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Poetry Moment: Tara Betts And a poetic girl that switches

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Tara Betts’s poem “Switch” is old school.

Betts has been reciting a version of the poem for twenty years, first at Chicago and then national poetry slams.

Two decades later, she still reads a version of the verse. The poem was the only one from second chapbook, Switch (2003), that made the cut into her first full-length collection, Arc & Hue.

The poem’s protagonist, a young woman with a metronomic pelvis and glossed-up lips, secretly studies the periodic table to get an A in chemistry.
The poem begins with a quote from Nas’s song “Black Girl Lost”: “Typical day that a black girl sees/ coming home wanting more than a college degree.”

Betts worked closely with young women through GirlSpeak, a weekly writing and leadership workshop she founded in Chicago. So she knows the pressures that Black girls are under in America, and the poem speaks to those issues.

The poem’s form is even more old school.

In the early 2000s, Betts met poet Lucille Clifton at Cave Canem (Latin for “Beware the dog”), the retreat and advocacy organization for African-American writers. A few days later, after reading Clifton’s poem “Move,” Betts wrote “Switch,” using the same form, with two-word refrain that changes at the end.

In an interview with Mosaic Magazine, Betts explained, “ ’Switch’ marked the transition where I knew I was going to cling more tightly to a forceful sense of sound and imagery to talk about issues I feel need to be articulated.”

Betts, who appears in this video with poet Terrance Hayes, has published two books of poetry, Break the Habit, and Arc & Hue, and her book Refuse to Disappear will be published soon. She’s a co-editor of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives about Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century.
In an interview with The Rumpus, Betts explained that she seeks to speak honestly in her poetry: “That’s what I’m aiming for more often than not: How do I create an emotional truth that will ring true to what someone else has experienced?”

Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

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