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Natalie E. Illum: A Portrait In Poetry

Photo by Corwin Levi

I recently had the pleasure of talking to a very talented poet & essayist friend of mine about her life in the arts, & how she has managed to push past her disability to excel in her passion.

Natalie E. Illum is a poet, activist and storyteller living in Washington DC.  She is a founding board member of the Mother Tongue poetry series; a DC women’s open mic that lasted 15 years.  Her work has appeared in Word Warriors: 35 Women of the Spokenword Revolution and Full Moon on K Street, as well as in feminist studies and on NPR’s Snap Judgment. She has competed on the National Poetry Slam circuit since 2008, and was the 2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion. Natalie has also performed with many artists across the US, including Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, Buddy Wakefield and Andrea Gibson. Her writing centers around disability, identity and autobiography. She has an MFA in creative writing from American University, and teaches workshops in a variety of venues. She’s also my friend.

Photo by Ali Sims

Photo by Ali Sims

PCU: Please introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about your career in the arts, as well as what the arts mean to you as a person with a disability:

Natalie: “My name is Natalie E. Illum, and I have spastic cerebral palsy.  I’ve always been a writer, but started taking it seriously in college.  When I moved to DC in 1999 to pursue an MFA, I joined a women’s collective called Mother Tongue, and we produced a women’s a monthly open mic and periodic writing workshop series at the Black Cat from 1998-2013.  Being a part of that organization opened a lot of doors for me, and taught me how important performance can be, especially if you have an alternative body or experience.  I realized that people were going to make assumptions about me based on my disability, but through performance and poetry, I had the chance to change their minds, in real time (which is a different experience from having someone read your work in a book.)

In 2008, I started competing in poetry slams, and by 2013 I was DC’s Grand Slam Champion.  I think was the first person with a physical disability in the U.S. to hold that title.  I was very lucky to be able to tour some of the country to perform and teach at universities and venues.  I’ve been published sporadically in chapbooks and anthologies over the years, but it was really important to me to put my (dis/abled) body out there first.  I figure I can go back and write it all down when I’m too old to travel.  Ha!  As though writing a book and getting a publisher is easy!  I’m getting to that point.  But visibility through the arts is really important to me as a disabled person.”

 

PCU: You used to do a lot of poetry, but you’ve since moved on to essays & music.  Why the change?

Natalie: “Poetry is in my bones.  It’s one of the strongest muscles I have – possibly the only one that won’t atrophy.  I wanted to find something new. Plus, poetry slam can burn you out.  I got burnt out by the pace and the nature of the competition.  I started out as a singer, and spent most of my childhood singing in choirs.  I love music.  Joni Mitchell taught me how to be a writer, before I knew I was one.  I used to sit and listen to her on vinyl when I was a child.  I needed a dictionary to figure out what “nebulous” meant.  I loved singing, but I knew I didn’t have the talent to be a professional singer or pop star.  Also, when I was young, I was so uncomfortable in my body because of my CP, I never dreamed I would be on any stage.  Now things are different.  I know I’m talented and I’m (mostly) comfortable in my skin, so I wanted to go back to my roots.  Right now, I’m in a cover band called All Her Muses with an excellent DC musician named Grey Jacks.  I love it.  I’m building up my vocal muscles; which takes time, but the first time we did a show I was back on the horse again.  We’re working on an EP now, and I’m also experimenting with original songwriting.

Poetry is the shortest genre in writing.  Memoir or essay writing is a longer form, which is exciting to me.  Plus, I believe it has a broader reach, but my goals are still the same.”

 

PCU: Tell us about your creative process & what inspires you.

Natalie: “Music definitely inspires me, but I also take a lot of cues from movement.  I once self-published a chapbook called “On Writer’s Block and Acrobats,” which was entirely inspired by a performance troupe called LAVA, who are based out of Brooklyn.  There’s a difference between a “regular” able-bodied person and someone who is able to use their body for dance or other movement-based art forms.  LAVA actually integrated me into one of their shows in 2007 called “Tides.” Truly one of the best experiences of my life.  To move as though I was an acrobat…and briefly, with their support, I was.

My creative process is pretty driven by deadlines.  I usually have a line from a poem rattling around in my head and I start there, and build the rest of the work around it.  Like scaffolding or a puzzle.  I love rearranging lines of poetry until they “fit” so they are as visually and orally strong as they can be.  I’m also inspired by current events or issues.  When I saw the documentary “Amy,” I went home and immediately wrote a poem based on how she was portrayed, and how I fell down the escalator moments before seeing the film.  Somehow there was a marriage of sorts there.”

 

How to recognize a jazz singer

when she falls.

