Live | Neil Hilborn

Sophie McKeand was in Wrexham to see Texan poet Neil Hilborn, who became a poetry megastar in 2013 when his performance of “OCD” had over 13 million views on YouTube.

It’s Monday evening and there’s a queue snaking out from the entrance of UnDegUn around the corner and down the street. Maybe this is a regular occurrence in larger cities across the UK but this is a real coup for the town of Wrexham. Especially as it’s a poetry night. 150 capacity poetry event sold out on a Monday night. It kind of needs repeating because it makes my heart swell. To offer some perspective, the only time I’ve witnessed this kind of crowd for poetry before was for Kate Tempest reading her book The Bricks That Built The Houses at Home in Manchester.

The reason for this mass interest is the arrival of Poetry King Of The Internet Neil Hilborn, whose poems have racked up millions of YouTube views since his poem OCD went viral back in 2013. That one piece alone has over 13million plays. Of course I needed to see this poet who has hit upon the holy grail of populist poetry – I wanted to witness for myself just what it is he does live.

I’ve seen his performances on Button Poetry channel (whose poets regularly get tens of thousands of viewers) and was moved. In fact I properly cried. Poetry is emotive and subjective – sometimes it punches you right in the guts and forces a massive fist sized lump in the back of your throat and sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because before Neil arrived on stage to rapturous applause he was competently supported by four of Wrexham’s Voicebox crew, in order: the fabulously lyrical Tasha Borton; hilarious and ridiculous in all the right ways The Awkward Poet (Pete Rogers); Stephanie Finegan’s glorious and heartfelt musing; and finished with undefeated battle-rap rising-star Kinell. The fact that this eclectic and stunning poetry is forming the bedrock of Wrexham’s young poetry scene is something to celebrate and to see them all step up their game to support Neil Hilborn is sublime.

Hilborn’s poetry live is exactly what you see online. He is self-effacing, supportive of other poets, grateful for the opportunity to tour the UK, and generally a bloody lovely person to meet. He opens with OCD which, you have to hand it to him is a brave move, a less confident poet might have saved that till the end, but he delivers it with all the emotional impact of someone who’s just written it. The audience is floored. He follows this with a toe-curlingly cute love poem ‘If you were a breakfast cereal you’d be reason-to-wake-up-os’, before hurling us back into relationship woes with a poem from his new collection that holds the beautiful line: There is a place where people love you before and after they know who you are. 

A large portion of Hilborn’s poetry is about relationships, which is possibly more than some might want to handle to be honest, but then he is 26 and his work is at its most disarmingly raw and visceral when writing about his life, which has been until recently incredibly relationship focussed. It also explains why he has so many YouTube hits, and why an audience of 150 people (mostly under the age of 30) queued for an hour to get a good seat at his gig – he writes poetry about life events people can relate to because they’re also living it.

The stronger poems from his cracking current collection Our Numbered Days are, Joey – a poem detailing the parallels (and chasms) between the mental health issues of Hilborn and his friend Joey: the former with a family support system able to recognise the issues early and seek professional help, and the latter someone with none of these things. It is heartwrenching and honest and I dare you not to sit there hiding your tear-filled eyes from your friends who are probably doing the same, unless you are all dead inside.

My favourite though is Unsolicited Advice to Minnesota Children, which, although Hilborn professes not to get too political in his poems because ‘other people write it better’, shows that you can be hilarious and engaged and write poems that matter and make people think. Any environmental focussed poem that begins with ‘Listen here, you little shits. You are growing up in one of the most beautiful places on earth.’ is good in my book, although apparently in Florida they do not get this poem. At all. Because they Do Not Believe In Climate Change. Which is why it’s even more important Hilborn has written it.

This event was brought to Wrexham by two brothers who run King St Coffee, and Bank St Coffee, and who did it because they genuinely give a shit about the town they live in and want to create great happenings here (while serving wonderful coffee and cake). It’s a real feat that they managed to coax Hilborn here for his first ever UK gig as he embarks on a mostly sold out tour of the UK that includes a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Hilborn’s work is widely loved because it reaches so many people on a very personal and intuitive level. His language is both a vehicle for exploring our humanity, and a battering ram for smashing through societal indifference to issues affecting more people that we perhaps care to acknowledge, and in doing so he connects us to our archetypal heart and soul. He showcases an artform that has been, until recently, neglected by many young people, and proves that poetry is relevant and important to everybody’s lives. By the time this review goes live the rest of Hilborn’s UK gigs will probably have sold out, but if you can get your hands on a ticket I’d highly recommend you go and see what all the fuss is about – you won’t be disappointed.

You can hear Sophie McKeand talk to Neil Hilborn in an exclusive OffScript podcast.

Sophie McKeand is the current Young People’s Laureate Wales. Her book Rebel Sun is out with Parthian books.

Photos courtesy of Brent Jones.