Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts
Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts (photo credit: Tony Smith)

I first met Tara Betts at poet Becca Klaver’s WHAT’S SO HOT: A Summer Salon Reading Series in 2012 in which we both shared new work in the very intimate and relaxed setting of Becca’s living room. Afterwards, Tara and I briefly chatted on the train home together, and we promised we’d keep in touch— and we did. I absolutely love teaching Tara Betts poems, especially the phenomenal poem “Switch“, in workshops (See Betts read her recent work “The Suits of Your Skins” at #BlackPoetsSpeakOut Chicago.) Her newest collection, Break the Habit, is now out from Trio House Press (2016), and contains journeys in which, in Betts’s words, “we are always colliding with what we cannot control.” In the conversation, I speak to Betts on collisions, spiders, and what it means to “break the habit.”


ROSEBUD BEN-ONI: The first section seems to challenge the reader’s certainty of orientation in “Welcome to the Terrordome” (“I shook my head and silently/asked how much of the story is missing,/how I wouldn’t even know about the bullet/dropping Newton, if Chuck hadn’t told me”). We also witness the speaker discovering her own way in “Unsteady Directions” (“If parents are shields, hold nothing. If parents fail/ or blame, find a fortress to release whatever wounds.”) as well trying to find both cerebral and spiritual footing while “[u]nderneath, a house’s foundation/ gradually crumbles. The water may be poisoned/beyond redemption. It runs, wears away rock,/cuts down soil, carries wet in small measures,” as explored in “Prophetic Fragments.” Can you speak more about the idea of “collisions” in this section?

TARA BETTS: It may seem odd, but I think most poetry is about collisions and contradictions and how we find spaces between those parts of us that encounter different degrees of impact and moments of incongruity. “Unsteady Directions” is written to a you more so than the speaker finding her own way. I think it draws on some personal experiences, but unfortunately, I think it is a poem that I needed to write that addressed consent (and the lack thereof) that concerns women. In “Prophetic Fragments” — I think that poem is addressing that the old traditional ways of thinking generalizing about people of color and politically left people will eventually become increasingly obsolete because the absurdity of the politics. I do think that means that even people who describe themselves as radical, “woke,” “down,” conscious, or whatever left-leaning term of the moment strikes, will have to re-think those terms. A revolution is a circle, if we really think about the word, but does that mean we’re also in cycles of re-invention? I tend to think so. As far as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” I wanted the first poem to set an elegiac tone because Break the Habit really discusses different types of loss. When I look at black history, I find that some of the losses have been what I have not learned. How has something been kept from me? I have thought about that question a lot, and I think about when I was younger and how hip hop gave me an education. This Public Enemy song taught me an important lesson when they mentioned names like Joanne Chesimard and Huey Newton. We are always colliding with what we cannot control.

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Jen Fitzgerald

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Jen Fitzgerald
Rosebud Ben-Oni and Jen Fitzgerald

On her website, native New Yorker Jen Fitzgerald describes herself as a poet and essayist who “comes from a place that is lawless. Her family has been there for 200 years and refuses to integrate into normal society… Vivaldi gives her goosebumps as do some Jay-Z songs. She is proud to be a poet of witness and class activist.” Her first full collection The Art of Work is now out from Noemi Press. Here, we discuss the influences of her family, the rights of the worker and why she believes “[l]ife is the greatest art project.”

Rosebud Ben-Oni: In your long poem Last Totem of Tradesmanship, you explore the art of butchery as a trade that propel[s] the human engine/ forward and the rigorous labor involved with pulling a “knife body down/ the hung body,// ridging along ribs/ to remove flank steak. You also explore the relationship between worker and customer whom are no constant;/ a slideshow of flipped/ faces on repeat as well as the economics of salary cuts,/ store managers, about the bullshit //folks eat to stay fed. You explore similar images in The Killing Floor is Slick. I can taste the blood in the collection as a whole— it pulses on the page, carrying purple veins/scarlet muscle and “the history of necessity;/ hunt, fire, communion. Can you discuss the peculiar communion in more detail?

