VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Tara Betts

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Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
–Audre Lorde

I reached out to author and professor Dr. Tara Betts to talk about the work—about writing and publishing—as I do with all Visible interviewees. But in our conversation, Betts also wanted to talk about the rest, about how women writers can allow ourselves more time to relax, to take care of our bodies, to just be. But all too often, we don’t.

Betts came to understand the importance of self-care in the process of writing her second book, 2016’s Break the Habit. The Poetry Foundation notes the “feel of jazz” in this collection, along with influence of The Cure and Glen Campbell as Betts heals from the heartbreak of her divorce.

In her early career as an educator in Chicago, Betts co-founded GirlSpeak, a weekly writing and leadership workshop for young women. She has conducted workshops for schools, community centers, and organizations including Ms. Foundation, City Girls (a substance abuse rehabilitation center for teen girls), the Cook County Jail and Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Cooper Union, Dodge Foundation’s Poets-In-The-Schools program, London’s Roundhouse, and the Binghamton Poetry Project.

Betts appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and on the Black Family Channel series SPOKEN with Jessica Care Moore. She performs at universities and festivals around the world including the Dodge Poetry Festival, Yari Yari Ntoaso (Accra, Ghana), Mixed Roots Festival, The Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Split This Rock Festival, the National Black Writers Conference, Studio Museum of Harlem, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Bowery Poetry Club, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Schomburg Center, Yerba Buena Cultural Center, the Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, and Yale University. She has shared the stage with Rosellen Brown, Afaa Michael Weaver, Martín Espada, David Mura, Kwame Dawes, Luis Rodriguez, MC Lyte, Grammy-winner Jill Scott, and others.

Betts is the poetry editor for Blackberry: a magazine and a contributing editor for Radius. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including POETRY magazine, Essence, The Black Scholar, Obsidian, Callaloo, RHINO, Crab Orchard Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Meridians, Hanging Loose, American Poetry Review (forthcoming), The Break Beat Poets (Haymarket Press, 2015), and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015).

In this interview, Betts talks about embracing prose as well as poetry, writing through grief (or not), and why she loves comics.

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Tara Betts: The first thing I want to say is that yesterday I got my copy of Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 (penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey). I’m so excited! I keep a box at comics books store that’s a little ways from my house. So as soon as stuff comes out, it goes in my box.

The Rumpus: So you’re a comic book fan?

Betts: I’ve been becoming one in recent years. I have a couple that I get. Black Panther, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and I was into this one called Princeless. I just added Iron Man because I’m really interested to see what happens with Riri Williams. Now that I’m out of my Ph.D. program, I’m like, “I can read comic books for fun!” [Laughs]

Rumpus: They help you to decompress?

Betts: Yes, and I’m also interested in seeing how black women are represented in comics and in science fiction. In some ways, comics are escapism, but they are also allegorical and representative of things that happen in our everyday lives. There was this one panel from Devil Dinosaur that I really loved, where a character says, “It’s my body and nobody’s gonna tell me what to do with it!” How many conversations have I had where somebody said that? And how many girls and boys will see that panel and know that they have sovereignty, and permission that they can grant, over their bodies?

Rumpus: You work with teen girls, so I imagine the topic of permission, consent, comes up a lot—

Betts: It does, with girls and with grown women, unfortunately.

Rumpus: So has blending art and activism—for example, around issues like rape culture—has that happened for you organically? What has your process been?

Betts: Everything I’ve done in terms of activism has been organic. It’s how my mom brought us up, and I’ve thought about that a lot lately, particularly since she’s been gone. She really hammered home the idea that you treat people in the way you want to be treated. I think about that all the time. It pressed upon me this sense that if you see something unjust, you don’t let it slide. Even if you’re not in the streets with a banner or you don’t change the laws, you do something.

Rumpus: This is a mantle that many women of color carry. A legacy. But for some of us, it can also become a burden. How do you balance?

Betts: It can be a burden, and more often than not, it goes unrewarded. Particularly if you are not the poster girl that people want you to be. Who gets media coverage? Who wins the prize? Someone else could be doing the same thing for ten, fifteen, twenty years, and not get coverage, not get a prize, because nobody notices. But I try not to look at it through that lens. I try to look at the work that I’m doing as something that I need to do for me.

