Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Tara Betts

One of the first meals I had in New Hampshire was with Tara Betts. I was assigned to her as my upperclass "buddy" in my first poetry MFA residency, and was totally impressed that she took the job of initiating me into the program quite seriously. In the next few days I also became impressed with her poems and the fact that she was equally spectacular on the stage in the pub every night performing her slam poems, as she was on the page every day during workshops where she cut through the BS with feedback that went straight to the guts of our work, and turned loose her fledgling poems that seemed bigger and stronger than ours--flapping their wings, hovering inside the cramped space of their brown shells even as they were pecking their way out--while we were begging ours to breathe, dammit, breathe!

I admire many things about Tara, but perhaps what I love (and envy) most is her ability to blow people away equally well in the academy as in the pub, on the page or on the stage, in closed or open form, in the downtown cultural centers or in the burbs--southside, eastside, northside, westside. In short, Tara Betts is the quintessential Chicago poet. Which is to say that while she began in Chicago, no city, no form, no school, no description can contain her--she is the epitome of what a poet should be: capable of delivering the news wherever she may find herself.

And Tara has found herself in oh so many places. Her bio reads like an itinerary for an educational tour of contemporary American poetry. Tara teaches creative writing at Rutgers University (she is a Cave Canem graduate and received her MFA in Poetry from New England College). She's won residencies from the Ragdale Foundation, Centrum and Caldera, and an artist fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. She won the 1999 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, has appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and in the Black Family Channel series "SPOKEN," and has represented Chicago twice at the National Poetry Slam. There is not room to list where her work has appeared, but publications include Essence, Words on Fire, Obsidian III, Callaloo, PMS, Meridians, Drum Voice Revue, WSQ, Columbia Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Hanging Loose, Drunken Boat, Mythium Reverie, and WombPoetry. Her work has been widely anthologized, and her first full-length poetry collection, Arc and Hue was published in 2009.

Enough about her. What about her work? Take the now famous "Why I Collect The Hair," a poem that has been adapted to short cinema and is often excerpted in reviews of Arc and Hue. I can tell you that when I first heard it from Tara herself in workshop in 2006, it was 99% of the poem that appears here--a preposition or two, a couple of line breaks different. Here it is in entirety:

Why I Collect The Hair

Long glints of my hair
slither into soft bulk
tightly circled black cords
gripping each strand
that seems to hear you saying
leave them there nesting,
but I extract them delicately,
sometimes a dozen or more
because mothers cling to sons.

Years ago, a college boyfriend left my bed
to go home. His mother honed in
on the brassy streaks
and pulled them off
with what white girl are you seeing?
So, I'm still plucking, gathering up
small tumbleweeds in my pam,
clues that deny brown
coiled inside me.

Like all good poets (artists), Tara is witness of particularity and of universality. Unlike all poets, instead of one rear-view mirror, she drives through her narratives with custom side-view mirrors all over her body--side, front, back and underbelly. In "Understanding Tina Turner," for example, she picks up movement, color and shape that most would miss, and we are the richer for it.

Understanding Tina Turner

Quiet girl found a voice mama could not quell
inside Nutbush City Limits. The baby
blasted beyond timid Annie Mae into Tina,
grind of muscle, hip, fierce calves
dominating heels into domesticity.

In the early music video era,
I soaked up her battered denim jacket,
leather mini-skirt, spiked wig and stilettos.
I'd throw my head back like her
rippling antennas of brown hair,
belting to no one in particular,
What's Love Got to Do With It?

Twenty years later, people joke
about Ike's fists granting Tina her name,
how she transitioned terror rooted
in spousal rhythm and blues to rock diva,
thunderdome warrior queen
with a mountain mansion overseas.

Hurts twang the womb
then escape into songs--like a man
who never holds you too close, too long,
trying to crush music within.

I could cite example after example of Tara's exceptional work. But, since it's April (national poetry month), why not pick up a copy of Arc and Hue and check her out for yourself? Or, better yet, find out where she's reading and hear her in person. If you do, I think she'll become one of your top poets, as well--from anywhere.

No comments: