Natalie Illum is a poet, disability activist, and singer living in Washington, DC. She is a 2017 Jenna McKean Moore Poetry Fellow, recipient of a 2017 Artists Grant from the DC Arts Commission, and nonfiction editor for The Deaf Poets Society literary journal. She was a founding board member of mothertongue, a women’s open mic that lasted fifteen years. She used to compete on the National Poetry Slam circuit and was the 2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion. Her work has appeared in various publications and on NPR’s Snap Judgment. Natalie has an MFA in creative writing from American University and teaches workshops across the country. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @poetryrox, on her website natalieillum.net, and as one half of All Her Muses, her music project. Natalie also enjoys Joni Mitchell, whisky, and giraffes.
Q: Thank you for coming to the launch earlier this month. Before we get into your work, can I ask if there was one reading that struck you in particular?
I really liked Tracy’s piece and the form of the work she was reading. Several of the readers had a theme of clothing that felt really vibrant and necessary to me. And in some way I think we all touched on family as a theme.
Q: You have a lot of experience reading in front of others. How do—if they do—audience and setting change the poems for you as you read them? Did anything like that happen in Columbia?
I definitely tailor my sets based on my audience, especially if I know it is a more family-friendly event. Because I knew the poem you were publishing, I tried to base my selection on that tone. I also really wanted to try out the shark series of poems that I’m currently working on. So when I have readings of late, I bring those to see how the audience receives them. I got a lot of positive feedback from the audience in Columbia, both on the poem in the journal and a particular poem called “Predatory Logic.” So I’m very happy about that—when poems stick with people, especially in a larger featured reading.
Q: You weren’t the only American MFA grad reading at the launch. Has that happened before? Have you stayed close with classmates from your writing program?
This was actually the first time in a long time that I have read alongside my MFA classmates. We do keep up though Facebook posts, though that certainly doesn’t replace an actual conversation or in-person gathering. I only recently started submitting to journals again after about a five-year hiatus, so the odds were very low prior to this reading. I have certainly attended classmates’ readings over the years. I have stayed very close to Sandra Beasley, who was also in the program, but graduated after me.
Q: I think my favorite image from “Reset” might be the stopwatches as wishbones, because for me it evokes both destruction and hope. In writing this poem, did you experiment with any craft techniques that were new for you?
“Reset” started as a free verse poem with short-line stanza breaks, so I definitely experimented with the line length and line breaks in a way that I hadn’t before. I was also really interested in the use of time. So I repeat the numbers 525 and 235 in different ways. Both numbers have autobiographical significance to me that I hadn’t tried to utilize or highlight before writing this poem.
Q: You said that you hope “Reset” will be part of a larger collection. Can you share more about that project?
I had a draft of a full-length collection in 2012 that I entered into one contest. I wasn’t ready. Prior to that I was very focused on slam poetry and spoken-word performance. The manuscript I have now, of which includes “Reset,” is just a stronger, more nuanced collection. It combines the themes of disability, illness, family, and dysfunctional love. I’m hoping that a publisher will pick it up. The poems from “My fear of sharks is just a metaphor” will likely be a shorter project—I’m aiming for a chapbook.
Q: What’s your favorite Joni Mitchell song to sing?
Joni Mitchell means so many things to me. Even though I am in a band called “All Her Muses,” and even though we started as a cover band, the rule was that we would never cover Joni Mitchell. Or Tori Amos. Because they both should remain uncovered in my opinion (the only cover of Joni Mitchell I will allow is Tori Amos’s version of “A Case of You,” which is brilliantly done). What I often do with Joni Mitchell is quote her songs as though they are poems, because they are. I have so many favorite lines. She is how I first experienced poetry: her lyrics and a dictionary. I needed one to try and figure out what she was saying, though it would take me years. I was about 8 years old at the time. One of my favorite songs is “For Love or Money.” The language is so dense. It begins, “The firmament of Tinseltown is hung with tungsten stars. Lots of 40 watt successes, and he says where’s my own shining hour.”
I’ve also loved “California” for as long as I can remember loving Joni Mitchell. The song is at its essence a plea, “Will you take me as I am? Will you, will you take me as I am?”
Oddly, now that I am considering these questions, perhaps I want the moments that occur in “Reset” to be just that, taken as they are.