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Home » More Truth in a Plain Brown Wrapper: An Interview with Poet Tara Betts, Part Two

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

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Just to recap a thumbnail of this remarkable writer: Tara is that rara 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 at the end of this interview, and you'll see exactly what I mean. You might also want to read part one of this interview.

You made a strong connection to Latino poets, Latino poetry and culture. Can you talk more about that?

In my youth, I studied Spanish in high school, and I hardly knew any people from Spanish-speaking cultures, but when I went to college, I finally met more than Black and white people en masse. I really tried to support all people of color, so I learned a lot and tried to understand how our experiences overlapped and differed. I also took a class with Dr. Susannah Cavallo called Afro-Hispanic Literature where we read writers like Carolina Maria de Jesus, Jose Lima, and Nascimiento's Brazil: Mixture or Massacre.

I would have to say that Pablo Neruda brought the metaphor to life for me in a way that no other poet has. After him, I was drawn to so many others like Xavier Villarrutia, Gabriela Mistral, Cesar Vallejo, Daisy Zamora, and anthologies like Martin Espada's Poetry Like Bread and Stephen Tapscott's Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry. I also read Chicago-based writers like Luis Rodriguez, Ana Castillo, and Sandra Cisneros.

While I was living in Chicago, I got to read with so many Latina women who just wrote things that moved me. Some of them included Brenda Cardenas, the late Sulima Q. Moya, Susana Sandoval, Johanny Vazquez, Beatriz Badikian-Gartler, Katherinne Bardales, and of course, Lisa Alvarado.

In 2001, I had an opportunity to exchange with writers in Cuba at the now defunct Writers of the Americas Conference where my workshop leader was Jack Agueros, and we got to talk to writers like Junot Diaz, Maria Irene Fornes, Achy Obejas, and Danny Hoch. While we were there, we met many local writers. One of them, Leo Navaro Guevara moved to the U.S., and his son Anton is my first and only godson.

Now, that I'm on the East coast, it's such an amazing experience to see the range of writers like Willie Perdomo, Magdalena Gomez, Tato Laviera, Sandra Maria Esteves, Jesus Papoleto, among others. The Acentos series in the Bronx also gave me the chance to see a lot of these poets up close and to hear more of the type of work that I had only read.

What would you describe as your major themes?

History, family, politics, and love (mostly because we need to remember why we struggle in the first place).

You've had a lot of interface with spoken word, slam poetry, etc. How would you describe those genres v. 'literary' poetics and form?

Spoken word is an untapped wellspring of possibilities. Unfortunately, since people are catering to the lowest common denominator and writing pieces that will garner a shock, laughter, or a tour through the spoken word circuit, there is not the same kind of interest in the work that I had before. Now, do I think that the slam offers young writers a chance to build their confidence and articulate themselves clearly in front of an audience? Yes. Do I think that it can lead people to read their work with feeling and internalize the meaning of what they've written? Yes. Do I think it can lead to people producing one-person shows, records, verse plays, books, creative collaborations and radical, through-provoking performance? Yes. And lastly, are there too many people competing for little-to-no-paying gigs for the big payoff of three to five minutes on television? Yes.

What most people don't realize is that performance becomes a job. Even if you love it, you must maintain what will keep you working, and there are contradictions that compel people to ask hard questions about the growth and integrity of their work. Not enough people are asking themselves about that. I also think that if spoken word is continually pigeonholed as slam poetry and watered-down hip hop by wannabe emcees, then it will be relegated to the ghettos of forgotten poetry. There are too many good poets of color coming out of such performative experiences to be limited by this kind of categorization. Spoken word is a category promoted by NARAS. Oral traditions across centuries and cultures have always existed, so we have to remind people that internalizing what we write and sharing it orally is not new. So, I don't necessarily think there is a difference in the text, unless you're a lazy writer who overcompensates through performance. Anything written can be performed, published, or exhibited. It's just about how it's done.

What would you describe as your core strengths as a writer? Where would you like to see yourself grow?

