Poet, lecturer and humanist, Tara Betts celebrates the debut of her first book of poetry, Arc and Hue (Aquarius Press 2009) available for purchase online. Betts used to teach poetry to high school students across the city of Chicago and recently moved to New York, where she now lives, works and writes. At a young age Betts aspired to be a journalist. After writing on hip-hop for her undergrad newspaper, she later wrote freelance for BET News, the Source, and XXL. In the process she got to know influential hip-hop journalists that affirmed the desire to write about her passion for culture and community. Betts even had her own radio station in college with a friend. As she attended shows and interviewed people, she became disenchanted by the commercial grind of the less-than-honest music industry. She gradually separated from hip-hop journalism to pursue her own creative interests. Betts says, “hip-hop pops up at times, it pops up in the book. It’s a part of many things that really excite me and engage me with the world.”
Her premier book of poetry, Arc and Hue, has the earnest and intense gaze of hip-hop in its early years. Her message, though less cliché and naïve than the earliest attempts of the musical genre and generation, communicates the same urgency and investment to uprooting the contradictions and paradigms that oppress and repress our communities. Betts goes further to explain her views about the multi-billion dollar hip-hop music industry, as she critiques representations of women, “if you’re a woman, there’s a lot of contradictions in embracing hip-hop. I think that’s one of the things that made me pull away from it. The commercial aspect… but more so, the way women get attacked, or not taken seriously. I mean, I have a lot of friends who still rhyme, friends who do graffiti art, break, DJ, all of that. I embrace that. I’m open. I can listen to Jay Z and not be offended by his commercial sensibility, or 99 problems… but is there a variety to what we’re listening to?”
Standing steadfast as a cultural analyst, Betts further complicates concerns with the hip-hop industry by questioning the compartmentalization of the sub-genres within the archetype of hip-hop as a whole. “You can have a whole bunch of people saying the same thing, but what is the cumulative influence of that? Whereas you might have one person you know who’s gonna be the rough neck friend, the other person who’s your intellectual friend, and the other person who just likes to party. I feel like we don’t necessarily have all those people in the same room anymore with hip-hop. Everything seems a little out of balance. I’ve become more selective of what I embrace.”
Despite the visages of a derailed journalism career, her poetry persists in journalistic clarity and trajectory. Betts’s keen eye and intellectualism, slice precisely into the flesh of the everyday. She wields her words like a surgeon. Technically and poignantly, Betts delves into the inner workings of life. She searches for healing, searches for a chance to flesh out those conflicts, concerns, and contradictions she sees in the world. Without an air of self-importance or intellectualism, her wisdom and observance compel the reader to explore our own challenges.
Arc and Hue, ebbs and flows, intentionally and sometimes drastically shifting in tone. But Betts stays thematically congruent throughout. Lifelong mentor and friend, Afaa M. Weaver aptly writes in the forward, “This is a voice that has apprenticed itself to poets who write for the world not to it, and in writing for the world she reveals her own heart and on the heart of what lives outside her skin,”… “without mining personal issues of race and identity for a careerist strategy.” That is to say, like any good journalist, Betts writes the narrative, chasing the story in her mind, questioning and compelling herself and the audience to perpetually inquire rather then find solace or complacency in answers. Her themes range from existential concerns with the consciousness, to bi-racial and sexual identity, all without skipping a beat.
In her title poem, Betts describes a sincere moment between an aunt and nephew drawing with chalk on the street. She asks the reader to discern the impermanence of life, and to keep those treasured moments of awe alive, despite ourselves. Suddenly, on the next page, we see that same aunt challenging and playfully imagining a world where the sexual identity of those youth–who will one day transition into mature adults– flourishing, without judgment and guilt for their bodies and their selves.
Betts further explains her views on sexuality and writing about sexuality: “There’s a lot of sexual exploration in the beginning of the book. You’re born and then you find your sexual identity. The first part of the book is about coming into your sexuality as a woman. Talking about it as self empowerment.” Stands strong as an advocate for woman’s empowerment, Betts explorations of sexuality on the page come with mature reservations and professional concerns. “How can you write about sexuality but not be trite? How do you make it unique? How do you make the language unique? I’m one of those writers who’s always trying to figure out how to talk about things that I know are difficult for me to talk about. I had a lot of issues trying to write about sex and sexuality in a way that wasn’t going to put me out there, and take a risk. You wonder: do you want your family to read that, or your students to read that and then come to class and quote your book. I think it’s important to try and write about the things that challenge you.”