So in terms of the burden, there are times now when I say “no.” I have to take things slowly, for the simple reason that I’m not twenty-five anymore, and I can’t exert myself in certain ways. I feel vulnerable at times, and I don’t have the same support network I had when I was younger. So you have to reassess what you’re willing to do and how can you support other people who are more capable at this particular thing than you are. And it takes some humility to do that.

Rumpus: We were talking earlier about comic books and superheroes. And this is the “cape” we are handed as black women, this activism, this work. I don’t think we talk enough about when it’s time to set the cape aside and how that’s not a failure.

Betts: It’s not a failure. You’re transferring your convictions to other things you’re trying to do.

Rumpus: Does it seem like black women artists are expected to pull that double shift—artist and activist—while our male counterparts are free to just be artists, if that’s what they want to do?

Betts: There are some women who will support that observation, and some women who will stay quiet and who won’t say anything about it. But if we look at rape culture in America, if we look at who our President-elect is, if we look at the fact that there’s still a huge economic disparity between women and men in terms of the money they make over the course of a lifetime despite women having equal or higher credentials—that all weighs in on the craft that we put on the paper. And it can diminish the energy we have to put into our work.

But it’s a real struggle to get some women to talk about these things because they worry, “It’s going to jeopardize my chances if I put my neck out there.” You don’t have to put your neck out there, and you don’t have to act like all men are the enemy. Because they aren’t. Some men are quietly and in really important ways being supportive of women artists. But there are still people, across the gender spectrum, who support patriarchal ways of thinking, even if they’re not aware of it.

So how can we step forward and say, “Okay, we gotta do something differently?” I’ve been particularly excited about younger poets and writers talking about these issues. Because they don’t flinch from it as much. Maybe because they aren’t afraid. But I still think we have a long way to go.

For me personally, I have many more books to write. My mother was a reader. She taught me how to read. So when I think about her, I feel like I have an obligation to write much more.

Before my mother got sick, I was talking to her about Kate Zambreno’s book, Heroines. In it, she talks about the history of women writers and how they’ve been sabotaged. And I was really upset about it because it only mentioned two black women. There was a sentence about Nina Simone, and at the end she talks a little bit about Roxane Gay’s work. But the overall thesis of the book is about how there’s not a support system for women who write, how people speculated for a long time that Zelda Fitzgerald wrote some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work.

And I asked my mom, “Is it always going to be this way for women? Is it always going to be so hard? Am I always going to feel this way? Am I always going to have to give something up to do this?”

And my mom said, “You’re always talking about this. You need to enjoy your life.” [Laughs] And I thought about it. Women often take on a lot of responsibilities that we really don’t have to take on. We just don’t. There are times when we can choose to say, “I need to rest. I need to enjoy myself. I need to go to the doctor. I need to make sure I eat meals that aren’t battered in grease and salt.”

So sometimes, I’m just saying “no” and not giving up my time to everyone else.

Rumpus: Was that a revelation you came to between your first and second books?

Betts: Definitely. That conversation with my mom happened between books. I got married and divorced between books. I’ve moved from upstate New York back home to Chicago. And I just started to look more carefully at the lives of the women around me, women who are trying to raise a family and keep their art alive. I’m very skeptical if that’s altogether possible for everyone.

Rumpus: Right. And women have been grappling with this question long before us.

Betts: Yeah, it’s an old problem that has not found an answer. But in the wake of marriage equality, if we’re rethinking what partnerships look like, for people across the board, there’s going to have to be some rethinking of what those relationship roles meant in the first place.

Writing is rooted in our roles and identities. How does it change your voice and your subject matter and how you approach things? Who do you choose to talk about and why? And how do you talk about them? What points in time do you select to create a story or an image?

I think people divorce identities from craft all the time. And they ask me about activism, and yes, I have protested for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and I do talk about the prison industrial complex and the academic industrial complex, but I’m not always out in the streets like that! [Laughs] I also like talking about poems and books and music and history. It’s a confluence of things that feed what you write. I think that’s part of why I have such a hard time getting rid of books in my house, because I want to read everything. Did I read the latest book by Jeff Chang, or this one chapter by Foucault that I really didn’t want to read, but I know it might do something?

