An interview by AMP Publishing Fellow I.S. Jones and three poems by Betts.
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit (forthcoming from Trio Press) and Arc & Hue (2009). Her chapbooks include Never Been Lois Lane, 7 x 7: kwansabas and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammed Ali. Her writing has appeared in POETRY, Essence, on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and in many other journals and anthologies. She teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Additionally, she has conducted workshops for the Ms. Foundation, City Girls (a substance abuse rehabilitation center for teen girls), Cook County Jail and the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, the Cooper Union, the Dodge Foundation’s Poets-In-The-Schools program, London’s Roundhouse and the Binghamton Poetry Project. Betts has performed her work across the country and on such venues as “Def Poetry Jam” and the Black Family Channel. She comes to this interview to share her knowledge and experience as a poet, writer, teacher and mentor.
I.S. Jones: We spoke earlier about Chicago’s huge youth poetry festival, “Louder Than A Bomb” [LTAB], but I’m curious to know why you’re never mentioned as one of the founders of this festival. Kevin Coval is mentioned a lot and Nate Marshall is often mentioned, but you’re not mentioned. Why is that so?
Tara Betts: I think part of it is because I was involved very early on; and, honestly, I wanted to focus more on the text. I thought LTAB was really important because it’s one of the few things that have happened in Chicago in recent years to bring together kids from all over the city. If you know anything about the composition of the city, you know it’s one of the most segregated cities in the United States. So, as an educator who has taught on the west side, the south side, the north side, and has read all over the city and traveled on the buses and trains, it was really important for me that LTAB was in motion. In terms of the initial idea, I sat in on a lot of conversations with Anna West, who was the director of YCA [Young Chicago Authors], probably in 1999. We were all young poets, teaching artists at YCA; and we saw how much attention young poets were getting in the Bay Area and in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, particularly for the spoken word program that came out of The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor. I said, “Well, why can’t we have that in Chicago?” We have really remarkable, talented young poets in Chicago.” And we had a lot of really long conversations, mostly in cafés in Wicker Park, where we did the initial planning. Anna and Kevin were the ones who did the administrative work. Kevin was the one who stayed in the city and kept it going, but Nate Marshall was one of the young poets heavily involved in it. The LTAB documentary is a testament to the community of young poets who wanted to stay and build in Chicago, now that there was a bit of infrastructure to make that happen. As far as why I’m not mentioned, I would like to know! I heard I was mentioned recently, at an event among several other writers, poets and teachers who were involved but not necessarily in the past 16 years.
I’m never going to be anti-slam because it is the community that gave me so much…. It’s the community that gave marginalized people a space in a way the academy has yet to really acknowledge.
Jones: That’s very interesting. And so I want to ask about Nate and how many generations of the LTAB had happened before him: he was my introduction to LTAB. I watched the documentary and saw a bit of what happened after the kids grew up. Was there a significant gap of time between generations before LTAB hit on an international scale?
Betts: Yeah. I didn’t realize how big it was until I came back to Chicago, when I met people who were doing graduate theses and dissertations on LTAB who were telling me, “Yes, there’s one in Ohio. There’s one here….” And I know there was a lot of hubbub about the LTAB documentary, and that’s been really good for Nate. I think Nate was gonna do well anyway. I think that kind of put him in a position to make LTAB more visible. People in their mid-twenties to 30’s are doing so much in poetry; it’s interesting to watch.
Jones: I definitely agree. My generation is making large strides in adding to the conversation about poetics. As a performance poet now turned professor, you come from a generation of slam poetry, probably one of the first or second wave of slam poets. You’ve witnessed the way it has evolved up through to my generation. I’m curious to know your opinion about how slam/performance poetry has evolved, for better or for worse, since you’ve touched the stage.
Betts: Again, and partly because of social media, slam has done a lot to bring young people together across the country in particular cities. I think it’s done a lot to encourage literacy that evolves around poetry—because what usually happens is that people then want to start writing workshops and exchanging book titles. It becomes this domino effect where people are more curious about their literary legacy. All poets do that and I think they should. But one of the drawbacks I’ve seen in recent years is that it’s [become] more about, “Can I be on television?” “Can I be on tour?” I think it’s okay to do those things, and in many ways it popularizes poetry and what words can do. But what is your [the poet’s] intention when you come to that work? I think that when young people are involved in slam, it can be beneficial for them; but I also wonder, if we’re going to continue building community, how it can be done in a way that encourages a better self. Not a better poet, but a better person. That’s something I’ve always struggled with. I feel like it’s always a challenge that’s been put on the table.
Jones: It could be a regional phenomenon because I did not see this happen in California; however, I did not become entrenched in the larger poetry community there the way I have been in New York.
Betts: I think it’s a variety of things. I mean, I think of issues that have come up in recent years about sexual harassment [in the slam movement]. I’ve seen the way things have changed with race in poetry and how discrimination is carried out on that level. Also, what are we teaching young poets to value? Are we teaching them to value competition or are we teaching them to value writing—writing the best poem that they can write? Are we teaching them to be supportive of other people and considerate of other voices? I think I’m far more interested in that, at this point, and in getting more people involved in the craft and passionate about the written word. The performance is just one vehicle to get to that. I think once you figure out that you can carry out a poem on a stage, you say: “Oh, writing is alive and can move from one place to the other. So why can’t I write a play? Why can’t I write a novel? Why can’t I do a whole spoken word production?” So it’s supposed to be an initial umbrella, a way for poets to get their start, to become writers. To me, that work is far more exciting.
Jones: Would you agree that slam poetry is something that you move through? It’s not something you stay in. It’s something you use to catapult yourself toward a career, but it’s not something you stay in.
Betts: I don’t think you should stay a slam poet. I don’t think it’s healthy. But I’ve been bashed in the past for being “anti-slam,” so to speak. I’m never going to be anti-slam because it is the community that gave me so much. That would be ridiculous. It’s the community that gave marginalized people a space in a way the academy has yet to really acknowledge.
Jones: Can I get an Amen?!
Betts: There is that entrenched elitism based on class, based on academic legacy: where they [the instructors and professors] got their degrees and who their parents are. That’s very real in terms of one’s literary legacy: “Who was your teacher?” “Who was your mentor?” All of those things impact academia in a way that really precludes marginalized voices being at the forefront. Even in all the conversations where they’re talking about “race discrimination,” “sexism,” “patriarchy,” they’re not necessarily including marginalized voices. They’re including a lot of established poets who may have started there, but they’re not necessarily still in that same place. They may be much older, they may be more comfortable [now], and they don’t have an immediate experience of what’s happening on March 28, 2016. So I think that’s something you really have to keep in mind when you think about what slam has contributed to the larger conversation.
I just wrote an afterword for What Does it Mean to be White in America [Gabrielle David and Sean Frederick Forbes, eds., 2 Leaf Press, 2016]. It’s almost all white essayists who are in it. In one essay, Scott [Woods] was mentioned, and Jamila [Lyiscott] was mentioned in another. I said in my afterword that it’s really important to name them as poets who came out of spoken word and slam because that is one section of poetry that furthers the conversation on identity politics in America. They’re part of the foundation, of what comes out of slam poetry. So can we say that everything necessarily comes out of academy? No. We can say that about the Black Arts Movement. We can say that about Chicano writers. We can say that about Asian American writers. We can say that about Native American writers who focus on their culture, or writers who talk about disabilities. LGBT writers, when I think of Pat Parker or Justin Chin or Audre Lorde. There’re all these writers who have done all this work to impact the public conversation—and who weren’t initially embraced by the academy.
Jones: There is always pushback; and then the academy will say, “What the poet did is worthy of the canon.” But it’s [almost always] after, not during, the poet’s working life.
Betts: Definitely. Some of the writers who come out of slam aren’t taken seriously until they publish a lot. Thankfully, at this point, there have been enough anthologies. I always think of Gary Glazner’s anthology, Poetry Slam. There was another one, directed at young poets, a YA anthology called Slam. There was The Spoken Word Revolution anthology that Mark Eleveld edited. Anthologies like these have been helpful because they’ve given credibility to that whole conversation.
Jones: Why is there such a divide between “academic” and performance poetry?
Betts: I think, now that I have the PhD, that I can really say, “You have no business telling me when or how to write.” I do think that MFA programs can be a sort of funnel—[as can] any workshop where there are certain types of instructors who were trained a certain way with certain predilections and leanings in terms of their aesthetic, in terms of who they read, in terms of what they enjoy on the page and what they enjoy doing in their own work. All that stuff is what they pass down to their students as habit and canon.
I had a conversation with an editor of a poetry magazine, a really well-known magazine, and he said to me that he was amazed at all these “new” young poets of color who are really changing the face of the conversation in American poetry. I said, “No, that’s intentional.” I said, “That’s been the plan long in the making.” I said that because there’s been all this work by poets of color who have been mentoring more and more students, and reading more books [by writers of color] because more books by writers of color have been published. Not even just that. If you taught the way I was teaching, I would say: “Yeah, I can teach you Galway Kinnell and Emily Dickinson, but I’m also going to insist on Yusef Komunyakaa being a part of the conversation. Suheir Hammad has to be a part of the conversation.” It’s a matter of [asking]: “How do you change what the conversation looks like?”, and to say, “All these poets are on par with each other. They may do things differently; maybe they have a different voice,” and to start talking to your students so that they have language in their toolbox to really break down the craft of the poem. I’m sure you’ve had this experience, that when the poem is talking about something culturally specific, people say they don’t know how to read it.
Jones: This has been my experience on and off in workshops.
Betts: So, my goal as a writing professor is to [ask], “Do you have the language that explains exactly why you make the choices you make when you come to the page?” And don’t just say, “I speak in AAVE [African American Vernacular English].” No. “Do you know how that impacts the enjambment? Does it create multiple meaning within the line? Is it because you think it’s this part of speech if you place it here? Do you think playing with white space changes the meaning of the poem? Can you really dig into these technical things that make it irrefutable as to why it’s on the page?”
If you want a “paint-by-numbers” poem, you should just find a workshop where they let you bring a bottle of wine and tell you everything is great.
But sometimes I think that’s totally absurd, too. Because sometimes we write a poem because it is clear to us what it is, and it shouldn’t have to be defended like that. [But] I think it is vital to have the language and the tools to say, “This is why I wrote it like that”—and that maybe you should study your craft. “I was reading Philip Levine and he does this in his poems, so why can’t I do that except have it sound like me?”—I don’t think many people come to MFA programs with that kind of thinking. A lot of times students just want someone to show them how to do it; but it’s not like “paint-by-numbers” to write a poem. If you want a “paint-by-numbers” poem, you should just find a workshop where they let you bring a bottle of wine and tell you everything is great.
Jones: You got your MFA from New England College. What was your MFA experience like? Do you feel as though it helped make you an effective writer? What were some surprises you encountered in the MFA program, [experiences] you look back on now that you’re out?
Betts: I feel like I had some good experiences, but I also had some experiences [that made me feel] glad it was done. I was able to write most of my first book there, so that was a beautiful thing. I met great people—some of them are still good friends. I felt like my MFA classmates were very supportive. I did not want to be a student advocate, but there were many times I got pushed into that when all I wanted to do was read books and write. To some extent, I kind of took that on because I wanted to see diverse voices represented in the program. It was me and three other Black students in the program—which was a lot at the time. We would usually plan, at the end of every semester, for things we wanted to advocate for, and that was really helpful. I also feel that sometimes there isn’t necessarily a meritocracy in MFA programs. [Instead] there is a “Who is the person I like most and can I mentor them?” mindset. That creates a level of competition among students and faculty I was uncomfortable with. I didn’t experience it in great detail in my program, but I’ve witnessed it in other programs.
Jones: In my program, I have been one of four Black students, I believe. But we were divided by genre and by time; I didn’t get to hang out with or see many of them. What can MFA programs do, in your opinion, to be more hospitable to Black students and/or other writers of color? Not so much to adhere to or fill racial quotas, but to actually create an environment in which their voices are valued [so that] students will learn during their time there?
Betts: Well, I know I found it helpful to study under people who read books that were culturally diverse and encouraged me to do that. I do feel, about my MFA program, that I went because I wanted to read more of the traditional canon—but I was also introduced to poets like d.a. powell who I really loved—[and] his early books. He’s so smart and zany as a person—hilarious!—and always saying something really brilliant. It’s important to have faculty of color who understand their process, who know what it’s like to be a student of color in that environment. [But] also, if you are a faculty member who is not a person of color, what can you do so that your students can go out into the world and share work? [I don’t] necessarily mean that everyone needs to be published in POETRY magazine or Ploughshares; but does their work find ways to live, whether they publish collections or get fellowships or go write that play…? Do you find ways to support that, to make it happen for the students?
Three Poems by Tara Betts
I don’t know when I started to breathe
like I owned some stranger’s life.
Starting points were unconnected
dots. When I smashed ugly dishes
with green and brown rings
on concrete since your mother gave
them to us. She did not want them.
When I walked through tree-lined streets
of Highland Park, and I would never see
his car waiting to pick me up again. When
I noticed clouds, pine cones, squirrels,
earthworms, changing flowers and leaves
until I began germinating again. While
remembering that my walk slung itself
across guitar vamp and heavy bass line.
After the second spate of empty holidays
in a quiet apartment passed and I still laughed.
When I keep thinking solitary does not just
occur when a bid is handed down for felonies.
No, it’s when I kissed change on its mouth,
gave it some tongue, said Let’s go home.
There are things a stranger can teach you.
As the front legs spread
the body balances, leans
back to accommodate
the last puncturing kiss
before venom expels
its intent to dissolve
organs, extract what
was solid and drink.
Among all those legs,
small clamping hooks
remain tame until hunger
calls, a constant that can
break skin or the surface
of a fingernail, a duo
that delivers an inevitable
signature that flesh forces
us to write.
One Last Gift
Your lover leaves and sends
one last gift—a coffee cup
with a ceramic spider resting
at the bottom. Thin legs reach
out of steamy tea or a creamy
brown. He remembers a spider
guarding your front door
before he left.
After opening the box, you
go outside. The small body
curled against the doorjamb
in twenty-degree December
is gone. He stayed well past
the expected three months.
A life expectancy clinging
like a tag to a tattered shirt,
but the circumstances shift,
until we accept the constant
of loss, a new web spun as
season and appetite requires.