poetry quarterly

10th anniversary



by Danielle Evennou


I attended my first mothertongue event in September 2007, a few months after moving to the District following a six-month stint in Silver Spring, MD. The event had been promoted on the listserv for a book club called Literally Lesbians. I had frequented DC open mics, mainly Poetic Situations and Sunday Kind of Love at Busyboys and Poets, and had not yet heard of mothertongue. I had no idea what to expect.

This particular September 2007 mothertongue show had a somber yet welcoming ambiance. It was a few days after the passing of revered activist, Cheryl Spector—steadfast supporter of mothertongue and much more. The sentiment of that evening later served as inspiration for a community poetry broadside project. The format of mothertongue was similar to other events that I had been to, open mic followed by featured poets. I had an immediate sense that there was something unique about this event, held at the back stage of the Black Cat at 1811 14th Street NW and attended predominantly by women. I did not realize when I walked in the door that the event had been running for nine years.

Photo of J. Scales by Thalia Wiggins

The first poem I shared on the open mic was a sestina, later to be titled “Straight Sestina.” Though I felt welcome at other open mics, this crowd was particularly genial. Natalie E. Illum, then president of mothertongue’s Board of Instigators (B.O.I.) and host of the evening, immediately recognized the form. Her deep admiration for and commitment to mothertongue was palpable. She recounted a brief "herstory" of the organization—the only women’s spokenword organization that regularly gives back to its local community by donating the proceeds from each show to a nonprofit organization whose work supports local women and girls.

Photo of Eryca Kasse by Thalia Wiggins

Mothertongue was founded in 1998 by Karen Taggart and Ruth Dickey. Karen and Ruth were introduced to each other by a woman named Dawn who worked at the now long-gone Lammas Women’s Books and More bookstore, then located at 1617 17th Street in Dupont Circle. Both Karen and Ruth had independently approached the bookstore with the idea of starting a women’s poetry series. Ruth wanted to construct a space where “women would feel empowered and celebrated as writers.” Karen had recently gone to see Sister Spit, a group of touring women writers that explored women's issues and queer themes, founded by Michelle Tea of San Francisco. Karen read at the open mic that followed the Sister Spit show. This event was held at the Food for Thought Café formerly at 1738 Connecticut Avenue NW. After Sister Spit, Karen thought, “we could do that.” On meeting Ruth, Karen recalls, “It was complete kismet that we both were thinking the exact same thing.” The first mothertongue show was held in October 1998 at the Black Cat. After inviting all their friends to the first show, Karen and Ruth say that more and more people found out about mothertongue through word of mouth.

From the beginning, Karen remembers, the Black Cat was “a fantastic partner in the series…Dante Ferrando, the owner, and his staff were always so supportive.” The series started in the earlier location, at 1831 14th Street NW, then moved three doors south in 2001 to 1811 14th Street NW when the club moved. The organization has always been extremely grateful to the Black Cat for the space, which many out of town featured readers have remarked is the coolest place for a poetry series, ever.

It was a perfect storm, or “in the stars” as Karen puts it. In 1998 slam poetry was growing in popularity across the US, but mothertongue was intentionally designed not to be a slam—an event in which poets perform poems competitively for the audience and receive scores from a set of randomly selected judges. Rather, the space was designed to be affirming, a place where women felt encouraged to share all kinds of work, from stage poetry, to page poetry, and beyond. Every month mothertongue included “virgins,” or new readers, on the stage. According to Ruth, what “really seemed to work” about mothertongue was that it was “intentionally designed to be open, encouraging and accessible.”

Mothertongue B.O.I. member J. Scales first learned of mothertongue circa 1999, when Women In The Life Poetry Series host R. Erica Doyle announced that she would be featured at mothertongue. This mothertongue show was a fundraiser for Sistah Summerfest—a three-day festival music, spirit, and dance for women of color. J. recalls, “mothertongue was originally a curiosity, and unchartered ground that one community—black lesbians—was invited into, to support one of our own. Part of the beauty in Karen Taggart's vision, as far as I'm concerned, is that she intentionally created a space where the two communities could meet, dialogue, blend, date, disagree, whatever.”

