Tara Betts: A Prolific Writer’s View on Craft
By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
Dr. Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” (Trio House Press, 2016), “Arc & Hue” (Willow Books, 2009), 7 x 7: “Kwansabas” (Backbone Press, 2015) and “The GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Argus House, 2013). She earned her MFA in creative writing at New England College and a Ph.D. in English at Binghamton University. African Voices recently had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Betts about her latest book and how she manages to be a prolific writer and scholar while continuing to be a generous member of the writing community.
AV: Can you talk about the different types of writing you do?
TB: Well, at this point, I am still writing poems, but I do find myself wanting to say more in short stories and essays. I’ve always written book reviews, but I want to explore things that I enjoy about Black literature and Black art in more detail. I’m also interested in writing about hip-hop culture and women’s roles in it. The misconception is often that women are missing from hip-hop, but it is widely known that the first rap record was produced by Sylvia Robinson. We have Roxanne Shante, Jazzy Joyce, Lady Pink, Big Les, and Fatima Robinson. We have Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Missy Elliott, Angie Stone, and so many others. Then there have been scholars and filmmakers like Tricia Rose, Gwendolyn Pough, Andreana Clay, Bettina Love, Rachel Raimist, Ava DuVernay, and Nirit Peled. Aside from these women, how many women organized events, hosted as radio personalities, worked at upstart record labels and participated in hip-hop culture in very understated ways? I’d like to contribute to that conversation by connecting history, literature, music, social phenomena, and how all of these inform the various contexts where hip-hop appears. There’s not enough room to explore all that in poems, so the essays have been coming. It is time to tell some stories in an expanded format, as an extension of truths and creating the realities and imaginative places that people need in tumultuous times.
AV: How has the process of writing changed for you from “Arc and Hue” to “Break the Habit”?
TB: The first book was about exploring nostalgia, historical moments, race, gender, and formal poetry. This second book was based in what I had to write for myself. I found myself embracing a variety of line lengths and stanza lengths, but I wrote down what stood out to me most. It wasn’t always a tie to Black music or history, but what struck emotional chords for me. I lost my marriage and my father while I was writing “Break the Habit,” and my mother passed shortly after I finished it. So, this books captures small fragments of that breaking from the past and things that seemed stable.
AV: How do you balance academic writing and creative writing?
TB: For me, they both come out of similar spaces where I’m writing about something that matters to me deeply. There are so many gaps in the scholarly writing and creative writing worlds that we should write toward what has not been fully articulated. Since I studied journalism in undergrad, I found that deadlines helped, but now, I struggle to find ways to maintain the energy that I need to write. I’ve often had students talk about how they don’t know how to write poetry. I typically tell them, “write, and we’ll figure out what to call it later.” Sometimes, genre and structure can serve as the container we need, and at other times, it becomes a trap. For me, the most important thing is to write as much as I can and write the work that I need to see in the world. I will say that it is challenging to read across interdisciplinary genres, but I like plummeting into that valley of ideas.
AV: What can we do about getting books by Black women seen?
TB: Honestly, I don’t know what that takes at this point. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have some opportunities when I least expected them. However, it often seems like there is a concerted effort to be indifferent to what women produce. It’s important to mention Black women’s books to editors and other writers, to review them, to lecture on their books, to buy those books, and teach them. I’m also thinking that women who choose to write cannot afford trepidation. I am guilty of hesitating to send out work to a publication after I have submitted to them in the past, but like most of the writing that writers do, you have to keep sending it out. Also, meeting people and seeking out what you need is important. Online publications and podcasts have given writers more access, but we must sidestep a lot of silence and gossip and keep finding ways to expose people to our writing.
AV: What are you reading now? What music are you listening to?
TB: Lately, I’ve been reading Octavia Butler novels. I’m doing some workshops based on “Kindred” and the graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. I’m also reading “Admit One: An American Scrapbook” by Martha Collins. I recently read “Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday” by Alexis DeVeaux and “Donny Hathaway LIVE (33 1/3)” by Emily Lordi. Lately, I’ve been listening to Lauryn Hill since I wrote about “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” I’ve also been into Run the Jewels, Erykah Badu, and Chance the Rapper. My students have been suggesting that I listen to Migos, and I’ve been suggesting a ton of stuff. I’ve often done at least one class session where I have students write to Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, [or] J. Dilla. I may mix it up and add others.
AV: If you have any advice for younger poets of color wtf is it?!
TB: I keep getting this question, and I still think I have a lot to learn myself. I have discovered that younger poets are individual poets who have various needs. They are navigating their place in the world as adults in a climate that is different from the one that I experienced at their age, and it differs from the environments that my parents and grandparents encountered. The advantage they have is the access to people and information. The disadvantages are mostly economic divides and social alienation.
Young poets have so much energy to deepen their attention and practice of the literary craft and address injustices, but they also are absorbing a lot of unfamiliar and new influences that may seem mundane to me. Usually, we are exchanging reading lists or straightforward, simple suggestions to start and keep writing. I am often encouraging them to be mindful of their health and practice self-care, even though I am avoiding the phrase “self-care” since it seems likely to lose its meaning. I reiterate to keep writing, but I stress that they have to envision the world that they need to keep writing. I found that your book “Continuum” would be a good starting point. Keeping lists is another good point. Draft a plan, keep working toward the goals within the plan, and be willing to amend it. Life will amend the plan anyway, and that is fine. Just keep going.
AV: Talk about the importance of building community.
TB: I know I recently said “the more that I accomplish, the more solitary it feels.” I have often felt that, as a woman, it is difficult for people to accept you being driven. There is enough envy and competition, especially when money is involved. It took me a long time to reach my goals that the people I wanted to share the fruits of that labor with were gone by the time I got there. Then, I have wrestled with distinguishing what I’d like to keep private about myself and what I’m publicly open about. I have a small circle of friends and scholars who have a life completely separate from [the] writing world as I’ve experienced it, and that has sustained me. I do a lot of writing alone, but there are some women writing in Chicago that I am enjoying connecting with sometimes. I’ve also found that young writers that I’ve taught in various nonprofits, universities, and workshops have made me feel like I am still relevant and like extended family. I don’t need to be anyone’s mother, but it is good to think that we check on each other with concern for one another’s welfare. These are the small blessings that help sustain us in hard times.