on his poems for several years since he started touring. Hilborn started doing spoken word in 2009, at the age of 19. He has been doing it professionally since 2012, after “OCD” went viral and his advisor at Macalester College encouraged him to take an offer to tour with his poems. Although this is not the job he expected to have right after college, he loves being able to do it.

Natalie Nelson (‘19) | Chips
Neil Hilborn’s spoken word poem “OCD” went viral in 2012, and the popularity of this poem inspired him to begin touring.

“The shows are kind of the easy part for me at this point,” Hilborn said. “The hardest part has been travelling and figuring out how to stay sane and not super lonely when I’m not at home all the time. I love this job and I keep saying I’m going to quit when the shows dry up, but they just keep getting bigger, so I guess I’m gonna keep doing it.”

Hilborn said his favorite part of his performances is the banter in between the poems.

“I’ve been touring with the same set for a couple years and audiences could tell I was just going through the motions, so I wrote all this new banter and stories to go in between the poems, but I intentionally didn’t memorize it,” Hilborn said. “I’m forcing myself to improvise and to come up with new stuff and it’s a little scary, which forces me back into it.”

Hilborn said he never intended to be an advocate for mental health and was surprised when he found out his poems had such an impact on other people.

“I’m not a professional in any sense,” Hilborn said. “All I know is my own personal experience with mental illness and the things I’ve done to make it better.”

Hilborn’s poems began as an outlet for him to expel his emotions around mental health, but they have become a way for him to connect with his audience.

“My poems are about mental health because they’re important for me,” Hilborn said. “I feel like it’s part of my therapeutic process, getting up in front of a bunch of people and talking about it. I didn’t realize it was important to do that for other people.”

Hilborn wanted students to know that mental illness does not need to be scary.

“I think that one thing I try to do is to be very honest about all the things that I’m going through, but I also try to laugh about it,” Hilborn said. “I think the thing that’s been most helpful to me is if I can make a joke about whatever terrifying thing that’s been going on in my head. Suddenly it becomes less serious to me in a way where I’m able to get some perspective on it.”

Hilborn hopes that his audience members are able to find positive ways of coping with mental health the way he has found spoken word poetry.

“Hopefully you can learn to laugh at the darkness a little bit and that helps to drive it away.”

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