Digital Culture

Button Poetry: Speaking the Unspoken

by Rachel C-Potter

In a 2013 Button Poetry slam event held in Madison, Wisconsin, Neil Hilborn performed the poem that after going viral catapulted him to fame, landing him a contract as a professional poet within a year. However, the path to fame was not all rosy: the poem, ‘OCD’, outlines Hilborn’s experience with the mental health condition, detailing the obsessions and compulsions that dictated his day-to-day life, eventually taking their toll on a previous relationship.

According to the DSM-V, OCD is characterised by “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images” which cause elevated levels of anxiety, often only relieved through ritualistic behaviour, which to an outsider can seem irrational and absurd. These actions, which Hilborn refers to as “tics”, come to life in the performance: we watch him turn the lights “off and on and off and on,” and vent the exasperation he feels when it takes “forever to walk home because there are lots of cracks in [the] sidewalk”. We see his OCD seeping into the everyday, and witness the disintegration of his relationship “because of unchangeable parts of [himself]”.

The power of Hilborn’s poetry is that, when performed, we are invited into the experience of having OCD. In an interview with The Independent Hilborn declares that his aim was “to show [his] experience with OCD through the lens of how it complicates relationships”. While his words capture the frustration these intrusive thoughts can create, the accompanying performance provides a visual and embodied insight into his day-to-day life – one which, through the platform of social media, caught the attention of a larger audience, triggering the swathe of shares that made Hilborn the most watched poet on YouTube, with ‘OCD’ racking up over 14m views.

It is the performance that makes spoken poetry so powerful, compelling viewers to watch ‘OCD’ again and again. By inviting us into the experience, we are shown that OCD and its destructive potential is very real, and so much more than being meticulous with one’s desk arrangement or having a tidy room. In fact, Hilborn points out in his TED Talk how the comment section of his YouTube video visibly reflected a change in the way people talk about OCD, consciously “self-editing” and “policing” their language so OCD no longer stood as a synonym for fastidiousness.

By speaking what was previously unspoken, Hilborn shows how poetry can be a vehicle for change. The online response to ‘OCD’ demonstrates how people, when given a platform and opportunity, can come forward about their mental health, breaking the silence that previously isolated them and their experiences. Mental health as a theme in poetry is not new, but in a world where psychological disorders are prevalent, and becoming more widespread, placing conversations like this in the spotlight is more imperative than ever. Hilborn’s poem took the disorder that had debilitated him for years and, with the help of the Internet, used it to open a wider conversation, creating a space for those suffering, showing them they are not alone.

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