Interview With Tara Betts (July 2006)

I recently had the great pleasure of hanging out one sunny Saturday at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens with two of New York’s most incredible poets: Tara Betts and Rich Villar. Tara and I had arranged to meet to talk about her upcoming tour of the DC area and her work, so Mr. Villar quietly listened (some people reading this might find that hard to believe, but it was true! … and those of you who don’t know Rich should check him out and Acentos, the poetry series he hosts in the Bronx), while we talked about seeking out new people, places and experiences to feed your art, dancing with Assata Shakur in Cuba, and women helping each other to articulate their experiences and to find better paths through life.

A native of Illinois, Tara moved to New York recently, bringing an impressive set of accomplishments with her. She has performed in the National Poetry Slam, and has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and on jessica care moore’s “Spoken” on the Black Family Channel. Her work appears in several anthologies, and her poetry was recently featured in Essence Magazine. She is the author of the chapbook SWITCH. You can find out more on her website: www.tarabetts.net. Photo by Dorothy Perry.

What drew you to New York? What differences do you see between New York and Chicago?

TB: There’s a lot of differences, other than food and having more space. I would probably say for me, I felt like I needed to have the room for my career to go and expand a little bit more, and just have different opportunities. Even though I think Chicago was really good in terms of shaping my work ethic around being a working artist and a teaching artist. It was also a very small community.

That’s kind of what it ended up being. There’s so many things [in New York] if you want to do anything with television; if you want to do anything with publishing or freelance write for major magazines that are nationally known; if you want to do voiceover, which is some of the stuff I’ve been wanting to get into, then this is a good place to be. … Just some different exposure, I just wanted to be in a different place and to see if I could make it outside of Illinois, because I grew up in Illinois and I’ve never lived anyplace else.

In Chicago, you co-founded a workshop called Girlspeak. Could you talk about that a bit?

TB: Girlspeak was a project that I helped start at Young Chicago Authors. We wanted to start a program that was more inclusive of having girls speak up and articulate their issues, but also to do that through writing and presenting work. We noticed that there was kinda this schism in representation: You have more girls in writing classes, but there are fewer girls who are performing, fewer girls who are articulating what’s happening with women.

I had one student, and she was saying when she saw me read, “Wow, I really admire you, I don’t feel like I could ever get up in front of people and say things. You say things that talk about stuff that’s happening in my life.” And I was like, “Yes, you can, and you need to!” We kinda developed a friendship from there, but it’s like I don’t think we always get that from older women. I know I’ve looked for it a lot too. I thought that was important, even if you were strong in where you stood, you wanted to have somebody who was kind of a mentor. That’s kinda what it stemmed out of, all of those things.

So you’ve tried to do that and provide that for younger girls?

TB: And they have a lot to say too. So many writing classes are full of women, but it’s that need to feel like you need to speak up. Yeah, you speak through the writing, but it’s like do you just keep it to yourself? Is this just you processing, getting through things that you’re going to experience or have experienced? If it’s not just that, how do you make people aware of what you’re trying to say?

What do you get out of these workshops? What do they teach you?

TB: I think sometimes it forces me to explore my own process in writing. It keeps me aware of how other people see the world. It pushes me to just challenge myself a little bit, and continue to be involved with different communities. … How do you start to bridge these communities and say such and such does this and they do that? I kinda like doing that. It’s like some people think activist work is all these different things, but sometimes you need people who connect other people to each other, and that’s a valuable tool to use and to be.

You recently wrote on your MySpace blog about Assata Shakur and a poem that appears at the beginning of her biography. What about her biography and the poem speak to you?

TB: I think that book when I read it hit me at a very valuable time. I was just recovering from surgery. I had surgery ten years ago for a tumor that was behind my heart that was the size of my heart. And it was pressing against my heart, and I had chest pain. It was a really traumatic experience to go through that. But I had to take a semester off from school. I’d always been really curious about black history, so I started digging up these books. I found a copy of Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide,” Bobby Seale, George Jackson. I was feeling like, where are the women? I had read Elaine Brown, because when I was in high school she came out with “A Taste of Power.” And I was like, who am I missing?