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the poems in Break the Habit. How the collection came about, your favorites in the collection…

Betts: All those poems came about after my separation and divorce in 2011. I wrote that book pretty quickly. I think it was done in 2013. I just found myself writing poems, writing poems, writing poems. And it was what I needed to write, to have an outlet and to process what I was feeling. And then later on, it was, “Can I cultivate these spare lines? What are the ones that build a cumulative narrative to put together a manuscript?”

The first couple of poems in the collection really speak to me. I wanted to start with poems about people who are no longer here. So the first poem is the “Welcome to the Terrordome” poem which is about how I first learned about Huey P. Newton in high school, by listening to a Public Enemy record. That poem speaks to different audiences on different levels. It’s been interesting to read that poem to young people who are into hip-hop. Some of them know who PE is and some of them don’t. I’ve had a couple of kids tell me that they’ve heard or read about the Black Panthers, and they say, “That’s really cool that you told the story about how you learned about them.”

I think about the Hadiya Pendeleton poem which takes off of Larry Levis’s poem, “The Clearing of the Land,” in terms of the line breaks and the syntax. And I wanted to write about somebody from the South Side [of Chicago], somebody black, patterned after Levis’s poem, which I really love. I was still in Binghamton, New York, at the time and I couldn’t think of anybody but Hadiya Pendleton.

Because those two poems are about people who I want to be remembered, they really mean a lot to me.

Rumpus: And was your process with Break the Habit different from how you put Arc & Hue together?

Betts: Oh, yeah. With Arc & Hue, it was pulling the poems that I knew people would respond to. That book is more thematic and gets more political toward the end. In the beginning, the poems are about personal memories, as opposed to the larger, more political ideas at the end. And I tried to do more of a deliberate formal bent in those poems. There are sonnets and villanelles. There’s a canzone and a sestina. I wanted to show that even though these poems were doing certain things emotionally, they had some kind of formal rigor.

Most of the poems in that collection are ones that I had some kind of emotional attachment to, and I knew people would respond to these particular poems. It comes down to: Are you honest and specific? Not in a confessional way, but are you relaying an emotional truth to people through imagery? Are you relaying an emotional truth by somehow recreating the feeling in the words in such a way that it’s just sharp?

Like Denise Levertov. Sometimes she can have a line and you feel it—even if you’ve never experienced what she experienced. Somehow, it just makes sense. And you would have never thought to phrase it that way. That’s what I’m aiming for more often than not: How do I create an emotional truth that will ring true to what someone else has experienced?

Rumpus: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and, specifically, a poet?

Betts: When I was a kid, probably when I was twelve or thirteen. At the time I was reading Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She writes about being sexually assaulted by her uncle and the fallout with the family and how she stopped speaking. Writing eventually helps her to speak again. I kept to thinking to myself as a kid, “Wow. If writing can do that for her, what could it do for me?”

And I kept a journal as a kid. I had little weird drawings and poems in it.

And my mom would read Alice Walker and Raymond Andrews, people like that. And she’d leave these books laying around the house, and I’d read them, at ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. I read all of Alice Walker’s short stories and Raymond Andrews’s Baby Sweets. At twelve, I wasn’t allowed to read The Color Purple, but I was old enough to babysit my brother. And I knew where the book was, so I would read as much as I could until I heard my mother coming up the stairs. [Laughs]

So with all this black literature and feminist literature laying around the house, what else would I write about?

And then my first job was as the Kankakee [Illinois] Public Library, and every time I saw a book with a black person on the cover, I’d go and read it. So I read [Paul Laurence] Dunbar that way. I read Ntozake Shange that way. Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston. So in high school, I’d be hiding in the stacks reading books. [Laughs]

Rumpus: And did you read those books and think, “I want to write like her”? Or did you always have your own style?

Betts: I always wanted to write poems, and as much as I loved rap, I realized that it was like a box. I couldn’t let my writing expand out into something else if I stuck with rhyming couplets. I wanted to tell my story in a different format. So I don’t know that that there was someone in particular who blew me away in that fashion.

The thing that blew me away was being on the open mic scene and reading some of the poets who came of age in the early ‘90s in New York, like Paul Beatty, Willie Perdomo, Tish Benson, Jessica Care Moore. And you’d go to those slam spaces because you needed the people and the community.

But now I have so many different ideas I want to pull from that it’s becoming more of a solitary activity again. It’s almost like being back in the library again, hiding in the stacks, devouring all those books.

