Recent Work By Tara Betts

The Broken Levees

By Tara Betts


You were not built to last, not like Ninth Ward
dwellers who recall waves swelling, churning
against your feeble back. Your spine hardly held
the muddy flesh and wetlands blood.

White plastic bracket, corrugated steel
cowering like cardboard under water’s fists.
There must have been some guilt, regret, maybe
a sense of inferiority when you opened, simpering
like some neglected sagging gate.

You knew you were not up to this.
Military men shallowly planted you,
an undernourished wall, not wide
nor tall enough. Your vitamins were fear,
oil, Mardi Gras tourism, voodoo and jazz.

You should not be blamed,
child pressing your will against Mami Wata.
No thumb in the dyke could stop the flow.
None of your idiot engineer fathers spoke ethics.
They simply did their job and sent their weakest
out to be plowed like a field of homes and families.

Mended, made the same, not enough for Katrina
or categories climbing past two.  Whisper to those
staking your bones and patching your wounds.
Murmur about cacophonous crash and scream.
Tell them about the scent and taste of dying.

from Arc & Hue (Aquarius Press, 2009) by Tara Betts

*In a slight twist on the TNB self-interview, Tara Betts decided to hand over the questions to her “other half”—the person who knows most candidly—her partner, writer and organizer Rich Villar. They scheduled this interview in Tara’s cozy living room where she could be free to wear her fuzzy leopard print slippers amidst the well-stocked bookshelves next to a humming radiator.

So, Tara, what do you think about Rich asking you some questions for The Nervous Breakdown?

I think Rich will probably ask some good questions, simply because a lot of interviewers tend to ask the same questions. Rich will also put me on the spot, then snort and giggle about it later.

What are the differences/challenges between teaching creative writing to high school students and university students?

My experience with high school students felt more empowering to me as a writer. I had to think about how I approached the writing process and communicate it to other young writers for the first time when I worked with teens. More often than not, they really wanted to be involved in that process and exploring a range of writers. My college students are exposed to a range of work, but often seem more concerned with the grade or getting the right answer, when they should be concerned with reading and honing in on the possibilities of their voice and their experiences in life and with the page. Fortunately, some of them are engaged by all of that, so it makes the teaching worthwhile.

How has leaving Chicago affected your writing process?

I felt like it was much easier to concentrate when I lived in Chicago. The adjustment to living in New York was very difficult for me, but the upside to that was I found that my sense of discipline and the bombardment of stimuli kicked in, so now I feel like writing can come to me almost anywhere. It’s just a matter of me sitting still long enough and staying away from Facebook and e-mail.  I do miss Chicago deeply—the food, Lake Michigan, Buckingham Fountain, the shuttling rhythm of the el trains, and the passing cars sounding like sighs on the streets as the night quiets down. I miss all that. I find myself looking for beauty and the unusual in a place that’s unfamiliar, so it throws me out of wack. I’m slowly fashioning a sense of the familiar here.

If you had one-million dollars and a multi-use building, free and clear, what would you do?

No one would know I had a million dollars. Period. I might donate to charity or set up a scholarship at my high school, but I wouldn’t tell anyone. The building would probably be something where I could have a family-size loft to live with my husband and kids. I’ve always wondered if I could start my own bookstore or a small café with a tutoring program and writing workshops. I’d like it to have a place for events that I could rent out or curate events and exhibits. If the space could accommodate it, I’d host writing retreats there.  As far as my personal space, part of it would have to be a library, and I’d have to have space to hang art too.  I’d want a small playground for my kids too.

Since Publisher’s Weekly has an all-male top 10 books of 2009, can you fill in the blanks with an all-female top 10?

Top 10 women’s books of 2009 … This is difficult for me because their list would probably focus on fiction. There were lots of notable fiction books. Many of which missed out on awards like the National Book Award.

The books I enjoyed that were released in 2009 were: Prayers Like Shoes by Ruth Forman, Pink Elephant by Rachel McKibbens, and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, by Danzy Senna.

Unfortunately, these types of lists usually omit poetry, as well as writing by those who are not aligned with what is considered to be the dominant voice in letters.  I often find myself doing a sort of intellectual stockpiling where I don’t read stuff as soon as it comes out, but I will buy it. Sometimes, I read a book right away. Other times, it takes me a year or two to get around to it.

Books I’d like to read from 2009? I’d probably say Changing My Mind, a book of essays by Zadie Smith, Erica Fabri’s The Dialect of a Skirt, Psalm of the Sunflower by Antoinette Brim, I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice, and Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson.

Will the world end once the Oprah show is off the air?

I don’t think the world will end, and I do think Oprah is going to move to cable, so she can do what she really wants, whatever that is. I’ve been in mourning a bit though because some crusaders on television are leaving. Oprah has one more season. Bill Moyers is retiring, and I can’t picture him not being there to interview Colin Powell in that crucial moment before Obama’s election or doing his investigative reporting or interviews with poets and people like Joseph Campbell. I cannot picture my East Coast news reporting without Tappy Phillips busting people, like “Excuse me, sir, don’t touch the camera. Let us know why you bilking this family when it’s 15 degrees below zero in their apartment?” This kind of coverage, a small portion of television, is not being encouraged. We have reality television and talk show hosts that I won’t berate. I’ll just hope that a couple of them will get better … maybe.

Is your husband-to-be a sexy so & so?

Now, see, this is where I go Beyonce and say I can’t talk about my relationship. If you are about to marry someone, what would YOU think?

What do you feel is your best poetic instinct?  What do you feel you do well?

My best poetic instinct is to tell a story and use the images that are most vivid to me to convey the feeling and idea of the story. I don’t think you have to beat people over the head to have clarity. Subtlety should be a poet’s gift, even if the subject matter is brutal and immediate. I feel like I’m good at looking at different types of writers and using their work as possibilities for what I can and cannot do. I try out their techniques sometimes. Other times, another poet confirms that I need to do what I do. We’re not supposed to sound alike.