Tara Betts, one of the University of Connecticut’s Aetna Writers-in-Residence, gave a reading at the Barnes and Noble in Storrs Center Wednesday night that was held to benefit the Covenant Soup Kitchen in Willimantic.
“I’m really happy to hear that proceeds from tonight are going to a soup kitchen. This book is dedicated to my mother. When I was growing up…my mom would open the door (to kids in need) so that means a lot to me,” Betts said preceding her first poem.
Betts has published several volumes of poetry and chapter books and has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Essence Magazine, NYLON and numerous anthologies. Betts won 1999 Guild Complex’s Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, represented Chicago twice in the National Poetry Slam and is a graduate of the Cave Canem writer’s retreat. Betts holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University, an MFA in Creative Writing from New England College and now teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
During her residency at UConn, she will spend three days on campus and, aside from her reading last night, will be leading tutorials and classes as well as question and answer sessions.
“Tara is a good friend of mine, we’ve worked together academically but never got the chance to (do so) poetically,” Sean Forbes, Assistant Professor-in-Residence and Director of Creative Writing at UConn said. “We try to choose writers and authors that we are reading and teaching. These events offer students the chance to hear real writers read from their work and talk about their craft and it’s completely free. It’s incredible to have that on a college campus and with a community of peers.”
During her introduction by graduate student Kerry Carnahan, Betts was described as “someone who’s really not afraid to use the powers that they’ve been given.”
Powerful was an excellent way to introduce Betts’ work. The selection of work she read from was both nostalgic yet topical. She explained that she draws on hip hop for much of her inspiration, as it was such a big part of her youth in the 1990s.
“My enduring and problematic love for hip hop music always comes back. I always tell people, I wouldn’t have the breadth and appreciation of understanding history if it wasn’t for hip-hop,” Betts said.
She responded to a question later in the evening, explaining how both the lyrics and the melody of the genre influence her, as she often associates certain songs with very specific memories that she can draw on to write.
The elements of hip hop are indeed apparent in her style. She uses heavy alliteration, onomatopoeia and other similarly empowering themes.
Throughout the evening, she referenced both her older influences as well as the contemporary hip hop artists she listens to, such as Kendrick Lamar and Vic Mensa. Betts also clarified that she has other musical passions, as well, ranging from the blues to Adele to The Cure. She even bases some poems in specific lines from their songs.
While her poems were so musical in nature, they often brought up much heavier and important topics, like self-care, domestic abuse, feeling isolated and also the passage of time. At times, they were even philosophical.
“Both of us will eventually become death, but prophecy calls, insists the future will fragment,” Betts read from her poem entitled “Prophetic Fragments.”
Her poem entitled “Acupuncture” ends: “There I was balanced…I could breathe. The largest muscle in my chest stopped protesting…I knew people could be footnotes or pain.”
Betts shows off her wide range of knowledge, talking about science and mythology in regard to the cover of her latest book, which depicts a spider.
“I saw this spider on my porch and I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. He became kind of this anchor of a character in a living thing that I looked forward to seeing everyday. Spiders are so brutal to each other….Brutal like humans are,” Betts said. She then went on to read her poem entitled “Dragline” about the male-female relationship which explored themes of oppression and sexism.
Betts was very well-received by the Storrs audience, almost every poem ending to a cacophony of snaps or noises of approval and contemplation.
She is very aware as a writer and appeals to a variety of audiences. She beautifully intertwines Spanish phrases in her poems. Betts’ work is rich in imagery and metaphor.
Her talent as a poet is clear and her experience in the slam poetry world shines through in her excellent readings, in which she interacts humorously with the audience. She cites her time in the slam poetry world as beneficial to building a community and a network as a writer.
“Tradition is not what we create, it’s what we inherit. We are at a place in American literature where we can make…language do different things,” Betts said on the role of tradition in her writing. “There are multiple traditions within us at once, there’s multiple places we come from…the poetic form is changing but there is more to come.”
Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org.