She didn’t go looking for poetry. In fact, it was the other way around, Bettina Judd told a packed house Friday evening at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.
She was the Sept. 9 feature at the Nine on the Ninth monthly poetry event, the longest running series hosted exclusively by Hughes poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.
Typically, a featured artist kicks off the event, followed by a 10-15 minute interview and audience Q&A with the artist called the BluePrint Sessions. The event culminates with a limited open mic. Bettina tore it up.
A bi-coastal Cave Canem Fellow, the Spelman College alumnus infuses her interest in women’s studies, social justice and spirituality in her poetry and visual art.
This practice echoes the point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux makes in their book The Poet’s Companion: “There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls our attention.”
Bettina navigates both her internal and outer worlds by challenging interdisciplinary scholarship and intertextual narrative through her doctoral program in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The poems she read Friday came from her dissertation, a poetic and visual exploration of body, memory and the history of gynecological experimentation on Black women in the US, and an academic and creative venture on affect and Black feminist politics in Black women’s art.
Among those poems is the “Etymology of Anarcha I” that alludes to a slave woman named Anarcha who suffered severe vaginal tears from child-birth.
The damage resulted in Anarcha’s inability to control her bowels and bladder, according to various sources. Though the speaker in “Etymology of Anarcha I” is not Anarcha, the persona suffered from a similar ordeal although she wasn’t giving birth.
The audience at Busboys and Poets tensed and squirmed in their seats from the poem’s physical details: “when the tearing came there was/ no baby in the canal but a new route:/ fistula, with a hard f like fetal/ freak, fatal, furor.”
The audience bristled at the poem’s psychological details: “i needed the f when the break screamed/ no sound from me but fire, fuchsia/ becoming an un-fuckable woman is a freedom/ the black hole of my sex, a fare/ to the good doctor I will be flesh/ which you will think brutal.”
Slave women like Anarcha, Betsy (sometimes spelled “Betsey”) and Lucy were guinea pigs for Dr. Marion Sims, who experimented on them to hone his skills in what would later be called gynecology. The three slave women’s spirits, summoned by Bettina, haunted Busboys and Poets Langston Hugh’s room.
Betsy and Lucy come alive in “The Opening”: “betsey leans in with sure hands/ slosh of seeping liquid/ lucy prepares for metal on wet tissue/ menstrual blood to urine to feces.” There’s companionship between Betsey, Lucy and the speaker, who’s also been experimented on, when the speaker says: “we are an unfortunate journey, a plunder/ darkness’s heart and treasured coast.”
These psychological details intensifies the horrors of experiments done on Black women’s bodies: “[…] introduce spoon and i am sacrament/ unforgivable sin and reprieve practice/ in the dark ghetto of my body.”
These psychological details illustrated the companionship between Bettina’s speaker and the other two women:
dear lucy, dear betsey
that we three weren’t so perfectly broken
the scent of us so eagerly hunted
if our mouths, when opened up
could light our darkness
Bettina’s speaker’s handle of trauma illustrates another point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux make in The Poet’s Companion: there’s no equation between good poetry and unhappy circumstances. “We each write out of our own constellation of experiences,” Addonizio and Laux writes. Last night’s reading was heavy–the weight of history so present.
But Bettina didn’t leave us there. She brought it home with her poem “Full Bodied Woman” that had women calling out uh huh! and I know that’s right! The women and men in the crowd exchanged knowing glances with one another when Bettina read:
a Full Bodied Woman gives life in edible chunks.
those who know partake. those who don’t
run to lesser women, and die of starvation.
The crowd’s shouts of affirmation got loud at this point of the poem: “from this we know She will return/ for who could reign over a woman who/ sings I’m a Woman without apology? As in:
I am that I am.”
Bettina made us laugh during the Q & A with Busboys and Poet’s poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown, who started the monthly reading series six years ago. Asked how poetry found her, the poet covered her smile. “It’s a really embarrassing story,” Bettina said. “Big up to John Singleton!”
This puzzled the audience until the poet elaborated. It was Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, in Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice that started Bettina off on her journey as a writer.
Like her speaker with the three slave women, Bettina found companionship with poetry. So much so that it still wakes her up with the 3 a.m. urge to write. “It’s like a ghost. It knocks against your head,” Bettina said. “It kept finding me even when I thought I was through with it.”