Acclaimed poet Neil Hilborn visits Buffalo

Emyle Watkins

Art Director

Buffalo, NY – Nestled in the belly of the First Ward, along old train tracks and among deteriorated buildings lies a brick beast, an unknown beauty. Inside, a diverse crowd, the bang of glasses against the bar and groups of people situated around chairs, just feet away from large windows built into exposed brick. Rows of lighter-stained wood chairs surround a living room scene, except with a microphone. And behind it stands a bearded bravery, a poetic promise: Neil Hilborn.

“I’m really excited to be here in South Canada,” Hilborn said as the crowd boiled with laughter.

Hilborn, midwest-situated but Houston-native, made the trip to Buffalo as part of an event hosted by the Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective on Thursday, April 9. Held in Lakeward Spirits event center within the Barrel Factory, the group of local talents invited one of modern slam’s most viral poets. Hilborn’s 2011 poem “OCD” quickly shot him from College National Poetry Slam champion to being prominently known off and online within the poetry world after his 2013 performance of the poem at Rustbelt rose to internet popularity on Reddit.

Following with short performances by local poets Megan Kemple, Eve Williams, and Nathanael William Stolte, Hilborn opened his performance with “OCD.”

“I open with it because, like, I found that it’s the reason mostly why people know my work,” Hilborn said.

Hilborn also added that beyond the fact he is known for “OCD” and that many people are expecting him to perform it, it also helps him to gauge his audience since he’s performed it so many times.

However, he never expected to have this poem take off like it did. At the time the performance that ultimately went viral was filmed, Hilborn says that he remarked to the executive director of Button Poetry, Sam Cook, “Whatever, this’ll be the last time I ever do this poem.” Hilborn was asked by Cook to perform “OCD” at Rustbelt so that Button Poetry would have a good video of his performance, even though at the moment, Hilborn was in the process of retiring the poem.

“OCD” now has over 12,866,632 views on YouTube alone.

Before Hilborn’s poem exploded on the web, he says he had intended to go to graduate school to become a professor of creative writing. Hilborn currently holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Macalester College, where he graduated with honors in 2011. While he had submitted applications to pursue an MFA prior to the success of “OCD,” he put his pursuit of a Master’s on hold to tour and write after it exploded.

“That was kinda what I always wanted to do since I was 16, and might be what I still do at some point in my life,” Hilborn said.

Hilborn’s set also included a mix of his other well-known poems, such as his recent “Me, But Happy,” and “Ballad of the Bruised Lung” from his latest book, Our Numbered Days. Hilborn also performed poems not widely published, and poems from his older chapbook, Clatter.

The night concluded with Hilborn’s “The Future,” which with comedic elements, a serious subject, and a hopeful tone left the crowd on a high note. After, Hilborn sold out his copies of Our Numbered Days while talking to and meeting fans of his work.

The night came together under the hard work of the Cringe-Worthy Poets Collective, whose aim is to “make poetry more accessible and approachable.” The collective also self-edits, prints, assembles, and publishes chapbooks by local poets on a submission basis. Cringe-Worthy is a new addition to a budding poetry scene in Buffalo and hopes to hold more events like this in the future.

Looking back on Hilborn’s second song of the set, “Me, But Happy” is undoubtably a love poem. However, for the crowd, sharing such an intimate space with a series of fantastic poets, the concluding line of the poem perhaps describes the mood between poets and listeners sitting side by side best.

“Sure, there are probably infinite dimensions, but I’m with you in this one, so why would I try to find them?”

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