News & Politics

Poetry That Inspires Women

Natalie Illum uses fiery poetry to inspire women.

Photograph by Matthew Worden

By day, Natalie E. Illum works at the Department of Agriculture. By night, she’s a rock star in the world of spoken poetry.

Illum’s poetry centers on the political, like women’s rights, and the personal, like her struggle with cerebral palsy. Take the opening of “Three More Months.”

Every year on my birthday I arrive at the same question—a dangerous juncture of what if. What if I had three more months of quiet gestation, of floating neurons, muted sounds? What if I had just stayed still, birthed easy? Who would I have been at 30?

She’s been published in literary journals, but Illum’s poetry comes to life when she gets up on stage in cat’s-eye glasses and a retro dress. Her voice—with its sharp, deliberate timing—hushes rooms.

As a founding board member of Mothertongue—which hosts the nation’s longest-running women’s open-mike, spoken-word event that benefits other groups—the 31-year-old has been reciting her poetry every month since 1999 at the Black Cat on DC’s 14th Street.

Illum grew up on Long Island and moved to Washington while earning an MFA in creative writing at American University. This fall, Illum, who performs at festivals and poetry slams around the country, is featured in Word Warriors, a new book about the leaders of the spoken-word movement.

Illum, who as a woman with cerebral palsy says she once felt isolated, loves inspiring other women through Mothertongue’s writing workshops.

“I was alienated and silenced for a long time,” she says. “My mission is to help other women speak out and be heard.”