DOGBYTES Interview: Tara Betts

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Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her chapbooks include the upcoming Never Been Lois Lane; 7 x 7: kwansabas; and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Tara holds an MFA from New England College and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her poems, essays and short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Poetry, NYLON, Octavia’s Brood, Bum Rush the Page, Black Nerd Problems and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Tara currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago. Hear her read Friday, March 3 alongside Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hayes Davis and Nathan McClain.

What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Break the Habit?

The most challenging aspect of finishing the book itself was sifting out poems that were not essential to the final sequence. I do plan to publish them. Some of them already are published. It kept changing, but there are more poems that I did not include in the book.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year; what made you decide to read it?

Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday by Alexis DeVeaux. I’m finishing an essay on poetic representations of Billie Holiday for BILLIE 101, an anthology celebrating the singer’s 100th birthday. DeVeaux wrote the first book-length collection on Holiday. The second one was the YA poetry collection Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, which came out in 2008.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

If you are a poet, you should be using your skills to sharpen people’s critical thinking skills, including making a variety of perspectives more visible. If a poet has other skills, use them. For this reason, I have consistently returned to Sonia Sanchez’s “For Sweet Honey in the Rock.” We have work on so many fronts that needs to be done if we want our communities to endure. If you can teach, teach more people how to read, teach other young people how to teach. Most academic programs fail to teach pedagogy. Teach outside the academy. Learn some new skills that have little or nothing to do with poetry that can meet people’s human needs.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

The small town where I was born and raised—Kankakee, Illinois. It’s where I met so many people in my grandparents’ tavern, different schools, and I became curious about art in my childhood. My love affair with the library developed there, and my mother taught me to read there. I still love that a river runs through the town. Even though I don’t live there now, it motivated so much of what I wanted to do as a writer.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I visited a friend at the hospital, and I got to be the first person to see her newborn child. There is something awe-inspiring in seeing a vulnerable, new life and greeting it.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

At this point, taking a walk or sleeping, but I do enjoy visiting with old friends and former students from classes and workshops that I’ve taught. Lately, the money has been getting spent on good food and comic books.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

The best thing a poet can do besides maintain their health is to keep writing. I have been talking to my students (and writing friends) about how life is not slowing down for any of us, and whatever happens to us can get in the way. You must make consistent, persistent efforts to keep writing and releasing work into the world.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

As a kid, I had hoped to see more mixed-race kids like me. I’m glad to have grown up to see someone like Barack Obama come into prominence. His mom reminded me very much of my own mother.  Unfortunately, I think too many people think that means racism isn’t a problem or that this means people will lose some sort of cultural grounding. I’m hoping that complicates people’s understandings of humanity and race, especially as white supremacists become simultaneously bolder and more afraid of becoming obsolete.

What life experience has shaped you most as a writer?

I think having my first job as a page at the Kankakee Public Library. Being involved with nonprofits, working at other libraries, poetry slams, women’s groups, going to college, and becoming a professor—all of these experiences were fed by my love of libraries. I fell in love with words at the Kankakee Public Library, and it was one of the few places I walked to alone as a young girl. That quiet, contemplative space filled with so many words is different from what home can look like for a lot of children. At this point, I am a huge supporter of libraries and the work they do to provide information and combat censorship.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2002, 2003 and 2005. I am still struck by how overwhelmed I felt at the opening circle during my first year when the retreat was still based at Cranbrook in Michigan. I met Akua Lezli Hope there, after writing to each other for a couple years. I was blown away by so many talented writers there—many of them before their first books dropped—Adrian Matejka, Christian Campbell, LaTasha Diggs, Cherene Sherrard, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Treasure Redmond, Doug Kearney, and many other folks who were accomplished in other areas. One night, a bunch of people got together and listened to Richard Pryor albums, and A. Van Jordan ended up writing a poem about Mudbone. I ended up writing the poem “Switch” because I was really engrossed in Lucille Clifton’s poem “move” from The Book of Light. I am also sad that some of the people that I met at the retreat are no longer with us—James Richardson, Reginald Lockett, Phebus Etienne, Reetika Vazirani. My first year there was the most memorable for me, and I’ve been running ever since, it seems.