Color Photographic Portrait of Dr. Tara Betts
Photo By: GlitterGuts

Dr. Whirlwind: Poet, Editor, and Educator Dr. Tara Betts Speaks Her Truth

“There is no reason we can’t have another poet laureate from the South Side.”

It is lonesome, yes.  For we are the last of the loud.

Nevertheless, live.

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.

–Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Dr. Tara Betts has one of the most enviable heads of hair of any living writer. Her crown is streaked with ferocious shocks of brilliant white. For the past ten years, I have watched her bloom, growing from a formidable poet and educator with shoulder-length brown hair, a husband she had yet to divorce, and PhD she had yet to earn—into one of the greatest writers, educators, and advocates Illinois has produced in recent memory. Ten years ago I shared a meal with Betts at a mom-and-pop Puerto Rican spot in Harlem, after a session I taught on ekphrastic poetry with the Acentos Foundation, a Bronx-based organization dedicated to poetry and literature by Latinx writers helmed by her then-husband, the poet and organizer Rich Villar. 

Fast-forward and it’s July 2019. We are in the Ida B. Wells conference room at The Wing, a coworking space for women in the West Loop where Betts is a fellowship recipient. 

I ask Betts how the years have been. “My parents both died right before I came back,” she says. “I got divorced then I moved, then I went straight into the PhD program. I went into hiding. I am very thankful for acupuncture and meditation and therapy—all of the modalities—cause there was no way I was going to make it.” 

She came back to Chicago after getting her PhD at SUNY-Binghamton, she says, because it’s home. ”Even though I had a lot of emotional terrain I had to deal with, [when] I came back I felt like I could breathe easier. I felt like I could recoup from just constantly being on the run, dealing with a lot of different challenges [with] my family and personal life. I could take a beat and just be in a place that was really familiar but wasn’t non-stop [like NYC]. It wasn’t a cultural life where I had to spend every dollar in my pocket. 

There is this unmined history and so much unmined culture in Chicago, she says. “There are a lot of beautiful things about this city that I still want to write about, that I still want to explore and celebrate.”

While neither of us can remember the exact where and when, Betts and I first met on the slam scene in 1998 or ‘99. I was seventeen and had an agreement with the bouncer and bartenders at Mad Bar in Wicker Park, an early rival of the Green Mill slam, that as long as I only drank O.J. they would let me in to watch and compete in the poetry slam. This was long before the days of the Louder Than a Bomb youth slam. Week after week over those few years Betts and I—along with poets Tyehimba Jess, Shappy, Marlon Esguerra, and others—competed weekly for spots on the national team. In 1999 we were supposed to be on Mad Bar’s team together, but after an illness I withdrew,  leaving behind an unrealized dream of winning the National Poetry Slam. Betts went on to compete that year and appear on a few episodes of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam

Betts reminds me that “back in the day poetry was so small. People don’t believe that Black, White, Asian, Latino poets knew each other. But after Russell [Def Poetry Jam] the level of sincerity brought to the work changed. TV shows like Verses & Flow and Lyric Cafe added to the opportunities but also to the career-focused nature that some folks approached the poetry with.” 

I ask what she’s been up to lately. 

“It’s funny how the door opens when you publish something or get a PhD,” she says. “People act like you are doing something you’ve never done before. I’m doing book reviews and interviews. I’m not turning down opportunities to be multipositional.” Betts has always been loudly outspoken about the harsh economic realities of being a Black woman writer. She makes plain on her social media the choices she makes between paying her bills and self-care. She’s watched the Toni Morrison documentary The Pieces I Am, and feels that it is a good chronicle of her life and her major works up to Beloved. She was deeply impressed by the visual art and was moved by an opening montage of Mickalene Thomas building a collage of Morrison’s face. Betts openly plots an interdisciplinary documentary class. She’s reading an advance review copy of House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland and was blown away by the first fifty pages. Her blurb for the book will read: A poetic hum underpins this intergenerational tale that slowly tangles the residents in relationships that draw people back to small towns, and drive them away. The House of Deep Water is unflinchingly honest.” 

