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.