Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tara Betts: Truth in a Plain Brown Wrapper

The lovely photo is of an equally lovely and powerful writer, Tara Betts. (Not quite the plain brown wrapper...) It's been almost ten years ago that I was paired with Tara 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 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 language, unambiguous. 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 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.

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-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 can we subvert with 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 does writing work 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.


Some food for thought on visibility, race, class and the publishing industry from La Bloga friend, Manuel Muñoz:

African-American novelist Martha Southgate's wonderful
and thoughtful essay in the New York Times

Tambien, the writer Tayari Jones has a discussion
worth our attention re: this essay at her blog:

Lisa Alvarado

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