Sometimes you have to have that sanctuary to get you into the space you need to create something new.

Rumpus: Speaking of sanctuary, you lost your mom. I lost my mom too. And people would tell me, “Write about your mom, about your grief. That will help you.” But that was not at all what I wanted to do—

Betts: I was really lucky that a lot of people did not do that in a way that felt intrusive to me. I wrote stuff down because there was stuff I knew I would forget. And some of those poems are circulating in different places, but most of them are not in the book. I’m still trying to figure out how much of that I want to keep for me.

My mother would say, “Don’t write about us!” Someone asked me, “Do your parents know what you write about and what do they think about it?” And I told them that my mother and I had an agreement that there are certain things I can’t write about until after she dies. [Laughs] And people were horrified. Be we actually talked about that. And there are some things where I need to respect her privacy. I can write about it privately. Sometimes you just need to write something for you. It’s not always for public consumption.

And you may not be able to write about it yet. It might hit you five years later, and you’re like, “Oh, my God!” And then you write about it, if that’s what you choose to do.

But you can’t force it. There’s too much going on. You’re just happy to be upright because you’re dealing with the fact that this person can no longer call you on the phone. Or this is the one person who has been there through everything, and now they’re not there. Don’t tell me what’s going to make it better, because it’s not going to get better. You’ll just be able to feel like you’re not falling apart at a certain point.

Everyone who has lost a parent tells me that it still hurts. But somehow, it hurts less.

People want to have the conversation about mental health, but they don’t know how to deal with grief. They don’t know how to deal with depression. They don’t know how to deal with loss. And they think you’re on some timetable, but there’s no magic timetable for when this all gets better. And I think it’s the same for writing about it. There’s no timetable for cranking out those poems about something that hurts.

Rumpus: You move between poetry and prose, but are you more comfortable writing poems?

Betts: I think because I’ve published more poetry I feel more comfortable with it. I don’t feel as afraid of it. But when I feel like I have an idea, I take the advice I give my students: Write what you really want to say, in a way that you know you can say it, and we’ll figure out what to call it later.

I know I want really crisp details. I know I want good sentences. I know I want to organize it in a certain way. I know that there are certain aesthetic choices I’m making, but I don’t always come to it with everything plotted out.

I feels like there are more possibilities for me to engage in all the subjects I’m interested in, if I write in more than one genre. If I was just writing poems, I couldn’t write, for example, “The Luke Cage Syllabus.” I couldn’t write about how this series, which is commandeered by a majority black cast and other people of color, and talk about how there is a serious love of books throughout the show. Not just the hero, but the villains! All these books that get mentioned throughout the season from beginning to end. How often do we see characters referencing books, music, history, even on a show where the cast isn’t people of color? So what does it mean to have that kind of representation? I can’t put all of that in a poem!

So some of the things I really want to talk about can’t be housed in the concise, succinct space that a poem typically is.

Rumpus: What are you working on right now?

Betts: I’ve been thinking about Joan Didion and, in particular The White Album where she’s telling stories about people who were popular culture figures of the time. And how do you do that in such a way that you make it relevant, both timely and timeless? How do you connect these stories to something else that’s bigger? For me, it’s not just documenting the aesthetic choices that black women artists, like Lauryn Hill, make, but also looking at hip-hop in a different way, looking at poems and the types of writers that matter to me, in a different way.

I approach writing with underlying missions. I know I want to do scholarship on black women. I know I want to talk about hip-hop. I know that I can braid those two together. And I’ll do it ways that I haven’t seen people make those connections. What are the gaps that haven’t been filled?

Rumpus: Will this work become mostly essays or will it also be part of your next collection of poetry?

Betts: Well, I’ve started on a third collection of poetry. But I also want to do more essays around this scholarship. And I’m working on essays for several anthologies right now.

Rumpus: What’s something you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

Betts: I tweeted this to a young writer, Eve Ewing: Tenacity is the thing that’s going to serve you best because sometimes the only thing that can sustain you is if you just keep going.

I don’t mean to negate what I said earlier about saying “no.” I’m saying that there is always going to be someone who will tell you “no.” The question is, how do you create the “yes” you need to do the work you want to do. Stay persistent. It may not happen on the timeline you want it to happen on, but you gotta keep going.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →