On Sunday evening, The Haunt welcomed a trio of poets from America and Canada as part of Neil Hilborn’s UK tour, treating guests to an uplifting night of rhyme and rhythm based around mental health. Their talents as artists and performers created a powerful push against the stigmas of depression and anxiety, leaving the audience refreshed and inspired.
Not dissimilar to a concert or stand-up comedy performance, the event was highly anticipated and deservedly so – Neil Hilborn was joined by Sabrina ‘Sad Girl’ Benaim and Rudy Francisco, two equally popular poets. The three were natural performers, with their flawless delivery of spoken word being both comical and personal.
Rudy kicked off the night and amplified the crowd’s excitement by engaging directly with his audience and inviting cheering, an atmosphere much like a pantomime. Introducing himself as a thirty-six year old with a young child, Rudy’s set began with charisma and humour, with his rehearsed timings only sharpening his incredibly witty poems about his experiences in falls and flights in love. Giving a successful combination of stand-up comedy and poetry, Rudy had the crowd cheering throughout and ready for more.
Turning to slightly more painful experiences, Rudy recounted his rocky relationship growing up with his father. Wanting to regain their bond, Rudy’s poems draw upon the ‘half full/half empty’ philosophy and preach that it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty, because either way there is water in the cup.
The bulk of his set centred around the pressures of conforming to traditional masculinity and the particular hardships that come with growing up in an aggressive American state. Rudy’s poems painted a picture of a troubled young man being celebrated for speaking out, not through the art of poetry, but through his fists. With his violent past troubling him, Rudy finally found performing poetry as a non-destructive way to voice his feelings. His warm poems not only illustrate his ability to embrace his emotions, against a society that says doing so is emasculate, but also encourages other men to release their feelings cathartically.
After a short interval, Canadian Sabrina Benaim strolled onto stage with a glass of cider in one hand and a copy of her latest book in the other. Greeted with loud cheers and feverish clapping, Sabrina stepped to the mic with bubbly enthusiasm and ease. Her friendly down-to-earth demeanour connected her with the audience, liberating her personal poetry as though she were an old friend. Talking about her toughest experiences, she joked that her set was more like a therapy session than a poetry performance.
Having been plagued with crippling depression and anxiety, or, as Sabrina calls it, “the awkward cousin that depression feels compelled to bring to the party”, Sabrina’s poems portray the lingering loneliness of being single. Not only do her words universally resonate with the audience, but in opening up about her darkest days, she also preaches true self-care. Sabrina emphasised that self-care is not painting your nails and taking a bubble bath, but is paying your bills on time and going outside even when there’s a thunderstorm looming over you. Her bouncy attitude and playful power-posing in between poems made her performance a light-hearted therapy session, evoking much needed laughter in the face of mental illness.
The much-anticipated Neil Hilborn followed Sabrina, slightly tipsy and rather sweaty, having just requested the air-con be turned on. With cool air breathing down, Neil heated up the remainder of the show with his dark humour and unfiltered criticisms on British culture. If insulting Greggs and Brighton beach wasn’t enough, the famous poet then performed a piece slanting cats as bloodthirsty spawns of Satan. This was received with a chorus of booing and led to a light-heartedly tense debate between Neil and one member of the cat-loving audience. In order to win back the crowd, Neil turned to his more personal poems, focusing on his bipolar disorder and OCD. Closing the set with his most famous poem, ‘The Future,’ his staged frustration, compulsive vocal repetitions, flustered movements and rapid breathing gave a very visceral strength to the poem, illustrating the struggles of managing such a disorder.
Neil’s stage presence was as captivating as his lyrics and delivery, leaving an impactful void of silence and smoke-machine mist in the air by suddenly walking away at the end of each poem. The crowd lapped him up, besotted with his persona just as much as his art. Using his popularity and influence to encourage self-help, Neil’s most resounding message was that love will not save you, only you will save you.
The night came to an end all-too-soon as fans anxiously crowded around the merchandise stand to have their books signed. Sabrina and Rudy greeted, hugged and took selfies with everyone, keeping the crowd’s spirits high while the Haunt’s security team tried to usher everyone out.
With Neil Hilborn’s UK tour continuing across the country until 7th November, it isn’t too late to experience such rewarding emotional energy within live poetry.
Image Credit: Alice Gledhill