Tara Betts Interview
with Nicole Sealey
Named one of Essence magazine’s 40 Favorite Poets, alongside Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Suheir Hammad, Tracey K. Smith and others, it is simply impossible not to like poet Tara Betts.
Betts’ reading voice is as rich as her dossier—a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University and a Cave Canem fellow whose work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Callaloo, Columbia Poetry Review, Hanging Loose, Ninth Letter, Black Writing from Chicago, Fingernails Across a Chalkboard, Gathering Ground, Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism and ROLE CALL, respectively. Now, add to that list of accomplishments Arc & Hue, Betts’ debut collection of poems and, with it, praise from some of the most celebrated writers. Martín Espada proclaims, “Tara Betts is a poet who pays exquisite attention to the world. It’s high time the world repaid the favor.” The world, I would argue, is doing just that.
Since the book’s release in September 2009, Betts has been ripping and running from one lecture to the next, from one reading to the next, while at work on a memoir, a collection of seven-line poems inspired by Eugene B. Redmond as well as an anthology of Bop poems, Bop, Strut and Dance, with Afaa Michael Weaver. And, that’s not all—she is interested in writing children’s books too. I caught up with the charismatic Tara Betts between engagements to talk about her story, to talk Arc & Hue.
Nicole Sealey: What should readers understand the book’s title, Arc & Hue (A&H), to mean?
Tara Betts: The title is taken from a poem of the same name that speaks to the kind of longing children—like the boy in the poem—are not yet aware of experiencing, a longing for the past that has yet to open behind them. The title embodies this feeling of nostalgia that never quite remembers how it was to be in a moment. The chalky colors and curves of our lives are smudged into unclear sketches that we used to know with a sharp sense of clarity.
NS: A&H seems to span years of your memory and imagination. What determined each poem’s entrance into or exit out of the collection?
TB: Each poem is tracking a passage of time. Only one poem made it into A&H from my chapbook Switch, and that was the title poem. “Switch” marked the transition where I knew I was going to cling more tightly to a forceful sense of sound and imagery to talk about issues I feel need to be articulated.
The opening poem, “Housekeeping,” serves as a preface for the book and can be tied to Lucille Clifton’s short poem, “Why some people be mad at me sometimes”:
they keep asking me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep remembering mine.
I wanted “Housekeeping” to be a poem of “remembering mine,” even in the face of some who validate poems that reinforce a limited number of narratives with awards that largely ignore work by writers of color and women writers. This idea permeates many of the poems in A&H. I close the book with “For Those Who Need a True Story” because it is a poetic rendering of a story that was told to me about a young boy’s experience living in a Chicago tenement. The onus of the poem, however, rests in its conclusion: “Healthy children” have advantages that permit them to write new stories more often. The poem is a call to tell a full range of stories, an indictment of poverty—not an exploitation of the ghetto to garner sympathy.
NS: The full range of our stories includes those stories we may not know. Without alluding to a specific moment, “Erasure,” for example, notes the ways in which history is lost.
TB: Before writing “Erasure,” I thought a lot about Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. It opens with a woman who, while walking through the southern heat, starts her period. She substitutes pamphlets for a pad, and struggles to continue when a Martin Luther King Jr-like leader arrives in an air-conditioned car, crisp and sweat-free in his suit. This moment, in particular, rings of inequity, even in a progressive struggle.
Women in the Civil Rights Movement are still far too under-recognized, but there are unrecognized heroes for any political movement. Or, the circumstances of the time push people out of textbooks. Had he lived, we would have a different understanding of Che Guevara. Or, if homosexuality and interracial relationships were viewed differently, we might celebrate Bayard Rustin more openly. People latch on to the most arresting characters, not always those who were the most instrumental.
I often find myself thinking beyond the people on stamps, T-shirts, and posters to the not-so-iconic figures. In Chuck D’s “Fight the Power,” he says, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp.” But, many of the people he alludes to have been “stamped” and made safe by ignorance and the distance of time. This poem hints that the people we study aren’t the only ones worth knowing. We have to keep digging up their, the Rustin-like figures, histories and remember them.
NS: One could easily replace Venus, the spectacle from “Venus Hottentot’s Onlookers,” with another such spectacle, and tweak lines to form another other, another instance of othering. In “digging up” Venus’ history, was your initial connection to this poem birthed out of being othered yourself?
TB: I heard a vicious voice in my head that sounded like it was looking at the often cited image used to portray hip hop—the gyrating exposed behind of a black woman. I asked myself, “What would Saartjie Baartman think?” The poem, however, poured out into the brutal, terse voice of a spectator who would look on at Baartman and her descendants without distinction. The spectator’s voice categorizes and distances itself from Baartmaan in order to feel superior.
I am not sure about my own othering being the wellspring for this poem. I simply saw myself doing a different take on Elizabeth Alexander’s spare contemplative lines that shape the significant book of poems, The Venus Hottentot. I certainly didn’t see myself writing a novel like Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus or Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, Venus.
NS: If A&H were a play, what would its plot elements be? Its visual components?
TB: There are different tones and scenes in each section. There is the development of a young woman from a foundation, literal and literary. The first section is about birth and burgeoning sexuality. The following sections would be imbued with jazz and hip hop, city scenes and international streets. All of the different voices would inform a central narrator who debunks all the limitations that others have tried to force upon her and the voices her scenes inhabit. There would be children, hip hop, colored chalk, Tina Turner, young people running, a cracked ceiling, the sound of rats and, hopefully, the opening of a new day.
NS: In the book’s foreword, Afaa Michael Weaver writes, “This is a voice that has apprenticed itself to poets who write for the world and not to it, and in writing for the world she reveals her own world…” Describe the world(s) for which you write.
TB: When Afaa said this, I think he meant that some poets write for an exclusive circle that understands each other’s references and back-patting. The worlds I envision writing for are many but, I think, A&H speaks to people from some of the same circumstances that birthed me: poor and working class people, black people, and women. This might be too simplistic though, as we are human beings who experience longing, nostalgia, and a will to envision possibilities despite difficult circumstances.
When I think of worlds, I think of Naomi Shihab Nye talking about how children memorize poems, as if they’re carrying around their favorite polished marble in their pockets. I also consider Pablo Neruda’s “Great Happiness” from Canto General, and how the miner knows Neruda’s poems. Poets must embrace what makes them part of the global community, but they must also understand the everyday life of those who never leave the block.
Nicole Sealey, born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Central Florida, is a Cave Canem fellow whose poems have appeared in journals, such as Callaloo, The Drunken Boat, Sou’wester, and Torch. She is a Hedgebrook alumna and the Readings/Workshops (East) and Writers Exchange Program Manager at Poets & Writers, Inc.