Open Mic

We have gone over the etiquette. The students know
to clap the reader up to the stage and they know
to speak clearly and project. But today, there isn’t
a microphone or stage. We are in a library.
It is lunchtime. I am a visiting writer at an arts school
in North Carolina, and this is what they do here on Wednesdays.
There’s always a poem about why they like to write poetry.
A poem about anxiety and what the meds do. Or don’t.
There is a short story (that isn’t so short) about Greek mythology.
A flash nonfiction piece about generations of auto mechanics.
You can tell who the crowd favorites are. A boy from our workshop
gets up and reads a piece about why his brown body
is not an apology. It is brilliant. He spent time revising last night,
and it shows. I look at the list. We have twenty minutes
with four names left. A girl with curly red hair dyed fuchsia
for emphasis comes up and says she is a new freshman. This is her first
open mic, but she’s not really a poet. Then she reads a poem
about her brother’s best friend molesting her. How she
used to feel like a confused dog; a body that didn’t live
in her body. But now he is the gum under her shoe.
A concrete image, meant to convey that she is
doing better now. I circle her name, make eye contact
with her teacher. The next girl is sure she is a poet.
Writes about her rape at 13 and how her mother said
this won’t be this last time, about how many hours
she spends afraid of the next boy, or man, or step-father.
So her mother took her to a therapist who diagnosed her
with PTSD, and then the final line, My mother says
that’s just for soldiers. I am gutted.
And proud. And guilty, because I wonder
if she knows it’s the kind of ending poets strive for–
a line that will never leave you. As we clap I see
she doesn’t know. She’s not even in this library.
She’s still waiting in that therapist’s office
for something we can’t give her. I want to tell her
poetry won’t erase pain but it will give back
something worthy of it, eventually. Something brighter
than what the trauma says. But for now all I can do
is make eye contact with the audience, compose my face.
Say the last student’s name.

Natalie E. Illum is a poet, disability activist and singer living in Washington D.C. She is a 2017 Jenny McKean Moore Poetry Fellow, as well as a non-fiction editor for the Deaf Poets Society Literary Journal. She is a founded board member of mothertongue, a women’s open mic that lasted 15 years. She competed on the National Poetry Slam circuit and is the 2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion. Her work has appeared in various publications, and on NPR’s Snap Judgement. Natalie has an MFA from American University and teaches workshops across the country. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @poetryrox.