I went and I read Assata Shakur’s biography for the first time. It was like, she said all these things; she’s not writing for art’s sake. She’s one of these people where it’s like there’s some craft in the writing, but you can tell she’s exploring these situations that some black people have experienced, or even some of them may feel like for a lot of kids today like they’re set in the past, but it feels a little bit more immediate than the Civil Rights Movement. It feels a little bit more immediate than say talking about the Jim Crow era, which I find a lot of kids, particular students of color, who are like, is that all that ever happened to us? Nobody ever fight back? It feels kind of empowering to read something like that. It’s funny, because I have the same copy that I originally bought, and took it Cuba and read it again, so I’ve read it like three or four times. When I was teaching at the juvenile detention center, I had kids read it. At least three times, kids borrowed the book, and I always got it back.

It engendered respect and a need to pass it on to other people.

TB: I think if you can do that with your writing, that people feel like it’s important enough to share, then you wrote something that was really valuable. For me, I feel like I needed to see a woman’s narrative. I needed to see something that embraced the artist. Even though I think it is a serious skill to write a book, for her to put poems in the book would draw people in who might not feel comfortable right away. I think it’s a very effective device for her to use as a writer, because most of those books are heavy in the jargon, heavy in the propaganda-based language. I think hers is just very well-spoken, but just easy to read in some respects, and not in a way that talks down to you. I feel like a lot of times when we talk about activist work, or working in communities, or being politicized, we think we have to use these big words, but when I talk to my mother, I don’t say “hegemony,” I don’t say “patriarchy.” What do we say when we talk to our family and our friends, who aren’t necessarily embracing that type of language.

How did you end up in Cuba, and what was it like reading Shakur’s biography there, where she is still exiled?

TB: I think it was me romanticizing a little bit to read the book in Cuba. I ended up going for a writers’ conference that’s no longer happening. It was called “Writers of the Americas.” They brought together writers from the United States who applied to the program with writers who are based in Cuba. It was one of those experiences that really shifted my thinking about a lot of things, because like I said, I’ve never really left Illinois very much. I would tour within the United States some, but going to Cuba was this whole other experience, because I’d never been anywhere internationally. Going there, and recognizing, wow, there are black folks who look like people I see on the South Side. That’s a really altering experience for a lot of people who are from the African-American community. For me it was. I knew it intellectually and I had read about all these different communities, but to see it and experience it, and realize how much things were the same in a lot of ways, was a beautiful thing for me. To kinda soak up a place, be a little uncomfortable, and realize that America can be a little bit too much sometimes, not in all the bad ways, but in terms of the excess. There’s a lot of people who do with a lot less, and still manage to be joyful, to create, to do something.

Every place has it’s problems, but I really loved being there, getting to know some of the people, seeing how the artists can create almost anything. It reminds me in a lot of ways of hip-hop; I’m not surprised that there’s such a vibrant hip-hop culture in Cuba, for that very reason. If all you got is this, you gotta make something out of it. We did a reading in this one set of projects that are like the some of the biggest projects in the world, but they have artists and performance galleries in the base of the projects. So they have artists live in the studios and they do stuff there. We went and we read there, and we were hanging out with all these people, and they were just making up songs. Maybe somebody got a pair of claves, they pull out a table and they’ll make beats, and make songs behind each other. And you’re like, I like this, this feels like something I’m into.

It was also weird to be reading Shakur’s biography, to be in the hip-hop club, and she just walks in. And you’re like, hold up! What happened? You’re real! My friends, they realized, OK, she’s Assata Shakur, yeah, yeah, whatever. But I think for black people in America, we realize that sometimes you aren’t going to live if you say anything. And you probably won’t if you really look like you might be a threat, and that’s why she can’t ever come back. What is it like a million dollars on her head still? She travels with bodyguards and stuff, but she’s in the hip-hop club with us, and still like rooted and talking to people and friendly and just beautiful. She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. The only thing I could say to her when I met her, was I hugged her and I was like, “I’m glad to meet you, I’m so glad you’re safe.” That was all I could say, and then we were like dancing, because they were playing Tupac and Lauryn Hill, and we’re like, “Hey!” It was kinda like one of those strange moments that just seems a little surreal.

