Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Interview with Poet Tara Betts

1. What was the first poem that inspired you?

I've been a lifelong reader so I'd have to say the earliest poets I remember reading and seeing—Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Ntozake Shange.

In my hometown, we had annual black history programs where girls would often memorize Angelou and Hughes so they would have to be my first poets with poems like "Phenomenal Woman" and "Mother to Son".

2. Who is your favorite poet/s? Why?

My favorite poets would be Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Marilyn Nelson, and Wanda Coleman. Lucille Clifton was one of my early teachers, and she was encouraging in so many ways. She was also a master of being concise and making her point with an amazing last line. Patricia Smith has a gift for capturing voices, whether they're in her books or she's reading them out loud. Marilyn Nelson is a master of poetic form and the breadth of her historical knowledge. Wanda Coleman because she's a versatile and prolific yet singular voice. Nobody sounds like Wanda Coleman, or any of these other poets.

3. If you could have a conversation with a poet, who would it be? What 2 questions would you like to ask them?

June Jordan. If she were still alive, I'd like to ask her about how young writers motivated her large body of work. I'd also ask where she would think young poets need to be doing and writing in these urgent times.

4. What does poetry mean to you?

Poetry has been the medium that always clearly unlocked the images that I would see in my head. Often that's where a poem begins for me. An image conjures up the idea or the point I want to make, and the poem is a concise, original way to help see and feel the image, and what it conveys, clearly.

5. What type of poetry do you write?

I write all types of poetry—free verse, historically-based, narrative, formal, lyric, persona poems. I think it depends on what works for the poem.

6. What is your creative process like, atmosphere, etc?

It varies. When I lived in Chicago, I often wrote on "the el" (the elevated train) because I had long commutes to teach. Now, I find myself writing in my living room. Sometimes, I put on some music or turn on videos. Other times, I just want to write outside or in a coffee shop. Sometimes, I write with my students in class.

7. What is your definition of creativity?

Creativity is a way of inventing a perspective informed by various sources of inspiration and the need to be unique and crafted.

8. On a typical day, how do you record your thoughts?

I usually just tote around a composition book and try to write every day. I prefer black ink. If I write longer work, like essays or blog entries, I always type that. It just feels right to write the poems with a pen and paper.

9. What inspired you to publish your poetry?

Ever since I was a little girl, I've wanted to write books, and I've always loved books. So, in a way, it has always been my dream job, even though it is hard work. Putting your work in a book also documents your words and helps them travel where you may not be able to go.

10. You're not only a poet but a spoken word/performance artist, what influenced you to perform?

Performance, and bringing the energy of performance to a poetry reading, engages people who may not be fans of poetry and reading. Remember I grew up hearing girls recite poems, so it meant that I couldn't just write it if I wanted people to really hear my work. At first, it was scary to me, but then I realized that sharing the work would help reach people who needed to hear it.

11. In addition to being a poet/author, you are also an educator, what valuable advice do you share with your students from your experiences?

Read and keep reading your whole life, not just poetry either. Read history, fiction, the classics, health, science. I also think it's important to travel and take care of your health. There are a lot of authors and artists who do not take the best care of themselves, and it just slows you down. I also think challenging yourself to write about what you're afraid to write, write about topics that you've never written about before, or write it in a different form.

12. You've performed in Eve Ensler's play "Vagina Monologues", what impact do you think the play has had on society as it discusses such an important topic?

I think the play has raised awareness about violence committed against women and helped powerful women meet each other and find ways to work together and address that violence. On a more personal level, I think "Vagina Monologues" has made it more acceptable for women to affirm and accept their own bodies. There's so much in the media and so many people that point out everything flawed with women, and women's bodies are not made to fit the standards of one way to look.

13. You have also appeared on "Def Poetry Jam". How do you feel "Def Poetry Jam" has been significant?

I think "Def Poetry Jam" was a good experience for me to have because I got to meet more people, but it's one experience. I often meet people who think that television and fame is the main goal for our lives. Television is really just another way to share your work. You still have to keep creating new work and improving on yourself

14. Your list of accomplishments and influences are both impressive and inspiring. I wanted to take a minute to focus on one in particular, Girl Speak, tell us a little about these workshops.

GirlSpeak is a program that I co-founded at Young Chicago Authors with several other women who saw a need to mentor women into leadership positions and being more outspoken. The girls often made up the majority of the classes, but were not always outspoken or critical of instances where girls were being overlooked or discriminated against. So, we did writing workshops and other activities to encourage the girls to speak up on a variety of issues that they deemed worth exploring, including body image, street harassment, and the visibility of young women in the arts. Now, years later, the GirlSpeak is still in operation and they have an online journal.

15. If you had to suggest one book that you have read in your life that was a vital tool, what would it be?

Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions by Toni Cade Bambara

16. Tell us what we can expect from Tara Betts in the future.

Right now, I'm finishing my second collection. I'd like to do some nonfiction writing and a children's book or two. I'm working on co-editing an anthology of Bop poems with poet Afaa Michael Weaver. I'm hoping to be open to doing writing on a variety of topics in all kinds of venues, whether it's on CDs, in museums, overseas, or anywhere.

Interesting tidbits about Tara Betts….

17. If your life had a theme song what would it be?

It depends on when you catch me! I could say "Be" by Common, but it might really be "Love and Happiness" by Al Green or "Diva" by divinity roxx.

18. What is currently in heavy rotation in your ipod/mp3 player/cd player?

Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh", Anthony Hamilton's "Comin' From Where I'm From" and the Blackroc collaboration produced with The Brothers. I'm about to get Janelle Monae's "Arch-Android". Stevie Wonder, Prince, India.Arie are also spinning around in there.

19. What book is currently on your night stand?

I keep a couple of piles of books next to my bed! Right now, I just finished reading Christian Campbell's Running the Dusk. Some other poets I've been looking at include The Heart's Traffic by Ching-In Chen, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock. I've also been reading some nonfiction, including Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

20. If you could visit any place in the world tomorrow without concern with expenses etc where would you go? Why?

I'd visit Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra in Chile. Neruda is one of my favorite poets, and I plan to see it at least once in my life.

21. Studies have shown that color evokes emotion as well as tells you a lot about a person. If you were a crayon in the box of 120 crayola crayons, what color would you be?

I thought about blue because it seems to be a centering, calming color for me, but I also considered purple and yellow orange since they seemed like rich, sensuous colors. The first one that popped into my head was sepia because it has that earthy, vintage shade of brown.

Are there any encouraging words of wisdom or favorite quote you would like to leave with our readers?

These days, I often find myself quoting Lucille Clifton more than ever, probably because I am missing her. I think of this ending of one of her poems: "come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed." But I also keep thinking of this short poem:

"Why People Be Mad at Me Sometimes"

they keep asking me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and i keep remembering mine.

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