Poetry Fridays: 2010 Festival Poet Tara Betts

Rebecca Gambale, Festival Assistant

BettsPhotoTara Betts is a Cave Canem fellow and a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Originally from Kankakee, Illinois, she has a Chicago soul which comes across in her writing as well as through her history in non-profit teaching endeavors. Her debut collection, Arc & Hue, captures Tara’s spirit of activism, enthusiasm for performance and dedication to community with masterful eloquence.

In an interview with Abdul Ali, Betts says of Arc & Hue: “This book grapples with that feeling of holding on to memories we create and letting them go to make room for the rest of our lives.” In the book’s title poem, the speaker and her nephew are drawing pictures on the pavement with chalk, while the speaker notes “how quickly arc and hue / crafted, turns to dust”. This is the complex tension which is explored throughout the collection.

From such tension springs the music of Betts’ words, creating a strong and trustworthy voice. Throughout her book, Betts creates dramatic juxtaposition through contrasting themes, such as celebrating the body of women of color set against the societal challenges a “Mixed Girl” faces; the wonderment of love versus the horror of domestic abuse; or the importance and beauty of community in the face of devastation, such as Hurricane Katrina; all written down and wrestled with on the page, an act of preserving a disappearing history, as in her poem “Erasure,” which you can watch her read here.

In an interview for GirlSpeak, Betts says “Art doesn’t always have to be serious, but it can make us think differently.” And sure enough, while tackling difficult issues, Betts’ sense of humor is a strong undercurrent. She challenges the reader’s imagination in “Neruda’s Email to Slam Poets,” where she assigns Neruda the email address of cantogeneral@gmail.com, “So, I ask you if ink on a napkin matters / when bullets dare you to approach a fence, / write simple phrases, tender as tilapia, / like love you. miss you. Recordamos.”

This strength, versatility and thoughtful attention to the difficulties of women, of people of color and more generally of the human experience, is translated into action through Betts’ teaching work. In 2003, Betts co-founded GirlSpeak, a Chicago-based writing and performance workshop for young women. Betts has also been a part of Dodge’s Poetry-in-the-Schools program. Her compassion and heart have been assets in encouraging young people to write their own work and find their own voice – and most of all, to enjoy the process.

Please use the “Share your thoughts with us” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2010 Festival Poets.

Return in the weeks ahead as we continue to profile the 2010 Festival Poets.

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