Thursday, July 22, 2010

Special Feature: An Interview with Tara Betts

By Dan Godston

Tara Betts is the author of the book Arc and Hue, her debut collection on Aquarius Press/Willow Books. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and she is also a Cave Canem fellow. Her poetry and prose have appeared in various journals and anthologies, and she has been a freelance writer for publications such as XXL, The Source, BIBR, Mosaic Magazine, and Black Radio Exclusive.

Tara will be participating in four events in Chicago over the next several days. Please scroll down below this interview to find out more.

How did you first get interested in writing?

As a kid, I was a voracious reader. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. I was about10 or ll when I started keeping a diary, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer at age 12.

Who are some of your influences?

Patricia Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson, Annie Finch, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, Lucille Clifton, Julia de Burgos, Sonia Sanchez, Anne Waldman. Martín Espada, Afaa Michael Weaver, Etheridge Knight. There’s a lot more I could name because I’ve been blessed to meet, read and work with so many talented writers.

What is any early memory that you have of writing?

I remember there was a little girl named Chandra who lived next door to us. She used to live in the house next door to my grandparents’ tavern. Her and her mother would be impeccably dressed every Sunday and they attended the Morning Star Baptist Church just across the street from us. I would watch when church would dismiss from my bedroom window just to see how perfect they looked together. Then Chandra got sick. She died in the house and she was not yet even 10. I remember being sad, and around that time my mother bought me a green leather diary with a lock on it. I wrote about her quite a bit because I couldn’t believe little kids died. It just didn’t seem right. That was definitely when I was figuring out that writing could help you make sense of things.

How did you first get involved with the poetry scene in Chicago?

I had started hanging out at Lit-Ex, a tiny black bookstore in Wicker Park that is now the home of Wicker Dog. I also hung out a bit at the hothouse just before I graduated from Loyola University in Rogers Park in 1996. I met a lot of people there, and I started making the rounds on the North, West, and South sides of the city. Malik Yusef invited me to do my first feature at The Cotton Club in 1997 for a series called “Full Moon Poetry”. I can’t remember who else featured that night, but I know it was me and Regie Gibson reading that night.

What are some highlights of the poetry in Chicago, while you were living here?

Definite highlights would be hanging at Lit-Ex, Afrika West, the Cotton Club, and Guild Complex. Guild Complex was where I met Afaa Michael Weaver, and the Power Lines release party, which was my first anthology publication. I also heard Yusef Komunyakaa read for the first time with jazz musician John Tchicai there. That peformance was recorded and released as a CD called “Love Notes from the Madhouse”. I met Patricia Smith at the Green Mill one night when I was hanging out with Regie Gibson, Maria McCray, Kent Foreman, and Chuck Perkins. Slamming was a highlight too, and I really enjoyed helping to promote women’s writing through Women Out Loud. There’s a lot more to consider, but I don’t want to write a memoir here!

Who is a teacher who had an impact on your work?

Afaa Michael Weaver had a huge impact on helping me mature as a writer and exploring new work. I participated in a workshop with him in 1998 or 1999, I think, at Guild Complex. My first writing workshop experience was with Sterling Plumpp. He encouraged me to read a range of black women writers. Paula McLain did a lot for me in my MFA program in terms of modeling how to be a sharp, careful reader of other people’s work, and her work in poetry and prose is stunning.

You’ve done a lot of teaching over the years. Please pick one writing activity you’ve taught, and describe that.

One of the writing activities that I did with every class I taught in Chicago was teaching Willie Perdomo’s poem “Where I’m From” and sometimes I taught it with George Lyons’ poem with the same title and Susan Hahn’s “Directions to Where I Live”. I would get students to notice the level of sensory detail and description and jumpstart them writing since everyone knows the place where they live. I often teach Neruda’s odes and The Book of Questions too.

What kind of work have you been doing on the East Coast, since you moved there?
Basically, similar work to what I’d done in Chicago, but now I teach creative writing classes for undergraduates. I still do some workshops with teens and readings. I’d like to do voiceover, write prose, and edit some anthologies

Have you ever collaborated with your partner Rich Villar?

We’ve talked about doing so, but typically we don’t collaborate. We talk about what we read, the writing process, readings we attend, and ideas. Basically, we sit down and write separately, even when we make coffee shop dates to go out and write.