Erica Gloger, who at the time was an American University student active with DC’s chapter of Lesbian Avengers, recalls that group was one of the first beneficiaries of admissions donations. She remembers the integral role mothertongue played in the women’s queer community: “We used to go out to Trumpets after Wednesday night shows.” These where in the pre-Club Chaos and Club Q days. Outside of the bar scene, mothertongue was the place to meet people, queer women especially. Current board member Megan Sheils recalls regulaly making drives from Annapolis, MD to DC's Black Cat to attend a Wednesday night mothertongue show. Erica describes mothertongue as a place “to explore our unique identities within our narrowly-defined lesbian political selves.” Mothertongue was always a place to hear controversial works: poems about assault, adoption, disability, and even sex on Yom Kippur.

At the time mothertongue was taking off, there was also a bourgeoning drag king community. Throughout the years, mothertongue teamed up with the DC Kings, led by the multitalented Ken Vegas. Upon the closing of local Club Chaos, mothertongue provided a venue to celebrate a special anniversary show for the DC Kings and DC Gurly Show. It is safe to say mothertongue is among the few literary organizations associated with drag and burlesque performance.

Bonnie Morris, a longtime B.O.I. member and mothertongue supporter, describes this cultural moment in her article "Speaking in Mothertongues," published by Metro Weekly in 2003. Bonnie writes: “(L)ate in the 1990s, poetry slams and open mics emerged in the renaissance of coffeehouse culture, and gay writing took off again on caffeinated wings, serving up heaven and hell in bartstooled dives called Heaven and Hell.”
Co-founder Karen Taggart recounts, “We used to call it Lesbian Church.” Mothertongue created a space in the DC queer community where people who were interested in more than just drinking and dancing could meet one another. To this day, Karen says, she gets “Facebook" friend requests from people she met had met through her work with mothertongue.

The mothertongue series hit the ground running and the organizational structure of a volunteer Board of Instigators (B.O.I.) quickly developed. B.O.I. members selected feature poets, managed the reading list, promoted the event, and coordinated with beneficiary organizations, among other tasks. From its outset mothertongue had a social change mission. B.O.I. members agreed that in DC it is often the political groups, rather than direct service organizations, that get the attention and funds. Passing on the proceeds from mothertongue events was also a way to keep the motives of events and organization “pure.” Ruth was also highly involved with nonprofits and direct service organizations. Mothertongue began working with organizations that served women and girls in the District. Beneficiary organizations have included Rachel’s Women Center, Bethany Women’s Center, N Street Village, DC Rape Crisis Center, the Black Lesbian Support Group, the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, Hannah House, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, Lesbian Services at Whitman Walker, Tahireh, and Ophelia's House. More recently, beneficiaries have included Our Place DC, the DC Youth Slam Team, Women’s Information Network (WIN), Rainbow History Project, and Capturing Fire National Queer Slam and Summit. As Ruth puts it, it was “a cool way to raise their profile, and raise some money to support good work.” B.O.I. member J. recalls there was a time when 300 people would come out for a mothertongue event. Though crowds have since thinned over the years, the mission of mothertongue remains the same.

The original rules or mothertongue included no poems that bashed your exes (who were more than likely to be in the audience.) This made the annual Anti-Valentine’s (Mock) Slam all the more special. The annual event was always drew the biggest crowd. Poet Michelle Sewell is the host most associated with the event. Serendipitously, she wrote the poem most associated with mothertongue, excerpted here:


And they received me with love
Oh, maybe I need to mention that I read at mothertongue
And I told them that a day without you was like
forgetting how to breathe and that you were my everything
And that's more important than way that girl answered
your phone, screened my call and told ME that you
couldn't come to the phone

Oh hell no! Clearly y'all are trippin.

You must not have heard that I read at mothertongue

Despite the anti-love sentiment of the Anti-Valentine’s Slam, the event has drawn some very curious men. In addition, a Black Cat staff member (who will remain nameless) recently confessed to me that young men still regularly call the venue asking about mothertongue, thinking it would be the ideal place to take a date. With the phenomenal features that have come through the doors of mothertongue, including Sonya Renee Taylor, Andrea Gibson, Sister Spit, Tristan Silverman, R. Erica Doyle, Karen Finnneyfrock, Lisa Pegram, Michelle Parkerson, Silvana Straw (DC’s original slam champion), and Jenny Lares (to name a few), this is perhaps the case.