Getting back to teaching, what happens when you go to teach poetry in a detention center? What kind of exchange happens there?

TB: I don’t think the kids are much different than the kids you meet in a regular school. I think sometimes, if anything, they want to talk and they’re more eager than kids who are outside the system, in part, because sometimes these are kids who don’t always get a chance to talk. They’re usually disciplined out of school, for one reason or another, or they’re from marginalized communities, or they’ve been abused, particularly with young women, there’s a lot of cases of sexual abuse. One day in class I asked the girls, how many of you are in here for carrying something for your man? More than half of the hands shot up in the room!

I think for me, it was the mental wear and tear of being there that made me pull back from it some. I still think it’s a valuable thing that needs to be done. My partner that I used to work with there does some amazing work with young people, and he’s always trying to bring in poets and writers, male and female, just to kinda expose the kids to new ideas and encourage them to get their thoughts out and vent things that they’re going through, and to look at the world critically in as many different ways as they can, to maybe get them to consider other options when they leave. That’s what education is supposed to be anyway, a tool to dismantle things that can harm you, or empower you to act in a world that’s more beneficial to you and to other people.

I was reading your poem in your chapbook “Switch,” about that last night. It’s an incredible poem.

TB: Thank you. Oh yeah, “Women Writer’s Workshop” [click on “Poems”]. That was when I was doing the workshop at Cook County, which was adult women. It’s a different vibe. It’s heartbreaking. There was a lot of times I ended up going home and I would just cry. It was so painful to be there and know, wow, once you’re an adult it’s almost infinitely harder to recover and just be in the world. Especially when there’s not resources for when you get out. If you’re poor, which is most of the people who are in jail, then it’s like, ain’t nobody going to put you in therapy and counseling or make sure you have a safe place to live. More often than not, you go back to the same community where the abuse was, your economic hardship was, and the violence was, all of that stuff. It’s a weird world we live in. We think it’s corrections or rehabilitation, but I think it’s a misnomer, or a bad choice of words.

What have you learned about yourself/the world while on tour and performing in new places?

TB: It teaches you I think to be flexible but to still have things that are nonnegotiable. Kelly Tsai is always saying, “I have to have this. It’s just nonnegotiable!” I think it’s really true though. A lot of times poets get put at the bottom of the artist barrel. People think they don’t have to pay you. People think that you don’t need to eat, that you don’t need transportation. Part of you needs to be flexible, because travel’s just crazy like that. And then a part of you also has to be like, how much is it worth to you to make this trip? I think I learned that.

I’ve met people I wouldn’t normally meet. I’ve been in situations I wouldn’t normally be in. Not necessarily bad, but just like, oh, OK, so this is what Baltimore is like in the middle of the day. This is what it means to walk around Sacramento and everything looks like an old-fashioned Western town. I think it’s good to kind of feed the potential landscapes that can be in your work. Just hearing from people and meeting people who have different influences than your own. It’s also feeling like you can forge bonds and friendships not just where you find your home, and I think that’s good for me too, because I’ve always felt like I wanted to have a broad landscape of people who I can share the world with, across cultures, races, genders. I think I’ve done pretty good with that. I wish I could get all of my friends from different circles to come to a party together, because it would just be amusing to watch, to watch people look uncomfortable and then have a good time maybe. That would be fun.

What are three essential things you have to bring on tour with you?

TB: Arm & Hammer Baking Soda Peroxide toothpaste, my journal and I would either say, a black ink pen or MAC lipstick.

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Author: schenelle

Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Jersey City, NJ. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series.

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