Congratulations on the publication of Arc and Hue! I’ve really enjoyed reading that. Would you say the body of poems came together relatively quickly, or was it a long process?

I think the poems that came together in Arc & Hue came together over 2-3 years. Only a few of them were written before I entered an MFA program, but I had been publishing poems before then. I spent about a year sending the book out, but I kept playing with the sequence and tweaking the poems until I turned in the galleys of the book.

Several poems in that collection are about singers, such as “Understanding Tina Turner” and “When I First Listened to Billie.” What are some things that you find inspirational about music? Specifically, regarding those two artists, what are some things that you find so interesting about their work?

I think Tina Turner and Billie Holiday speak to women on many levels, which is way they’re still popular today. They’re rooted in the blues idiom. For me, they speak to a burgeoning understanding of relationships. In “Understanding Tina Turner”, I’m really reflecting on when I first saw her sing in the era of music videos coming to prominence and how she was seeking to redefine herself on her own terms. Billie addresses the tragic undertones of relationships. I think it’s important to have a range of voices, regardless of gender or genre.

Are there other writers who have written about music, whose work you particularly like, such as Sterling Plumpp and Jayne Cortez, to name two?

Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Honorée Jeffers. There are particular poems by Kyle Dargan, A. Van Jordan, and Major Jackson that I like too.

“Hurricane Kwame” is a really interesting poem. How did you come up with that idea?

The idea of “Hurricane Kwame Offers His Two Cents” came from being glued to the television and articles about Hurricane Katrina. There was so much to outraged and appalled by in the whole situation, which is why I appreciate Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. In one story, there was actually a journalist who said the hurricane should have been called Kwame or Keisha, and I just wondered what would Kwame say.

What do you think are some challenges regarding taking on something in the news, in poetry? For instance, how can it be approached in a fresh way, and in the case of “Hurricane Kwame” and Hurricane Katrina, how can the emotional and political intensity of the subject be rendered in a way so it “works” in the poem?

I think this is always the challenge for writers when they write about current events. How do you craft a timely poem that still carries the weight of the content. For me, it was based in giving a voice to a fictitious party who could tell the story from their point of view. Sometimes, it’s a matter of establishing distance to observe what someone might see as they’re observing and fully engaged in the experience.

I’m looking forward to your poetry reading at Red Kiva next Wednesday. Have you read with those other poets before?

I used to read with Quraysh quite a bit when I lived in Chicago, so I’ve known him since before his first book, Southside Rain, was published. One of the first gigs I saw at the hothouse was when Quraysh, Tyehimba Jess, and Keith Kelley were a performing group called Drapetomania, and they opened for The Last Poets.

photo credit: Taylor Mali.


Saturday, July 24, 3-5 p.m.
Ricochets, 4644 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL
Tara Betts is one of the featured writers at Paper Machete hosted and created by Christopher Piatt. The Paper Machete is a "live magazine" addressing politics and culture.

Sunday, July 25, 6-10 p.m.
Music Lounge, 3017 W. Armitage, Chicago, IL
Laudanum Feminist Open Mic is a product of LGBTQ activist, photographer and booking agent Chelcie S Porter. Laudanum is held every Sunday at Music Lounge in Logan Square. Accompanied by DJ Mr. Mitchell. Tara Betts hosts on July 25. Sign up starts at 6:00pm.

Tuesday, July 27, 6:30-10 p.m. Jeffrey Pub, 7041 S. Jeffrey Blvd., Chicago, IL
Chicago's Pow-Wow Inc. provides a weekly performance space for women artists to present, create, develop and implement artistic performances and writing. Tara Betts is this week's feature, and she's leading a writing workshop prior to the show. The workshop is from 6:30-8 p.m. Open-mic sign-up starts at 7:30 p.m. She will be signing copies of her book "Arc & Hue".

Wednesday, July 28, 7:30 p.m.
Red Kiva, 1106 W. Randolph Ave., Chicago, IL
Tara will be reading with Quaraysh Ali Lansana, Bayo Ojikutu and Timothy Yu, as part of The Revolving Door reading series. This event is an Another Chicago Magazine release party as well.

Web links:

Tara Betts @ Mike Geffner’s Inspired Word

Tara Betts featuring at the June 2008 Art House