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Adam Clay

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Adam Clay
Rosebud Ben-Oni and Adam Clay

Regarding Adam Clay’s newest collection Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016), Ada Limón notes the collection is “dedicated to the unsung suspension of time that occurs when life suddenly goes awry.” Stranger is a collection that is also ever-approaching “a new and sudden way of being,” particularly concerning the ideas of family, home and forgiveness. Clay is also co-editor of TYPO Magazine, a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review, and teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield. In this conversation, Adam Clay and I talk about all things poetry, the “space between remembering and forgetting, between presence and absence,” his influences and the many excavations of that picturesque house in a bottle which not only graces the cover but also serves as equal points of departure and arrival.—Rosebud Ben-Oni


Rosebud Ben-Oni with Christopher Soto (Loma)

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Loma
Rosebud Ben-Oni and Loma

This conversation between Rosebud Ben-Oni and Christopher Soto (Loma) is part of Variant Dreams, a Conversant series celebrating artists of color who identify as trans, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: You begin Sad Girl Poems with a Preface:

I always wanted to be a sad white girl. I wanted to be sad like Lana Del Rey… Lately, I’ve been thinking about the contextualization of POC sadness… Most people do not know how to interact with my sadness. My sadness is so multifaceted, it speaks twenty languages… Everyone was talking about Citizen and micro-agressions and feelings. But I didn’t see any of the white people in my MFA program marching next to me when Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, when Erica Garner was killed by NYPD. I didn’t see any of them working to dismantle the systems of oppression which created my sadness, my community’s sadness… I want people to act, I want people to mobilize around POC sadness.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the act of writing itself and how does one enact change without the use of force. In “Ars Poetica,” I see this struggle play out: “I grind his wings into glitter/& throw him into the air // like a child.// I grind his wings into ash/ & throw him into the earth // like a casket.” You testify both existence and erasure here, just as the sole photo of you at the end of the collection “my father deleted all photos of me from our computer.” Do you think language and/or poetry alone can change the violence within culture, particularly in the U.S.? (I’m particularly thinking of the line “Language is where the tongue fails itself over & over again” in “Aluminum & Dusk.” ) Can we transform violence into something else—something even transcendent—through the act of writing?

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Matthew Salesses

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Matthew Salesses
Rosebud Ben-Oni and Matthew Salesses

I first came across the work of Matthew Salesses in his essay “Psy the Clown Vs. Psy the Anti-American” over at The Rumpus in which he examined racial and historical power dynamics between Korea and the West (particularly the U.S.), and the importance of understanding context outside of one’s own culture. His newest book, The Hundred-Year Flood, dropped this September, and I caught up with Matthew on its conception, the influence of Twitter (follow him @salesses) and talking those “different differences.” –Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: In “Different Racisms,” you tackled race and self-contextualization both in personal history and popular culture. Are there any new “different differences” you are facing today?

Teaching Popular Culture & Challenging the Canon in Academia: Rosebud Ben-Oni with Robin Ford and Bakar Wilson

Rosebud Ben-Oni, Bakar Wilson, and Robin Ford

As the fall semester heralds in the academic year, I’ve been thinking about the canon as of late, particularly that of the U.S., and why the canon must evolve. So many voices have been left out, and the “reigning” voices shape a skewed version of history and truth itself. I’ve invited Bakar Wilson and Robin Ford, both writers and professors at colleges which are part of The City University of New York system, to discuss Race and Academia, bringing popular culture into the classroom and their breakthrough moments in teaching. Check out their advice on designing an inclusive syllabus for your class.—Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: How do you bring the creative side of writing and pop culture into your standard composition class? What creative aspects do you bring to the classroom that helps them engage the texts in a more fulfilling way?

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Diego Báez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales and Octavio Quintanilla on {Power} Ballads

Darrel Alejandro Holnes (photo credit: Hope Thompson), Octavio Quintanilla, Diego Báez, Rosebud Ben-Oni,  J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales
Darrel Alejandro Holnes (photo credit: Hope Thompson), Octavio Quintanilla, Diego Báez, Rosebud Ben-Oni, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales

This conversation began quite organically: at CantoMundo 2014, with J Michael’s Martinez’s sonic-powered laughter ringing through Opening Circle. Over the course of the next few days the six of us—Diego Báez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales, Octavio Quintanilla, and yours truly ended up talking about hair metal, thrash metal, the marriage and funeral in “November Rain,” this funny take on “Sweet Child of Mine,” Keanu Reeves in that Paula Abdul video (more on that later), and the intergalactic strangeness of Gwar. (Remember Gwar? Remember the nightmares you had because of Gwar?) In one way or another, our poetry has been influenced by power ballads, and we decided to explore this relationship in more depth. We hope, by the end of this conversation, you’ll find your own inner power chord…—Rosebud “7TrainLove” Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni with JP Howard

Rosebud Ben-Oni and JP Howard
Rosebud Ben-Oni on the left; JP Howard on the right (photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

JP Howard (aka Juliet P. Howard)’s poetry collection/memoir SAY / MIRROR is both a self-excavation of her childhood and a testament to her beauty queen and professional model mother whom she frequently refers to as “Diva.” Her poetry salon Women Writers in Bloom has featured many emerging and established poets such as Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Xanath Caraza, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Venus Thrash, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, and Arisa White; it has recently been awarded a Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant. I asked JP some questions about her debut book, her process, and what’s next. This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color.–Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: SAY / MIRROR strikes me as both a collection of poems and a personal ethnography that sheds light on the worlds of beauty, performance, and maternal expectations. The photos and news clippings themselves help piece together the world you’ve (re)created as poet and daughter. Can you tell us about the conception of this work, and your process?

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Jason Koo

Jason Koo
Jason Koo

This interview, focusing on Jason Koo’s new book, America’s Favorite Poem, is part of Intersecting Lineages, a new Conversant series focusing on cross-community conversations with poets of color. Ben-Oni and Koo conducted this interview during the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs in May, before the Heat lost to the Spurs in the Finals and LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland.

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Brian Kornell and Justin Lawrence Daugherty

Brian Kornell and Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Brian Kornell and Justin Lawrence Daugherty

I’ve had the good fortune of meeting these writers who have opened spaces for new literary communities as editors and activists. Brian Kornell is Fiction Editor at The Cossack Review, along with poet Ruben Quesada, the Co-Founder of Stories & Queer, a traveling reading series that features LGBT writers with audiences all over the country. Justin Lawrence Daugherty founded the journal and community Sundog Lit, which publishes voices that “emerge from the ruins, not what idles in the calm before the storm,” as well as “literature that rages.” Recently, Kornell took to Twitter to discuss his frustrations with the indie lit community, and it was then I remembered these very words of that mission statement of Sundog Lit. Here, Kornell and Daugherty debate the ideas of inclusion and exclusion (as well as diversity and equality) in the indie literary scene. This conversation provoked my own memories of living in Jerusalem, with its physical/religious/sexual borders, and how experience, identity and space are linked to whom we read and how we read. I also hope it provokes any previously held assumptions from readers. —Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Brian, can you fill us in on what originally led to your frustrations with the indie lit community?

Introducing HER KIND: Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White

Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White

Starting with our May 2013 issue, The Conversant will be publishing excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. In order to introduce that series, we have asked HER KIND’s editors, Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White, to answer the following question:

Could you describe your goals for HER KIND (the publishing context out of which it comes, its relation to VIDA, the types of discussions you seek to promote, people you hope to publish, etc.)?

Arisa White: I wanted HK to be a container—a space where we were creating a literary community of sorts. So VIDA is known for The Count, for the hard numbers that show the gender disparities in the literary world, and I wanted HK to be a counterpoint to that. For myself I need to see solutions to the things I find unjust—alternative visions for thriving that are not rooted in an oppressive paradigm. Because what that tells me is that we are creatively and resourcefully using our imaginations to bring about change.

Here is space for women writers to express themselves and their relationship to the written word, the written world, to articulate the textual bodies that we are.

While developing HK with Rosebud and Cate, my goal was to create a literary environment for play, spontaneity, and intellectual curiosity, where speaking freely is welcomed. Rosebud and I come up with crazy-interesting, and sometimes off-the-cuff themes, to let people know we want to be surprised and shaped by the content that comes our way. And for me it was a matter of how to do that without making anyone feel like they had to have a degree, a book, an award, a particular hue, or know someone in order to be published.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Working with Arisa is half dance-party and half reflecting out on a sea of all seasons—HK has put a weight on my shoulders that I like. I want the kind of discussions that I at one time or another could not initiate or even join. On my mother’s side, which is Mexican, there is mostly oral history; listening to my mother and her 6 other siblings tell me of the things that happened to them, I’ve found if I put it all together that, rather than straight history, I know more about each individually. Contradictions burst with their own truths. My father’s side, which is Jewish, might come from a written-word history, yet due to his personal history, a lot has been lost. When I was a child, I could not initiate a conversation with him, or my mother, whom he’s entrusted with the better part of his life, his childhood. I knew there was a war (the Shoah), that my paternal grandfather had been married before, that he was much older than my grandmother and died while my father was a child. That my father grew up in hospitals watching him die. That he was poor. He told these things to my mother, and only her; I had to respect that she is his keeper. But I felt very incomplete, like I would never know my father, that he’d remain a mystery. For a long time I walked around with that burden on my shoulders. In college I discovered other young women who could not initiate or join certain conversations, for similar or different reasons.