Poetry is Not a Luxury: A Conversation with Tara Betts

Tara Betts’ career, writings and experiences show that art serves an important social purpose and, simply, some people were put on this earth to write and help others develop their creative voices.

Tara has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and the Black Family Channel series Spoken with host Jessica Care Moore. After winning Guild Complex’s Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, she represented Chicago twice at the National Poetry Slam. She has performed in Cuba, London, throughout the Midwest, the East and West Coasts, and the South. In addition to all this, Tara has coached and mentored countless young writers and performers that have participated in Brave New Voices and the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slams.

We are so grateful for the opportunity to have a discussion with her on creative inspiration, the importance of poetry, her new book Arc and Hue and, of course, what it means to live unchained.

What sparked your interest in poetry?

My interest stemmed from my love of reading, and it also came from the music that I enjoyed. I loved MC Lyte, KRS-One, Public Enemy, and the Native Tongues crew, but I also loved U2 and The Cure. I felt like lyrics moved me and inspired me, almost as much as my trips to the library, where I eventually held my first job and snuck around reading in the stacks. I also dabbled in classical music like Bolero, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.

I just wanted to soak up anything that fed burgeoning images that would emerge in my head. Of course, poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ntozake Shange, and the anthology The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall really inspired me.

From what sources do you gather inspiration?

Music and books are two huge inspirations. Historical events and poetic forms have been compelling for me in recent years, which has really drawn me to work by Marilyn Nelson.

Lately, if I see an image or hear a word or line, then I usually see something in my head or I feel the spark of writing arise. Of course, sometimes, I just force the impulse and write. Sometimes, I’m surprised with what develops.

Do you think poetry has a specific way of expressing something that is different from other forms of art? If so, why?

Well, poems can be concise and full of power. Every word should be necessary.

Poetry also relies on associations between different subjects like any art form. I think photography and visual art relies on imagery, much like poetry.

However, poetry is one of the art forms that is not readily put up for sale and put into mainstream entertainment venues. It makes it difficult to make a living as a writer, but it provides the opportunity to insert poetry into unexpected places.

If you could have a conversation with any poet from the past or present, whom would you speak with? What would you ask?

I’d like to speak with quite a few poets—June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, Henry Dumas, and Julia de Burgos.

If I think of living poets, I’d love to speak with Rita Dove. I’d probably ask them for advice on where us poets should be headed and how can we avoid some of the snares that they faced. We could explain how the present has complicated the past.

Can you tell us about your latest project Arc & Hue? What inspired you to write it?

Arc & Hue is my first book. Writing books has been something that I wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. The book is a collection of poems that I started when I was in my MFA program. A few of them were poems that I wrote before grad school, but I also printed two chapbooks myself before the book, so I just kept writing and figuring out ways to get my work out into the world without major publishing or distribution. Arc & Hue is based on memory, historical memory, and longing for what we remember.

Of Arc & Hue, Wanda Coleman says you are: “unearthing the linguist riches and myths of the African Diaspora.” How are you drawing on traditions of the African Diaspora?

The book’s content addresses contemporary and historical events. Nas, Tina Turner, Gladys  Knight & the Pips, Black Sheep, Blondie make their appearances in the book, but there are also poems that explore interracial identity, lynching, the other tragedies of Jena, Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina.

I’m also trying to explore poetic forms originating in the African Diaspora like the blues poem and the Bop poem, created by Afaa Michael Weaver. Afaa and I are also working on an anthology of Bop poems right now.

I want to share a quote with you from Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

“Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?…we survived in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets…”

What does this piece make you feel and/or think? Many folks believe poetry is a luxury for the sensitive and those not facing real and practical challenges. What are your thoughts on this?

Poetry can be pragmatic, and it can inspire action. Poetry can change the way we think. It’s funny that you quote this book by Angelou because this is the book that made me want to be a poet when I was 12.

In a way, poems are monuments. It’s just a matter of people revisiting and preserving poems like any other monument. I also think poems can be alive and transmit ideas that shift people into dreams or changing their mind to do new things.

On the other hand, I have always considered poetry as inspiration for praxis. I’ve found solace in it when I’ve done community organizing, taught people to read, protested, or just encouraged them to think critically about the world. This is a radical act too.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Years ago, Amiri Baraka told me and some younger poets that we will never know what an non-oppressed person looks like. He didn’t elaborate on that idea, but none of us can say that we have not been touched by race, class, or gender. I think we’re often reaching to configure a world that is conducive to our multiple selves, free of the psychological burden that can feel like manacles on our minds and bodies.

Visit Tara’s website here.

One response to “Poetry is Not a Luxury: A Conversation with Tara Betts

  1. Pingback: Getting to Know Tara Betts — Part 1

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