Home / An Interview with Poet Tara Betts: Truth in a Plain Brown Wrapper, Part One

An Interview with Poet Tara Betts: Truth in a Plain Brown Wrapper, Part One

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It's been almost ten years ago that I was paired with Tara Betts as her mentor in a City of Chicago arts program. To this day, I'm not sure what I taught her, but it has been my privilege to read her work, watch her develop and soar as a writer, a performer, and as a critical thinker. She is a person of crystal clear intent and ethics and it is that clarity and that moral compass that infuses all of her work. Tara is that rare avis who is able to dive into the canon, retrieve what she needs and resurface to the real world where the rest of us dwell. She knows her sestinas, her villanelles, her haikus, but she is not seduced by the prettiness of form over content. Her work is rigorously constructed, but framed with direct, clear, and unambiguous language. Tara Betts knows where her loyalties lie – the African American experience, femaleness, urban life, the place where class and race intersect, and as readers we are all the better for it. Take a close look at the pieces following part two of this interview and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Describe your odyssey in becoming a writer. How does African American and female identity influence your work? What would you say are your major influences, both personally and in a literary sense?

My major influences initially were ntozake shange, Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Langston Hughes. When I was around 12 or 13, I kept a diary a little before this point, but began writing poetry shortly after I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I had always been a reader, but I didn't always see books in the library that looked like they talked about people of African descent at all. When I was in high school, I worked at the Kankakee Public Library and learned the stacks better. Sometimes, I would sneak off and read. It was then that I aspired to be a journalist so Rolling Stone, Essence, and U.S. News & World Report were also part of my obsession as well.

When I started attending Loyola University on the North Side of Chicago, I kept writing, indulged more and more in Vibe and The Source, and eventually did an internship in New York at BET Weekend magazine in conjunction with the New York Daily News office. It was an amazing summer too. It solidified that I had to keep writing, even though I was a student activist and editor for The Loyola Phoenix. It was in college that I read more about Hurston, the Negritude poets, Toni Morrison, Fanon, and Cheikh Anta Diop.

Although I felt like these were eye-opening experiences, I felt like I was always challenged by the more conservative influences on a highly Republican, very Catholic Jesuit university that somehow managed to talk about social justice issues.

By the time I was in my second year at Loyola, I had started organizing poetry readings on campus. This was before poetry became trendy again, so I shared some of my favorite poets and collaborated with other student organizations to make the readings happen. I remember inviting Malik Yusef to campus and bringing Ramona Africa from MOVE Organization with help from Tyehimba Jess. Tyehimba and Malik were the first two poets I met on the Chicago scene. Shortly before I graduated from Loyola in 1997, Malik Yusef gave me my first poetry feature at The Cotton Club on Michigan Avenue. I started reading at Lit X, this jazz club called Rituals, Afrika West bookstore, Guild Complex, and eventually Mad Bar, which is where I started slamming. I slammed once or twice at Green Mill, but it didn't feel like an audience of my peers, even though I enjoyed the work from poets like Sheila Donahue, Cin Salach, Regie Gibson, Dan Ferri, Maria McCray, Marc Smith, and most vividly Patricia Smith.

At this time, I was also exploring the feminist possibilities in my poetry. I performed with Sharon Powell, Marta Collazo, and other women in a show about menstruation called The Empress Wears Red Clothes. I had sort of exited the hip hop heavy part of my life, even though I was still writing pieces here and there, going to shows, hosting a hip hop radio show called The Hip Hop Project with my good friend Lional Freeman (AKA Brotha El), meeting graf writers and admiring dj skills.

After leaving The Hip Hop Project and doing readings for about a year and a half, I started to slam at Mad Bar. I was on the first two Mental Graffiti teams in 1999 and 2000 with poets like Mars Gamba-Adisa Caulton, Marlon Esguerra, Dennis Kim, Shappy, and Lucy Anderton. Although slam became a very stressful thing for me, I got to spend time with a wide range of aesthetics and personalities that I really loved and admired for different reasons. I also had the opportunity to co-host, curate and promote an all-women's open mic and performance space called Women OutLoud with women like Mars, Lucy, Anida Esguerra and Krystal Ashe.

While I was slamming, I started getting more into a range of poets like Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Carl Sandburg, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz and others. I also started workshopping with various poets through the Guild Complex. My first workshop leader was Sterling Plumpp. He pushed me to keep writing, read more sisters and just be persistent. He's a master of the poetic line and very much a blues man. More people should be reading his work. I also went on to do workshops with Afaa Michael Weaver who pushed me to be honest, vulnerable and study a diverse range of writers. I really wanted to just read writers of color at one point, and he still reminds me of how there is so much to learn from everyone. Lucille Clifton and Quincy Troupe were also poets that I participated in workshops with and these experiences led to my real urgency to be a part of Cave Canem, a workshop/retreat for writers of African descent started by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. There are too many poets to name that I have met through this retreat that have fed, taught and inspired me.

The students at Young Chicago Authors were also a big influence on my writing. Through YCA, I began teaching writing classes. Since I had to teach what I was doing, I was more conscious of what I did or explaining why a certain work moved me. I also got to develop my own classes, like an author study on Neruda, Hip Hop Poetics, Poetic Forms by Communities of Color and Women Writers as Essayists. By the time I left Chicago, I had firmly rooted my voice that I think is always expanding and refining itself. I had started the MFA Program in Poetry at New England College (graduated in January 2007) and moved to New York. Now, I think I'm trying to read as much as I can in fiction, new poets, history and the classics that I need to catch up on. Wanda Coleman, Martin Espada, Marilyn Nelson are just a few of the poets who really move me these days.

You've written extensively about African American labor leader, Ida B. Wells. Describe her significance as subject matter.

It's funny you would ask about the Ida B. Wells' poems. I started writing about her years ago, and I've never quite finished the series that I set out to do. I read about her and her own books like A Crusade for Justice, Southern Horrors and The Memphis Diary edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis, and I started researching lynchings. This was around the time that Without Sanctuary, a book of photographs taken at lynchings, was released.

In 1892, one of Wells' close friends Thomas Moss and the co-owners of the Black-owned People's Grocery Store were basically lynched for offering better products and better prices to Black customers than the white storeowners. Wells had already initiated a public transportation boycott and filed a successful lawsuit that was eventually repealed when she had been thrown off the train for refusing to go to a smoking car. She refused so adamantly that she dug in her heels, and it took two men to remove her after she bit the conductor on the hand. In fact, she started her paper The Free Press in response to this ousting, and convinced record numbers to leave Memphis and stop taking public transit.

As a result, at a time when women were not even considered able to handle the strong material of journalism, Wells convinced people to do things with the facts that she gleaned. She also started the first suffrage organization for Black women in Illinois, helped start the NAACP, ran an organization for Black men that was similar to the then-segregated YMCA who would not house or notify Black men of employment opportunities, and initiated the anti-lynching crusade in the U.S. and the U.K. So, her radical scope really drew me to her, but also some of the things she did that were just hilarious. For example, her daughter Alfreda Duster describes how she went into a department store in Chicago and was waiting to be served. Of course, they acted like this Black woman was not even standing there, so out of exasperation, she drapes a pair of men's boxers over one shoulder and starts to walk toward the exit. Then someone finally asked her what she was doing, and she told them "trying to buy these." So, her ties to Chicago, her sense of humor and strength, and her need to document her place in history when so many women were forgotten, omitted and erased, has brought me back to her example again and again.

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About Lisa Alvarado

  • Wonderful article. I appreciate both the subject’s expression and the author’s warm testimonial.