In 1999, Natalie E. Illum entered the DC scene. In her essay “On Mothers and mothertongue,” published in the book Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution (edited by Alix Olson, Seal Press, 2007), she recounts her first mothertongue experience as a page poet and a person with a disability: “Soon after my post-college move to Washington, DC, a friend convinced me to go to a poetry open mic, sponsored by the all-women collective mothertongue, and signed me up to read, secretly…I was terrified that I would trip over someone’s coat, body part, or backpack…I imagined the shock on people’s faces as I started my descent, papers, crutches, and limbs all akimbo and flailing. There was a distinct possibility that I might not make it to the stage at all, poet or not. But I didn’t fall that night, I rose…For the first time, people were staring at me out of openness, not abnormality.”

From 1999-2008 Natalie was an integral fixture in mothertongue, serving as BOI president for over eight years, booking touring national acts and keeping the organization running. Because of Natalie, mothertongue became an organization the local community could count on to provide a warm reception and, of course, a microphone.

The host position of the event used to rotate on a monthly basis. In addition to Karen and Ruth, other hosts have included Bonnie Morris, Michelle Sewell, Sara Akbar,and Heather Davis. When Heather Davis died suddenly as the result of a car accident, mothertongue held a memorial for her and raised money to cover her funeral expenses. Karen says, “I continue to miss that woman every day, but at the same time the community coming together around the tragedy was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. I never would have made it through without mothertongue.”

In 2002, Ruth left DC for North Carolina, but returned for the Fifth Anniversary mothertongue show. Ruth led the B.O.I. from the founding until she moved from the area. Subsequent B.O.I. leaders included Phyllis Gilberti Chamberlin, Martha Holley-Miers, Natalie Illum, and me. On the visual art side, Rachel Beamer and Kendra Kuliga have provided photographic and graphic support over the years. Thalia Wiggins now utilizes mothertongue as an outlet for her budding photography talent. The current mothertongue B.O.I. consists of Bonnie Morris, J. Scales, Eryca Kasse, Megan Sheils, Elizabeth Prescott, Sarah Lawson, Thalia Wiggins, Natalie E. Illum, and myself.

Workshops are a vital part to mothertongue’s work. From 2001 to 2005, B.O.I. member Eryca Kasse led a monthly women’s writing group called mothertongue*east. The group met at a coffeeshop in the Eastern Market neighborhood (initially called Stompin' Grounds, then called Murky Coffee, located at 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. That site is a different coffeehouse now, called Peregrine Espresso.) Eryca recalls, “Two women to this day thank me for the space as it’s where they met each other and fell in love!” The monthly event had 10-15 members in its strongest years. According to Eryca, the workshops were unlike an English class or even a critique workshop. Its goal was therapeutic and its focus was on trusting one another to share things that participants might not have shared at any other literary outlet. The format was simple, with writing prompts at the core. Recently, the mothertongue writers group has achieved a renaissance—meeting every third Wednesday of the month at Teaism in Penn Quarter from 7:00 - 9:00 pm.

In 2007, Michelle Sewell organized mothertongue’s first “Poetry and Girlhood” workshop, which was provided free of charge to girls between the ages of 13-17 during women’s history month. Over the course of four sessions, 50 local girls were involved. Michelle reflects, “[I]t was wonderful to see the girls embrace their voices and flower under the warm support of the women writers that facilitated the workshops." In the last few years, Michelle has edited and published two anthologies dedicated to celebrate the voices of girls around the globe: Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces (GirlChild Press, 2006), and Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta (GirlChild Press, 2008).

With the help of small projects grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, mothertongue held a series of public poetry workshops in Winter 2009, with the purpose of creating community broadsides. Workshops were held at Flashpoint (916 G Street NW) and the home of Natalie E. Illum. Facilitators included Natalie Illum, Bonnie Morris, J. Scales, and Jade Foster. The first workshop focused on the women’s writing community in DC. The second, “Healing Through the Art of Words: Remembering Cheryl Spector and Wanda Alston” focused on remembering and celebrating two local sheroes. This opportunity allowed the mothertongue community to put words to the emotions of the September 2007 show, as well as, heal and inspire the community around us. From memories of these two women, a collective poem, or cento, was built. A team from mothertongue worked closely with graphic designer Kendra Kuliga to create images that reflected the content.

After only a year I had begun volunteering at mothertongue, Natalie announced that she would be retiring from her B.O.I. leadership position in order to pursue other creative projects. This left an opening for me to become the next B.O.I. president. The changing of the guards, so to speak, took place at the 10th Anniversary mothertongue show held at the much larger main stage of the Black Cat. (Mothertongue now regularly takes place in the more intimate back stage, reserving use of the main stage for big occasions.) The event included musical guest Nancy Eddy, a film project by Angie Young, as well as the words of mothertongue co-founder Karen Taggert, and an open mic.