My core strengths. Now this is a difficult question. I think it's been my willingness to always do what I feel like I need to do to grow. I haven't always made many friends that way, but inevitably I wrote what I wanted and earned most people's respect. I want to spend more time reading, trying to grow as a critical writer and write more prose. In terms of poetry, I'm intrigued with poetic form and how we can subvert the Eurocentric canonical notions that we have about it. I would like to collaborate with more visual artists and musicians since I've often been a solo writer sharing my work.

How would you describe your connection to young writers as it relates to your creative life?

My connection to young writers has kept me from being hyper-cynical/critical. They look at the world with new eyes, and when they have the breakthrough moments where they articulate something so honest and challenging for the first time — I live for those moments. Young writers make me always consider what it takes to keep writing new, how writing works as an art and a disciplined practice. Sometimes, I think it's only me who keeps me writing, which is true to some degree, but they are the ones who keep me writing.

Where do you see yourself in ten years, personally and creatively?

Ten years from now, I'm hoping to have published at least two or three books, not necessarily all poetry, maybe one of them is an anthology. I've thought I might have a Ph.D. in African American/Africana/Black Studies (whichever term people think they need to apply), American Studies or Women's Studies by then. Teaching, traveling and balancing that with a family would be nice. Hopefully, I will be practicing yoga on a regular basis. I remember one time a student at Wright College asked me in a Q & A what I wanted to do with my life, and I proceeded to tell her about all my professional goals and writerly aspirations when she cut in and asked, "other than that?" I felt like some inner voice had been plucked from my head and embodied in this girl. So, I thought about it, and yoga, having a garden, developing a spiritual life, staying politically responsible and critical and having good friends who could give a damn whether I write or not were my response to her question. All of that is still a work in progress.

What's something not in the official bio?

I always liked the fast, gravity-defying rides at carnivals and amusement parks. I recently freestyled on the mic with an all-female Afrobeat band in New York called Femm Nameless.


Not On the Menu

If Portugal was edible, could it be swallowed
like some country fruit, goosebumped as unripe
avocado, heavy with sweet guava wet
that lingers inside the cheeks?

Would Africa taste bitter and glitter
on the tongue from its ripe diamond seeds?
Would the silt of India be the truest curry
bursting a heat against the mouth's roof?'

Every day an international hors'douvres platter
crosses so many tourist imaginations like
a hectic maitre'de.
There are Indian families in steamy kitchens,
Taiwanese men's bicycles crisscrossing
Manhattan's traffic-glutted streets,
Puerto Rican girls smiling for bigger tips
when offering mofongo,
and Cubans proffer mojitos
and freshly killed chicken
for that one night at El Hueco.

America, though, would distance itself
from its bitter Billie Holiday image in stalls
of worldly produce. America would be slick
with campaigns on its nutritional benefits.
America would be so shiny the shellac needs
cracking and peeling. Imagine.
America's fruit, so sweet it eats the teeth
with its ache.

While movies ripen into
culinary pornography
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,
Soul Food
Tortilla Soup
Like Water for Chocolate
The cinematic menu sounds
like a veil pulled across the face,
the sweaty thump of samba,
a pinprick protruding
from a map of exotica
where spare grain
of days remains unsampled
since the trees of America
require so much tending.

There Goes the Neighborhood
for Maxine Kumin

Aerial shot omniscient view bent above
asphalt playground. Sidewalks become
concrete football fields where Brooklyn
accents weigh down boys' tongues
that count like girls circle one another.

They bend clothesline, extension cords,
double helix style rotations beneath
spinning jumping sneakers.
Speakers turned walls claim
the street as official block
party bidness. Metal drums split
open with orang charcoal guts plead
for red meat, then sizzle relief.

Brownstone stoops fill with girls
clinging to gossip like the new neighbor
holding his golf club bag as if announcing
shift change for baggy pants & oversized
shirt-wearing boys who stand too long on
the corner. Count each baby
in mad math that's called living.
Take a breath when change claims
one more before you blink.

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About Lisa Alvarado