Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Natalie E. Illum
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We understand that you’ve done quite a bit of spoken work in addition to written work. Are there particular techniques that have carried over for you from printed to spoken poetry and vice versa?
Natalie E. Illum: I didn’t start performing as a spokenword artist until I was almost done with my MFA, so started as a “poet.” I have always believed that the best spokenword poems are also ones that are strong on the page in terms of imagery and metaphor. I don’t perform a draft; I need the lines to guide me. Ultimately, I want my performance poems to be part of a printed collection – they too have to “fit in.” The difference, for me, is that reader is not alone in their experience, as they are when reading poems privately. The performer is right there influencing the poem in terms of volume, inflection and nuance. The performer is essentially saying listen to me. This is what I’m hoping you’ll leave this venue with. Who knows what the reader takes away from your work once it’s in book form! Since I use enjambment and line breaks a lot in my written work, I try to perform those moments so the audience can hear those double meanings. When I’m writing a poem, I’m always thinking in terms of audience. I’ll read it out loud to see how the sound is working, even if I don’t intend to perform it. Is there too much slant rhyme in the piece? Not enough? Reading it aloud also helps me decide if I need to cut a metaphor, or move an image, because I don’t want the reader or audience member to be inundated or bored if there isn’t a Balance.
RR: “Open Mic” is grounded in a strong, narrative voice. How did you develop the voice in the poem? Do your poems often stem from a specific experience or something else?
NI: My poems are concrete because the experiences they come from are strong – they move me so much that I have to put them in a poem. Poetry is the container I trust the most to hold them; it’s the genre I believe survives the most. “Open Mic” happened because this open mic was happening to (and because of) me. I drafted it immediately after working with those students – and the latter half of the poem is what I wish I could have said in the moment. I really admire landscape poetry or poetry sequences about history or events that aren’t rooting in the “I” or “We.” It’s a continuous goal of mine to write toward the non-autobiographic, but that’s not my strength.
RR: In your bio, you mention you are a disability activist and also a part of a women’s open mic, mothertongue. Can you tell us what it means to you to give voice and representation to women and individuals with disabilities?
NI: The mothertongue open mic series existed in Washington, DC at the Black Cat from 1998-2013 – I was involved in several roles during that time. The unique thing was the collective model – every show (usually monthly) we donated a portion of the sliding scale door fee directly to a local women’s organization. That beneficiary was also invited to speak and promote their mission. And everyone on the open mic either identified as a woman or was non-binary. It was direct action/activism using creativity and poetry as the vehicle. At the time, a safe space to read or perform was rare. At the time, seeing disabled bodies on stages was rare. During the years that I was most active in mothertongue, poetry was a way of putting my disabled body in public spaces. I learned how to do that – how to perform confidently, how to host because of mothertongue. Performing my experiences made me feel like I was part of a movement to change how people (at least audience members) saw people with disabilities. Literally. Maybe next time a wheelchair user out in the real world did not just register to an abled-bodied person as “wheelchair.” That person has a life and their own stories to tell. I am not just the crutches that you most likely see first when we meet. Representation is such a big word – I can only speak of and write to my own experiences – but I have to believe that resonates beyond the actual poems. The poems are activism by virtue of the fact that I represent (in part) voices that are usually not given voice – the disabled; the queer; the mentally ill. These are all aspects of my identity, which influences every poem.
RR: How has your work as an activist influenced your writing?
NI: [You can pull text from the answer above to address this question of you want. I think they’re linked.] The personal is political. As soon as I learned of that phrase through Carol Hanisch’s essay, I believed in it. Sometimes, I don’t want the poem to become a political act, but it’s hard to divorce the two because visibility, or the lack thereof, is political. My intimate experiences are most often made public, for the sake of art and activism. Even taking silence away from the dysfunctional family; or medicine, abuse or harm, it’s all part of that mission. Voicing these topics is valid and necessary to health and survival. If you don’t belief that then your just spilling secrets. You’re being taboo, and that’s not what poetry is for. We understand that you are a nonfiction editor for The Deaf Poets Society Literary Journal.
RR: Do you also write nonfiction? How do you approach the different genres as a writer and editor?
NI: I do write some non-fiction, in the form of personal essay. Writing a collection of those is a lofty goal of mine. Some ideas are too big for a poem, even a long form sequence poem. They want more space and room for dialogue, for research. Note how I’m not one of the poetry editors for DPS, that would be too close for me, but I do love diving into the non-fiction we receive. I love working with the contributors to edit their work. I enjoy helping a piece get stronger. It’s easier to see what’s missing and what needs to be elevated when you’re not writing it!
Natalie E. Illum’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.