Bearded Guy is Funny and then Sad

I’m sure if I write that an evening of poetry turned into an unexpected transformative experience you would think me crazy or a liar. At the risk of inducing eye rolls I will stand by that statement. 
As a teenager I discovered a book of poems belonging to my mother called The Mersey Sound – an anthology of works by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten published in 1967 that resonated with me so strongly I immediately placed it in my own bookcase (sorry mum) and have travelled with it ever since. My favourite, Henri’s poem Tonight at Noon, was pinned to my wall for years, inspiring me to continue to write my own poems and helping me purge many toxic emotions. I didn’t think it was possible to find a more modern equivalent.
Well worn, well loved

In the UK I was introduced to John Cooper Clarke. I still think this man is a creative genius, and perhaps a genie since I’m not entirely sure how he’s managed to stay alive with his hedonistic history. He elevated poetry into a rockstar realm far removed from the classic sonnets studied in school. He spoke of grit, mixing works realism with elements of fantasy with such wit and pace. He doesn’t just look like a Ramone, he rattles on at the speed of one of their songs as well.

He made me feel there was a place for my own work somewhere in the universe which in turn validated all the emotions tagged onto each stanza. With such raw, almost visceral, and famous works as Beasley Street, Evidently Chickentown and I was a Teenage Werewolf in his verbal arsenal, it was I Wanna Be Yours that remained one of my firm favourites. He is still in a class of his own and for the last few years I felt I’d never find another who could resonate as simply, madly and personally.

John Cooper Clarke
Enter Neil Hilborn. This Grand Slam winning, Button Poetry frequenting juggernaut monopolised small screens everywhere in 2013 with his poem “OCD which spoke honestly, humorously and with gut wrenching passion about falling in love with someone while having this condition. This has now had millions of views on YouTube. What resonated with many, I think, was he wasn’t performing as much as purging. An actual OCD sufferer, as well as being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, he taps into every individual’s vulnerability. He delves into a taboo topic, making it accessible as a conversation for people afflicted and those who care about them.
Since he is American, I thought my only experience of his work would be through videos on the internet and perhaps buying a book here and there. I could barely contain myself learning a while back that he would in fact be performing in the UK. I am proud to say that last week, along with a couple of friends, we were at his first ever London show, and what a show.

Intimate venue
Hilborn was supported by a young poet named Antosh Wojcik, who warmed up the crowd with his endearing charm and shy but still somehow mildly confident stage presence. He engaged the audience with chat and his works, ending with a particularly powerful piece about his sister within which the line “your outstretched hand mistaken for a wave goodbye” resonated deeply.
The sold out crowd at Bush Hall erupted as Hilborn casually took to the stage. The lights barely dimmed and neither had the music filling any aural space before he ascended the stairs. A wonderfully informal start.
His manner was warm, funny and honest as he joked with the crowd before launching into his first hilarious work, “Me, But Happy”. His anecdotes and observations of visiting Wrexham and Oxford before making it to London had us all shrieking with laughter. Bringing a more serious tone to the show he progressed into more emotional works – “Lake” and “Clatter” – building the intensity in the room. Performing “OCD” mid-show he just mentioned the first line and the entire hall erupted. I must admit that while I’ve seen the video probably hundreds of times, he still managed to bring a tear to my eye. As we applauded he mentioned his surprise at the video becoming viral since before it was known as “OCD”, he initially titled it ‘Bearded guy is funny and then sad’.

Hilborn’s first book

Bringing more funny works into the set including “Psalm 12 in which the Author Possibly Alienates his Audience” where he amusingly and energetically described his disdain for cats followed by a collection of shorts titled “Rejected Ideas for Tinder Profiles” that had me weeping for side splitting reasons.

Reading a new work “The Door” inspired by other works that had moved him, he became so passionate and involved he had to take a step back from the microphone to the corner of the stage and compose himself before continuing with the set, encouraged and visibly heartened by warm applause filling the room. He confessed that after performing that work over 20 times in the UK that was the first time he’d had an emotional reaction to it. The absolute intensity of the atmosphere was suddenly apparent to me. It is something I am struggling to explain to myself and I have never experienced before.
Performing another famous work “Joey”, instantly recognised by many, I found myself in tears yet again, this time complete with lip quivering. The atmosphere in the 400 strong crowd was so charged and raw it was like being in a powder keg of emotion and Hilborn was holding a box of matches, yet without any sense of danger or threat.

Neil Hilborn
More funny works followed before he performed his final piece, introducing it by opening up about learning to forgive himself, and love himself, encouraging us all to do the same. One of my favourite works, “The Future, affected me in a way I did not expect.  While the poem starts off describing his Bipolar problems in a funny and self-deprecating way they take an intense turn, building up to end on the line “I saw the future, and in it I was alive” by which point I was almost sobbing. I was not alone in this outburst.
Feeling emotionally spent but equally uplifted my friends and I had a relatively muted journey home across town. The surprising intensity and sense that this was a significant moment in my life is taking some time to process and sink in. Transformative is still the best word I can think of to describe what happened. I will never forget it. I do honestly feel I’ve found something incredibly special and personal in his words and performance that has touched my soul in way I never knew possible – making me feel all the feelings and being glad of it. I hope he comes back to our island again soon.
Hilborn’s first book Our Numbered Days is available now, along with a second work published this year Clatter available on Kindle.