Inheriting the leadership of a decade-old community organization is daunting, especially having never seen mothertongue in the early days when regular crowds numbering in the hundreds flocked to the event month after month. Mothertongue's schedule has shifted over time, from monthly to every other month and sometimes a once- or twice-a-quarter schedule. Despite periods of thin crowds, the Black Cat has continued to support the organization by providing a venue for events throughout the organization's tenure.

I have always appreciated the “specialness” of mothertongue, but also greatly appreciate and enjoy many of the regular poetry series and open mics that DC has to offer. Since my becoming B.O.I. president, mothertongue has seen an influx of new creative talents. Veteran mothertongue B.O.I. members Eryca Kasse, Bonnie Morris, and J. Scales continue to perform regularly and serve as tremendous support to these new voices, among them Sarah Lawson and Elizabeth Prescott (both current B.O.I. members.)

Sarah’s first mothertongue experience was the 10th anniversary show, and she’s been hooked ever since. Of the current state of the organization, Sarah says, “There is a younger group of female artists coming through with veterans holding on as well. There are always people that come to shows that say they haven’t been there in a long time but they still feel comfortable coming back after many years. I do think there is something rumbling just under the surface and mothertongue is moving into a new chapter.”

Elizabeth Prescott heard about mothertongue upon graduating from Geoge Mason University and realized how much she loved reading poetry for an audience. Elizabeth was referred by a friend who was in touch with the DC scene. Elizabeth says, “My poetry focused heavily on my identity as a woman and as queer. [My friend] immediately thought of mothertongue. Although my subject matter has expanded, I still absolutely consider mothertongue my poetic home. It has always been a welcoming place for me to read any of my poetry.”

The cliché rings true: in order to survive, we must adapt. I am happy to say that mothertongue is not the only place for a women poets in DC to meet like-minded individuals, nor is it the only place where feminist avant-garde poetry and performance is accepted and nutured. As mothertongue shifted from a regular monthly event to an occasional event, the shows have continued to draw in new poets and audience members from various DC open mics and literary organizations. Poets come from various DC poetry series, like Spit Dat and the 11th Hour Slam, and see the value in the organization. The space of mothertongue remains unique and sacred, and I am proud to be committed to it. Although it is no longer the only place a queer woman can go to find a date, the intimate connections among the community remain. Mothertongue fans have come back after a multi-year hiatus and reunited with women they had met at mothertongue shows past.

When the organization originated, many open mic performers saw the mothertongue stage as a place where they could share poems that did not feel safe sharing anywhere else. To an extent this remains true. But this new wave of "mothertonguers" is indeed more inculcated into the DC poetry community as a whole. Mothertongue regulars still use the event to test the waters of new styles and subject matter, for example bisexuality in a world of dismantled gender binaries. As the current B.O.I. President, I am interested in pushing the boundaries of the organization to carry out the mission in a way that reflects the needs of the present moment. There is no denying that the mothertongue open mic compels me to write and read poetry that I might not otherwise share. However, mothertongue's significance exists on a much grander scale. Without mothertongue, a large volume of DC's most radical contemporary poetry might never have been created.

For Further Reading
"Washington Poetry: Mothertongue gives women a place to share their words," Lavanya Ramanathan, The Washington Post, March 5, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/04/AR2010030401745.html?sub=AR

Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta, ed. Michelle Sewell, GirlChild Press, 2008

Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution, ed. Alix Olson, Seal Press, 2007

Growing Up Girl: An Anthlogy of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, ed. Michelle Sewell, GirlChild Press, 2006.

"Speaking in Mothertongues," Bonnie Morris, Metro Weekly, January 23, 2003. http://www.metroweekly.com/news/opinion.php?ak=306



Danielle Evennou is n ex-cheerleader from Central New Jersey. She serves the president of the board of investigators for the DC women's spoken word organization mothertongue, and is a co-host of Sparkle: a queer-driven reading series for all. In Washington, DC, she has been a featured reader at Sunday Kind of Love, Queering Sound, Cheryl's Gone, Capital Pride, Poetic Situations, as well as at Sparkle. Her poems have appeared in Blue Collar Review, Objet d'Art, and Xenith. Evennou is the recipient of a Young Artist Grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her first chapbook, Queen of Tuesday, is slated for release in Summer 2010.



Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.

Read more by this author:
Danielle Evennou on Kay Ryan: US Poets Laureate Issue