Chicago native Tara Betts is a poet, activist and educator. She’s also the author of Arc & Hue, a collection of new, original poetry, released Tuesday, September 1. You may have seen her featured on Def Poetry Jam or read her work in Essence. A creative writing lecturer at Rutgers University, Tara has been widely anthologized and featured at readings all over the country.
What I love about her writing is that it’s as thoughtful, precise, and eloquent as it is accessible and relevant.
Check out this clip at Borders’ Open Door Poetry site to see what I mean. And when you’re done with that, let this marinate:
… Pretty fabulous, right?
Tara was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her writing process for our Sunday series. I trust you’ll find her responses as insightful as I do.
slb: When did you begin working on Arc & Hue? How long did it take to finish this collection? Of which poem are you proudest or to which are you most attached?
Tara Betts: I started with poems I had written in Chicago before I left in 2005. The book was mostly finished in 2007 when I graduated from my M.F.A. program. I added a few poems, and I revised the poems and changed the sequence of the poems more times than I can count. Then I started sending it to publishers in 2008. As far as the poems, I’m attached to, I feel like each poem is something I’m attached to, especially since they made it into the book. Each one has something to say.
slb: Is there a time of day or time of year when you feel you’re most productive as a poet?
TB: I used to think that I was more productive at night, and I was definitely productive when I had long train rides on the red and blue lines in Chicago. Now, I’m finding that if I can sit down with minimal distractions—no phone, no text, no Twitter, no Facebook, and distance from my to-do lists—then I can sit down and write. Anytime. Mostly, it’s me sitting down in a chair and being disciplined and single-minded.
slb: What’s the single most valuable piece of writing advice you impart to students?
TB: There is no easy path to writing. It’s hard work and you have to read deeply and widely. Don’t just read things that you relate to or that mirror your experience. Read about what you find different, unusual, informative. When you do sit down to read anything look at the structure, the word choice, the turns, each sentence or each line. Take notes. Reading can teach you a lot about what you want to write or don’t want to write.
slb: What’s the single most valuable piece of writing advice you received as a student?
TB: I think a variety of writers have taught me that you cannot be attached too tightly to the processes of writing, editing and disseminating the writing all at once. You may be focused on generating the writing or moving through editing and sharing it with people you trust. These are distinctly different stages of thinking about writing. Submitting, publishing and promoting that writing, again, is not the same as the phases of writing, or of editing.
slb: How do you usually approach starting a poem? (Do your poems typically begin with an idea/premise, an usual word, a sound, or a phrase?)
Many times I’ve culled from journals that I keep, but I’ve also walked around with an idea percolating in my head until I can sit down and capture the words that best illuminate the images that emerge in my head so clearly. I’ve written based on a word, a phrase, photographs, the urge to experiment with a poetic form, whatever I’m reading, or a small detail that triggers a memory. So, the wellspring is endless for where poems can come from.
slb: Many believe that writing is a solitary process. As someone who has been part of various writing communities, such as Cave Canem, Urban Word NYC, and the writing/leadership workshop you co-founded, GirlSpeak, can you tell us how your experiences in collaborative writing environments have influenced your writing?
TB: Collaborative writing environments have inspired great conversations, introduced me to books by writers I wasn’t familiar with, and helped me become clearer in articulating my writing process. I do believe that it’s just you when you sit down and start to fill the page, but how do you find sustenance, inspiration and stimuli. One way or another, it involves people who ultimately become an audience who can get you thinking about who writing can reach and its possibilities. So, it has nourished my process.
slb: What impact have your cities of residence had on your work?
TB: I don’t think I would be the poet I am if I weren’t in Chicago. I was there writing, reading with, and steeped in the tradition of writers that I heard about as a girl and while I was in college. My first writing workshop was with Sterling Plumpp who encouraged me to read Sonia Sanchez and Jayne Cortez. New York had always been the dream, even though I had imagined staying in Chicago and helping to establish a solid community there. I decided to pursue my art independent of that community. Although I miss Chicago deeply, I knew that my aspirations would be limited if I didn’t travel or move. I also got involved with Guild Complex, poetry slams and the open mic scene in Chicago, where I began teaching for the first time.
I think you see how people live differently and how geography and architecture affects how people live, speak, eat, interact with each other. Since I’ve been in New York, I get this sense that people are always looking for the new because everything is so compacted, dense and in constant flux. Chicago has a historical feel because it’s still so segregated by race and economics. There’s more of a southern sensibility in the best sense of humanity and responding against injustice but there’s also the tendency to gossip. New York just desensitizes people with so much to do that people are really indifferent about what you do, but it also makes it difficult for people to deal with a violent situation or respond with compassion, such as when someone gets hurt. I think shifting from one place to another can make you keep your eyes open, but it also reveals new histories, new vocabularies and fresh images.
slb: What’s the most memorable question or comment you’ve ever received at a reading?
TB: I remember that I read in Chicago at one of the city colleges. Brenda Cardenas had invited me to speak to several classes after a reading to an auditorium full of students. After a string of poetry-related questions, someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I offered a several writing-related goals, but she pushed a little bit and asked “What else?” Basically, she wanted to know what do I have besides my writing. Some people rely on their writing for everything. The other question that comes to mind is when I spoke to a group of insightful undergrads at Harvard. One of them said how do you wear those earrings and remain yourself when you go into different settings. I had on a pair of gold doorknocker earrings that I bought in the Bronx on Fordham Road. They were emblazoned with the nickname “Furious” like Furious Styles from “Boyz N the Hood”. I just remember encouraging the student and insisting that those earrings are a part of what I am. I may not wear them all the time, but our worlds can blend and collide in complementary ways. It’s amazing to me that even earrings can be indicators of where class can mark us.
slb: Do you have a favored literary device (i.e. alliteration, internal rhyme, repetition) or poetic form (i.e. sestina, sonnet, villanelle)? What draws you to this device/form?
TB: I think I like the sounds of individual words and how they can accumulate to create a tone. As far as poetic forms, I almost feel like I’m in the candy store or a really good tool shed. There’s always a lot to play with and test their senses. For awhile I was fixated on sonnets. Lately, I’ve been writing these 7-line poems called kwansabas. A kwansaba is a form of counted verse created by Eugene Redmond. In terms of inspiration for poetic form, I’ve drawn a lot from the variety of forms evident in work by women like Marilyn Nelson, Marilyn Hacker, Annie Finch, Dolores Kendrick, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton. I’ve been meaning to read more of Carolyn Kizer as well.
slb: You’re engaged to a poet. Is it ever difficult to critique each other’s work?
TB: How did you know? Anyway, all joking aside, we really don’t critique each other. My fiancé is very reserved about his writing. He’ll write and I don’t even know until there’s a sheaf of papers! As for me, I’ll share pieces sometimes after I’ve just written them, and he might ask a few questions, but it’s not a harsh razored critique of any sort. We’ve given each other input occasionally and even been in a workshop together with Patricia Smith. We also write at the Acentos workshops at Hostos Community College in Bronx, but that’s a workshop that focuses on generating writing, reading and talking about paths to get to writing. We talk a lot about writing though, and I think that helps us help each other with our individual processes. The key for us is being supportive of and honest about each other’s work and what it requires for us to get it done.
Many thanks for Tara’s time and advice. Check out her book and support this wonderful poet!
Dear Readers: Have Ms. Betts’ words of wisdom influenced you? What do you think of Ms. Betts’ work?
We’d all love to hear from you!