She’s also reading The Galaxy Is a Dance Floor, by Bianca Lynne Spriggs, and is tracking down biographies of early punk women like Viv Albertine, who formed the group The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious in 1976 and later joined The Slits. 

Betts talks of how Chaka Khan has made more profits as an independent artist than she ever did with a major label. Betts is researching Khan for a project, and lives on the street where Chaka spent her childhood. 

Khan has been recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “This is my work, it’s all I have, and I should own it. I now know my worth, OK? I really do. And that’s how I’m going to live out the rest of my life, period. I’m not going to sell myself cheap or short. I’m not good old Chaka Khan anymore, you can’t call on me when somebody else said they can’t do the gig — ‘Ask Chaka, she’ll do it.’ I used to be like that, but I’m not doing that anymore. And when you want to hire me, you better have some money.” 

Betts thinks this is the same with publishing. “Your book is going to get covered by certain publications. People are going to get hyped about it because there is a big email rush. Even when you look at certain magazines, they aren’t going to talk about the book on podunk press, they are going to talk about the books out on Penguin, Random House, Knopf.” Betts has published two books, both on small presses. She laughs when I ask if that was a choice.

Her first book, Arc and Hue, was sent to more than thirty publishers and competitions. She became a semi-finalist in a couple, but the book was ultimately published by Aquarius Press/Willow Books in September 2009. When I ask how she managed the emotional labor of rejection she quotes a rocker in an article she once read: “You keep sending stuff out and you wait to get approval—you ain’t never going to get it.” Her second book, Break the Habit, was sent out to more than thirty publishers and submitted for competitions as well. In the end, it was published by Trio House Press, through a connection Betts gained while in her MFA program. 

A year ago I asked Betts about being a Black woman navigating the industry. “I am seeing more women of color winning prizes but I don’t really see any winning the boatload of prizes,” she says. “By and large, there is still this boys-club mentality. Women uplift each other in different ways but they don’t always do it with a business sense.” 

On social media I often see her questioning the business practices of nonprofits and academia. “This neoliberal sense of work in this country has people thinking we need to be working around the clock. Available by email. Answer every text. That’s not humanly healthy,” she says. 

She aspires to the camp of The Slow Professor, a book by Barbara K. Seeber and Maggie Berg that takes aim at the overwork corporatization has caused in modern universities. Betts uses the example of a professor sinking under the pressure to answer emails and produce scholarly articles to point out that really, you need to take time to do good work. She speaks of the additional emotional labor she faces “because students of color are going to seek you out. Those that are marginalized [are going to seek you] out.” Betts tells me of a young queer student who was over the moon that her professor not only knew something about women of color, but also LGBTQ studies, and was also under the age of fifty. 

As co-editor of the anthology The Beiging of America: Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century, Betts is deeply aware of the perception of her skin and her correlating place in a color-struck society. She respects difference and finds alliance in being marginalized. Even when the topic isn’t people of color, Betts is the one asking questions and getting in trouble. At one place she taught, the graduate students were organizing and arguing for a union. When some teachers and administrators disagreed with the union drive, Betts posed an echoing question to them, “What does it say about this system, that you can’t identify with those that want to be just like you?” 

Betts’ resume is a litany of concurrent editorial positions in at least three different publications, adjunct faculty positions, and internships in library and information science, because entry-level positions in that field often pay better than adjuncting. She continues, “Higher education is concerned with student retention, not educators. Educators who should be pushing certain values but aren’t self critical. . . . I am not tenured anywhere and I fully expect that I may never be. I’ve been on the job market for five years. Interviewed at many, many schools. Even with me having more experience under my belt then folks who are already on faculty. Part of me is feeling maybe that is not my path, maybe I need to be writing books and doing other things.” She finds herself thinking, “You can keep the academy because the academy was never set up for me in the first place.” 

