Tara Betts

tara betts7 x 7: kwansabas (Backbone Press, 2015)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Right now, I am excited about Amber Atiya’s chapbook, and I am looking forward to reading Fatima Asghar’s chapbook. I just got a stack of chapbooks from dancing girl press, but I have enjoyed some from Belladonna, Button Poetry, and Carolina Wren.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I think it’s a good way to explore a suite of poems or an idea, but I also think there’s not the same sort of pressure that foments when you are trying to develop a full-length manuscript. It allows you to zero in on a theme without feeling like it has to be 50-100 pages. I think that’s what I’ve loved in particular about Barbara Jane Reyes’ chapbooks Cherry and For The City That Nearly Broke Me.

What’s your chapbook about?

My chapbook is a series of 7-line poems written in a form created by black literary scholar Eugene Redmond. I started off writing poems about black historical figures, then I started to look more closely at tying the poems thematically to the number 7.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

With help from my friend Aurelius Raines, I self-published my first chapbook Can I Hang? in 1999 because I was on the first Mental Graffiti slam team in Chicago, and I was doing so many readings where people asked me for copies of poems. It was a way to share poems, and it helped me pay bills in a much less expensive Chicago. I think I self-published my second chapbook SWITCH in 2003 and Nikki Patin helped me with laying it out. I reprinted it because I was doing readings all over the country, but I did not have a full-length manuscript that satisfied me. A couple of years after publishing my first full-length collection, I was commissioned to write a short libretto by Peggy Choy Dance Company — to write poems about Muhammad Ali and his relationship with Malcolm X. After I completed that project, I wanted to make sure that it lived in print beyond the performances, and Teneice Durant at what was Winged City Press (now Argus House) helped publish THE GREATEST: An Homage to Muhammad Ali in 2013.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I know one of the of poems was written for Eugene Redmond’s journal DrumVoices Revue. He did several issues with kwansabas focusing on historical figures, including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, and Katherine Dunham. So, my earliest attempts at the form and the earliest poems in the chapbook definitely started with wanting to be a part of that journal.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?   

I would take notes whenever I saw mention of the number 7, and I have notes for many more possible kwansabas on this theme, but I thought I needed to release these poems since I think they did speak to the historic vein in contemporary poetry that readers are interested in, but they also seemed like their own body of work. As I continue writing kwansabas, they will differ from the ones in the chapbook since I just finished writing a full-length poetry book that will come out in 2016 (Break the Habit), and I am writing more prose these days too. My head just seems to be occupied by other voices and working from a different space.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

Originally, I had wanted to write 49 kwansabas to mirror the structure of the poem’s 7 lines of 7 words each. I did try to start with the origin of language with the Aristotelian influence, but there is a sense of origin in exploring black history, the stars, and the Bible, which are some of the other subjects in this chapbook.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I am excited to finally share some of Miah Leslie’s work with people who may not be familiar with her work already. When we started sharing images after she read the manuscript, she sent me this image of what seems to be a warrior woman with a smaller person enclosed within her. I thought about containing multiple, myriad selves, and I immediately thought of the striking cover of Jayne Cortez’ Firespitter. The striking black and white figures in brush strokes that are clearly signals of African cultures with letter in red echoed what I saw in Miah’s image, so I decided to go with that image and the color red, basic (and historic) as blood and striking to the eye.

What are you working on now?

I am planning readings for the chapbook and the release of my second book, Break the Habit, but I am also starting to write new poems for two new collections, essays and short stories. I will be a fellow at Kimbilio, a retreat for fiction writers of color, in Summer 2016.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

I think the chapbook is a wonderful first step toward publishing or a way to approach writing between books. It can be a way to keep sharing work in an accessible format, but I think we have to think about more than chapbooks too.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

I think the publishers or prizes associated with chapbooks are definitely political. Some of the organizations choose who they want, but the prize model definitely does not work, even though it generates funding for some good presses that need it.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?

I have “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, one of my former teachers, on my left forearm. I haven’t figured out who else I’d have, but I’ve considered Audre Lorde or Wanda Coleman. Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin would be my non-poet choices.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I think it is more difficult for me to sit down and write, but when I do, it is easier for me to be lucid. I know what I want to write. Sometimes, I carry around an idea for a poem or a story for days, weeks, or months before I commit any words to the page, but when I do, it comes. I used to write every day. I used to have to capture an idea, or at least a line, before I forgot it. Now, I remember them, and they linger. I hope it lingers for readers too. As far as a writing habit that I would share, I’d say keep challenging yourself to write something new and unfamiliar, even if it’s a new theme, form, or genre.

What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?

I have a couple of titles, but I’m trying to keep them to myself!

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry? 

Essays, history, African American Studies. I like reading broadly because it gives me information and other ideas that aren’t so self-referential like poetry that seems to become so damn incestuous at points.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Eugene Redmond, of course. Seeing some of his daughter Treasure Redmond’s work that became a part of chop, another chapbook of kwansabas, but I also thought about haiku and other short forms.

Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?

I try to be open about my audience, but I am definitely interested in creating work that speaks to my own experiences, including the Black experience. I have often pictured girls and young people reading my work, but I am often trying to write something that I would like to read or something that makes sense of the world for me.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

It can be hard, lonely, and financially trying. Tenacity may be your one constant. Trying to build a small, trustworthy community around me and still reaching out beyond one’s self is very challenging. I have been trying to focus more on the work than the trivial, petty matters that come up based on competition, jealousy, and all the –isms because I have been an activist for most of my adult life. I still am, but I know that one of my strengths is writing, and I need to make that tangible. Some people have told me these things in various ways, but I try to remember that writing is the thing I love.

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 Tara Betts is the author of the upcoming Break the HabitArc & Hue, and the chapbooks 7 x 7: kwansabas and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Tara received her Ph.D. at Binghamton University and her MFA from New England College. In addition to performing poems across the country and internationally, Tara’s poems have appeared in numerous publications, including PoetryGathering GroundBum Rush the PageVillanelles, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, The Break Beat Poets, and Octavia’s Brood. Tara has taught at Rutgers University, Binghamton University, and University of Illinois-Chicago.

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 www.tarabetts.net

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Zora Neale Hurston (1/7/1891-1/28/1960)

Woman dipped in dialect, hoodoo, and academy

caught all those tongues marked folksy blues

sinking into clay, islands, pangea broken, feeling

whole in memory, resting solid in mouths,

against gums. Those parting smiles recall heat

burnin’ that jook called the ‘rati Manor,

fyah jumpin’ at de sun, fulla spunk.

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