Afterwards, I was not sober either.   

My bedroom was dark.

My shoes unyielding. My foot slapping into

my right shin, tender.  Maybe it was my fault,

Amy, I told them I could still get down

to see your film.  Even without the elevator.

I could leave the wheelchair behind.

I couldn’t wait

to see how the producers

had compiled you into unseen

photographs. The highest quotes

they could clip together.  Years later

I saw how you were manhandled

like a rag doll, still tripping

solo.  Amy,

even a starving heart

full of alcohol

can still sing.

I was not sober.  But I was

lucky.  That escalator allowed

for downward dog instead

of downward spiral. Crutches

resting neatly next to ribs,

unscathed.

You beehive blues singer.  You

never wanted fame

to push you so far forward.

But let them see us, mid flight

and breaking the scale of things.

How we both pitched down

for the sake of a performance, even when

our legs wanted to be still.

I’m also super inspired by Sonya Renee Taylor’s organization “The Body is Not An Apology“, and Denise Jolly’s #BeBeautiful movement.

 

PCU: Have you faced any challenges specific to being a disabled person in the arts?  If so, what was your biggest challenge?

Natalie: “Accessibility into venues and places where I’m asked to perform.  I’m still capable of climbing stairs, though it’s dangerous and painful, yet venues think that’s fine.  It’s not.  I will no longer perform in spaces that are not ADA compliant.  As a result, I only perform 2-3 times a year now.  I just can’t justify it, even if it means a loss of income for me.

Arts spaces, all spaces, but arts spaces especially, should be open to all.  And so many arts venues are in non-compliant ADA spaces (usually due to their lack of budget).  No one should be denied creativity, either as an audience member or performer.  No one should have to decide if it’s worth attending a show if they can’t go to the bathroom or enter the space safely.  It used to be a chronic funding problem, but now it’s an excuse.  In the age of social media and crowdfunding, there’s no reason your non-profit or arts organization can’t afford a ramp or the rent in a barrier free space.  There are also more city and federal grants available these days specifically around making a space more disability complaint.   I’ve seen and heard of many arts organizations changing venue because of sexual harassment or homophobia or racism.  In most cases, if someone feels threatened or unsafe, that event will be moved quickly to a “safe space” venue.  There’s usually some kind of public outcry or explanation for the shift in location or the temporary hold on a event.  That doesn’t happen if your space doesn’t have a ramp or bathroom for a wheelchair.  It’s just “Sorry” or, “But I can help you” or “We’ll carry you” or “My venue is older than the ADA.  The managers don’t have to/can’t build an elevator.  Sorry”.  But not sorry, or activist enough to create the change.

Some of the stages I’ve performed on or seen are less than 2 feet from the floor.  Curb steps are even less than that.  Home Depot has so many ramps.  So does Amazon.  Or find a carpenter.  Use your networks and social media to open up your spaces to include disabled people.  If you build it, they will come.”

Photo by Ali Sims

Photo by Ali Sims

PCU: The artistic community can (at times) be somewhat divisive.  How were you initially received, and what has been the general reaction to your work?

Natalie: “I’ve been lucky, very lucky.  People usually find something they can connect with.  If they think I suck, I don’t hear about it.”

 

PCU: As March is National Disabilities Month, what would be your advice to those in the disability community who want to get into music or writing?

Natalie: “Do it.  We need more voices out there.  Lately, we’re seeing more actual coverage of disabled people’s lives.  More Blogs, more BuzzFeed and HuffPo, but that doesn’t mean your story is not as good, or less than anybody else’s.”

 

PCU: If people want to see/ hear more of your work, where can they find you?  Do you have fan pages, or a website of your own?

Natalie: “I have a website, but I don’t update it very often these days.  It does have links to videos and where you can buy my work, though.  I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but the best way to keep up with me is Facebook.

I quote Tori Amos a lot, but I also share and post a lot about disability issues.  Lately, I’ve been trying to use the #365dayswithdisability to create some more visibility, either of my projects or others I care about.”

 

To me, Natalie Illum represents a lot of the strength, passion, and grace that the disability community possesses.  Her hard work & perseverance throughout her life have set a great example for her peers, and shown Washington DC what can be accomplished when one truly sets their mind to something.  I am proud to call her my friend.

More of Natalie’s work can be found on Jezebel.com and on Huffingtonpost.com.

About Doug T. (491 Articles)
A lifelong gamer, disabilities advocate, avowed geek, and serious foodie. Doug was born in South America, currently resides in Northern VA, and spends the majority of his time indulging in his current passions of gaming & food, while making sure not to take life or himself too seriously.
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