Sharing her challenges with writing over the years, Betts, a writers’ writer, also remains inline with contemporary issues among the varying writing communities. She expresses her empathy and concern for the young journalists. “It’s different circumstances. It’s not easier. I thought it would be easier by this point in time. I had a lot of opportunities to get paid for it. It’s much more difficult in terms of getting in the door. A lot of online writing has circumvented the print. You could still make pennies writing for print, but at least you knew you were going to make some money. Some people don’t want to pay you to write online. That’s kinda crazy.” Her concern for the young writer parallels her early strives at journalism. Her observations and notes on the world, don’t go unnoticed. Betts is a well versed and avid excavator of literature. She jokingly relates, “My mother used to think I should be an archaeologist, I always head my head buried in a book and my eyes to the ground when I walked.”
Seeding at an early age, Tara’s love for reading was nurtured in the Kankakee, IL library she spent most of her youth working and learning at as a page. Currently, fiction writers like Edgewood Danticat and poetry by John Murillo inspire and motivate her. Betts jumps back and forth from contemporary to founding literary figures in her personal reading as well. She describes with excitement, the personal discovery of a “collection of interviews and talks by Alice Walker called The World Has Changed. I like some of the stuff she says in those interviews, particularly the early interviews. She talks about The Sisterhood, which was this collective of black women writers. It was basically started by her and June Jordan. Toni Morrison was in the group, ntozake shange, Audrey Edwards. There’s a picture of all of them together in the book. I had never heard of Sisterhood. I was like, oh damn.”
Like the rich literary lineage of African American women who have paved the way for generations, visionary Betts looks towards flowering into new outlets. She looks towards prose, writing a memoir of her life, and blossoming her dense intentions in poetry to prose and fiction. Echoing the laurels of contemporary legend, Patricia Smith, “Tara Betts’ deftly crafted stanzas are infused with a relentless lyricism and a Chi-town girl’s sensibility. This debut collection solidifies her status as a defiant and singular voice, joyous indications in a fresh new direction in poetry.” We look forward to reading her second body of work in the years to come and applaud Arc and Hue’s acclaimed success.
Promoting her premier book of poetry, Arce and Hue, acclaimed poet, essayist, arts educator and Illinois native, Tara Betts promises to tantalize your intellect and titillate the senses with her powerful poetry. Catch one of her readings across Chicago. Betts will be reading, performing, hosting workshops and open mics across the city.
SATURDAY, July 24, 3-5 p.m.
Ricochets, 4644 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL
Tara Betts is one of the featured writers at Paper Machete hosted and created by Christopher Piatt. The Paper Machete is a “live magazine” addressing politics and culture.
SUNDAY, July 25, 6-10 p.m.
Music Lounge, 3017 W. Armitage, Chicago, IL
Laudanum Feminist Open Mic is a product of LGBTQ activist, photographer and booking agent Chelcie S Porter. Laudanum is held every Sunday at Music Lounge in Logan Square. Accompanied by DJ Mr. Mitchell. Tara Betts hosts on July 25. Sign up starts at 6:00pm.
TUESDAY, July 27, 6:30-10 p.m.
Jeffrey Pub, 7041 S. Jeffrey Blvd., Chicago, IL
Chicago’s Pow-Wow Inc. provides a weekly performance space for women artists to present, create, develop and implement artistic performances and writing. Tara Betts is this week’s feature, and she’s leading a writing workshop prior to the show. The workshop is from 6:30-8 p.m. Open-mic sign-up starts at 7:30 p.m. She will be signing copies of her book “Arc & Hue”.
WEDNESDAY, July 28, 9 p.m.
Red Kiva, 1108 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL
“The Revolving Door” organized by Jamie Kazay and Jennifer Steele hosts readersTara Betts, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Bayi Ogikutu, Keli Stewart, and Timothy Yu as part of a celebration for Another Chicago Magazine.