 

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The year that followed our meeting at The Wing was full of gains and moods for Betts. In August 2019 she became the lit editor at New City, whose 2020 Lit 50 issue is out this month and is noticeably thicker with poets and the voices of oft-marginalized writers. Her third book may have found a home, and is up for publication next year. But neither of those gains is fully paying Betts’ bills, and she continues to juggle multiple responsibilities. She’s currently on the selection committee to choose Illinois’s next poet laureate and says that lately she’s been thinking a lot about Margaret Burroughs, Vivian Harsh, Clara Hale- and their contributions to the South Side.

 ”It’s bad when you think the city can revolve around a handful of places,” she says. “There is no reason we can’t have another poet laureate from the South Side.” 

Her criticisms of the nonprofit system grew sharper as the world slid and COVID-19 took hold. So in early June of this year it was no surprise when she decided to take hold of her destiny and turn a wish into a reality, by launching a GoFundMe campaign to purchase a building at 56th and State, in Washington Park. She’s dubbed it the Whirlwind Center—the name fittingly taken from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. 

“While dreaming out loud,” she wrote on her GoFundMe, “I posted on Facebook that I would like to get this building so I can run classes and events and possibly host guest residencies for people who would like to do work in the neighborhood,” she says. “I’m also planning to partner and share this space with other community organizations and individuals that have already invested time, energy, and resources in the South Side. I was surprised and excited to see how many people believe and trust me to begin what will be an exciting development for a city that I love dearly.  Although I have been working in the arts for young people and people of color for twenty years, I think it’s time for me to start a space that addresses needs with a new, more inclusive vision of, for, and with long-time South Side residents.” 

As of the writing of the article, Betts has raised $47,260, with additional funds pledged once the paperwork to establish a proper 501C-3 has made it through COVID-addled Springfield. But all that fundraising raised the profile of the building and may have come at a price. 

On July 3, Betts posted a note to GoFundMe: “The owner of the building pictured above signed an agreement to sell the building to another interested buyer. It was heartbreaking to get that news, but the board of Whirlwind Center has encouraged me to find another building, and we’ve looked at some possibilities, which have been limited, especially during COVID-19. There are benefits being planned, and we are brainstorming other programming ideas too.” She remains saddened by the sale because the space she was considering was a turnkey space, meaning she could have started programming fairly quickly, but now the search for a new building starts again. The monies raised so far will go into an account until another site is found. 

Betts tells me of writing, “If I weren’t doing this I don’t know what else I would wanna do.” She tells me of a memorable experience she had at Ragdale, in Lake Forest, during the trial of the cops accused of beating Abner Louima in 1997. She remembers spreading the paper out on her bed and for the first time in a long time taking the time to read it with a full breakfast. We speak in hushed tones of taking the time, and self-care. She is a big fan of moisturizers and exfoliating Korean towels. Her face is usually glowing as a result. Betts recalls reading bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam and being struck by the question. Yes, but do you take care of your self? Do you bathe? Sisters of the Yam, in which hooks speaks on the “the emotional health of black women,” focuses on the joy of self-healing and the need to be ever-vigilant in the struggle for equality. Betts laughs. “How many times have I gone out ashy cause I know I am pale and it can wait?” 

 

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Open nominations for Illinois’s next poet laureate close August 15. Eligible nominees must be a current resident of Illinois, with at least ten years of residency; be willing and able to travel throughout the state; have a history of digital or print media publication, individual performances, poems and/or books, including at least one work that is not self-published or by a vanity press; have an established history of promoting poetry and activity in Illinois’ literary community, including readings, publications, presentations, education, and/or advocacy; and be the recipient of critical acclaim as demonstrated by special honors, awards, and/or other recognitions. To nominate a candidate email IllinoisPoet2020@illinois.gov or send via USPS to Illinois Poet Laureate Search Committee c/o Office of the Governor, 207 State House, Springfield, IL 62706.

AV Benford is a staff writer at the Weekly. Her last article for the Weekly was Sestina for the Looting of the Black Body.

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