Name a Song: A Conversation With Reginald Dwayne Betts

Mahogany L. Browne
From the November/December 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery, 2009) and three poetry collections, including Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015), and, most recently, Felon, published in October by W. W. Norton. An exploration of love, fatherhood, and grace, the new book is also a testament to the trauma of years in prison as well as the challenges of life postincarceration—subjects Betts knows well. Arrested and charged with three felonies in an armed carjacking when he was sixteen, Betts was tried as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison. After his release he struggled to sidestep his record but went on to graduate from Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, and earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in College Park and an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. In 2016 Betts graduated from Yale Law School, and a year later he passed the Connecticut bar exam and eventually was recommended for admission to the bar. He now lives in New Haven with his wife and two children; he is studying for his PhD in law at Yale.

We asked poet, author, and activist Mahogany L. Browne to visit Betts in New Haven as the publication date for Felon approached.

I am drawn to Reginald Dwayne Betts like any homesick person looking for family. In him I see my gone kin with every expletive sentence laced lovely. The Metro-North New Haven train station is not that different from the one where I wait for my family car to retrieve me from the dusty Amtrak station in Emeryville, California. A city bus billows heat nearby, and a man smoking a cigarette looks annoyed at the lot of it all before I notice a responsible-sized SUV pull into the driveway, windows down. Bucket hat and prescription glasses can’t hide the identity of Betts, a poet I’ve studied from articles, via Cave Canem archives, and remember from a previously attended overcrowded writers conference. 

Name a song that tells a man what to expect after prison;

As an AP literature student in high school, I was taught very early about poetry and who it belongs to. When I revised the work of Dante’s Inferno for an end-of-semester assignment using the lyrics of NWA, I was scolded quickly. Betts is exactly what I was told poetry is not, and is very much the heartbeat of the language. He is a contradiction of both the trajectory of poetry and prison. When speaking he commands attention with succinct hand choreography, and on the page he dares readers to find themselves in the text; the familiar language, the melody swinging both blues and hip-hop, and the traditional line breaks conversing with court documents turned erasure poems. The origami form and folklore is a contemporary investigation of an admonished narrative we rarely forgive. 

Explains Occam’s razor: you’re still a suspect after prison.

Betts, a husband and father of two, talks about his time in prison like it was a lifetime ago and like it was yesterday. Time is a construct when the mind is bound to trauma. I know this song of farewell by heart. In his memoir, A Question of Freedom, Betts writes, “I was sixteen and headed to prison for nine years, which meant there would be no prom, no first night driving down Silver Hill Road, no going off to college.” But today, years and years later, Betts is sipping on water for lime and thinking about thinking. He doesn’t take the silence for granted. He also doesn’t speak like a man afraid of what the world thinks.

What brought you to write your newest collection, Felon?
I’m getting letters from people in prison all the time. I’m working in a federal courthouse. I’m reading habeas corpus petitions. I’m reading about crimes that happened and the people who appeal. This shit is not just the face of incarceration as a nonviolent drug offender. This is nothing like people imagine incarceration is. And then it’s also, it’s subtle—it’s like, you getting deported because you got a drug beef. All of that bullshit is like, no—they’re deporting people right now who they’ve labeled criminals that shouldn’t get deported. I’m thinking about the language that we choose to use to justify how we treat certain people. And because I don’t want to get treated that way, I want to run from that language. But all that says is that I’m looking for some other kind of permission. I want to be a Yale Law graduate because that means you’ll give me a job—instead of being a convict, which means you won’t. I’m writing the book while I’m in law school. I’m writing the book while I’m being a father. I’m writing the book while I’m working as a public defender. So some of those poems happen because a kid that I was representing on a robbery beef, who probably did pull a pistol out and put it in somebody’s face, who probably did say it was a BB gun but ain’t nobody ever find it, and all the while I’m talking to his mom, and she says, “You know, Mr. Betts, I’ve never been around someone like you before. You know, you don’t curse.” And I’m thinking what the fuck? I curse and I got three felonies. Everybody you’ve been around is like me. It’s like a veil and then a mask and then a brown bag over my head. Because at this point, I can’t reveal all the many parts of myself. 

The point is, that’s who is in the book. And maybe that doesn’t come out explicitly. But the moms is fascinating. It’s like the way in which somebody you know interacts with the system, and the system don’t give a fuck about them. Everything we know about this world is on the outskirts of incarceration.

Did your interactions with your client change once they learned you had been incarcerated?
I told her because I was tired of acting like I ain’t did a bid. Her son knew anyway. Her son was my first client, and he told me when we met, “Oh, you the one that’s been locked up?” And I didn’t tell him. My supervisor didn’t tell him. I for real don’t know how he knew. I mean I had a few clients that knew and found out, and they came to me and said, “I read your story; it’s impressive.” Some ways it changes because they expected different shit from you. But the world is the world. And that’s what the book is. I’m trying to be all of this shit. Well, not me specifically. But sometimes me specifically. You know, be a good father, but sometimes I yell at my kid. Sometimes I’m supposed to come home. But instead of coming home I go have another drink at the bar. Sometimes I yell at strangers. 

Betts’s eyes go dark. He wrings his fingers methodically before sharing a story he once told his wife. While he is a natural-born storyteller—this tale extends beyond the appetizers and draws the attention of nearby diners—with every detail, it is clear how serious this story is. Violence haunts his accent: pounce-ready, and each sentence unfolds like a staged film. For a minute, I can see the story right in front of me: a car wreck of hypermasculinity daring to make a moment into a lifetime of regret. Betts shakes his head at the memory. The picture blurs out of focus as we hold the lesson up to the light: Any one of us can become a victim of our adrenaline if we don’t give it a beat to go still. After the intensity subsides he bookends the story with this response from his wife: “You can’t be a thug listening to a Marlon James e-book and eating a falafel sandwich.” We both laugh. Centered by her perspective. In her quick retort, what she is saying is, “How could you have come this far and consider jeopardizing it over something so fleeting?” The restaurant’s music punctuates the sound of dropping silverware. 

My lover don’t believe in my sadness. She says whisky,
not time, is what left me wrecked after prison.

Your wife shows up in your poems, and she’s been there in these moments to make you see yourself. How does your partnership—not just being a partner but being a father—how has it informed your writing? How has it pushed forward or harnessed that energy?
I think I’m figuring it out. I remember when I was writing a nonfiction piece and I was trying to figure out what she thought when we had first met. And I wanted her thoughts. And I don’t remember what I wrote about besides how I was real nerdy and shit, and it’s hard to imagine me going to prison. She just didn’t believe the story. Not that she thought I was lying but that it just didn’t register for her the way it might have for me. She asks all the time when am I going to write about something other than prison. And I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe never.” But I do think that being Black and being married—I met my wife just a few months after I came home, we started dating a little over a year after I came home, and we’ve been married going on eleven years. And the shit is challenging because I think so much of our relationship—the shit I’ve chosen to do has driven some of the decisions about where we live and what she can do. And I think we’ve become more aware of that lately. But I think she’s made me better though. Shit, that sounds like a cliché. But I think we complement each other. 

What would your wife, Terese, say to me about your work ethic?
I don’t know. I think she’d be more honest. She would recognize I’m not the greatest at time management or have a realistic idea of what I’m capable of. But I usually do most of the shit that I say I’m going to do. I think I’m a good dad. We’re good parents. Our kids love each other. They’re spoiled. They got stamps in their passport. Micah has been to more poetry readings than most. This is how I know my wife loves me. She worked at a community college in Maryland, and she got me tickets to see Lucille Clifton. Me and Micah went to the reading; he was like two. He’s been all over. He’s seen Sonia Sanchez. I took him with me to Chicago; that was pretty dope. He’s spent seven days with me in Chicago when I read with Patricia Smith. Then I took my younger son, Miles, with me to do events in Indiana. 

I’m writing a piece now about meeting Lucille Clifton. I was just happy to be in the space. [But when I first started going to poetry events] Micah had to come with me because his mom was working. I remember he asked, “Is there a toy for me in the poem?” He was young enough; I guess he figured the toy might spring out like a jack-in-the-box. 

What do your sons think of you as a poet?
They don’t pay that shit no mind. They’re like, “Ms. Such-and-Such said I should write a book, so I’m really excited about writing a book!” Where I’m like, “You know your dad writes books! With an s!” And they’re like “Yeah, but Ms. Such-and-Such knows what she’s doing.” 

Dear Warden: my time been served, let me go 

If the system is the villain, then it’s really easy for us to work. But if we have a conversation about what is incarceration, then we have to have a real conversation about how do you respond to somebody who has done a harmful thing. And I feel like one of the things I wanted this book to do is put me in a situation to be a part of conversations that demanded that we ask, “What is the appropriate response to this harm that has happened?” How do we acknowledge harm? Like, I know one innocent person in prison. And it’s fucked up—because I want to be a part of the conversation, but I realize I don’t have real answers for it. But maybe the book is just putting the shit on the table. Because I ain’t got no resolution. And the book don’t got no resolution. It’s not a bootstrap narrative. It’s a book admitting to the struggle.

Do you ever reimagine justice?
Restorative justice. But so much of that is invested in the one incident. And I don’t know how you gel that with the accumulation of harm. I’m trying to become more educated about restorative justice around sexual violence and domestic violence. But some of the conversations we have are just dishonest. We haven’t figured it out yet because we ain’t got enough power to be responsible for sending people to jail. We got to be serious about the work of asking real questions.

Would you say poetry thrives off of our inability to be a certain kind of honest, responsible and accountable?
I would say it suffers. The best poets figure out how to push against that. How to think about that. I think the space between rhetoric and poetry—or the distance you try to span between what is rhetoric and what is poetry—is a mission that I might just not know. I think sometimes we demand a kind of certainty to poetry that is antithetical to the practice of it. 

More recent poetry has been used as a political tool for some; for others the personal and the political is one and the same, and they aren’t looking for a new and improved platform to share their poems about police brutality—is it a performance or…?
I think what you’re saying is absolutely true. It’s the worst of its kind because it’s almost like “this is my chance to make some kind of gesture toward justice.” Even though the political is faux political. It’s more: I want my poem to give you a political education, but I don’t want my poem to be a part of the politics of change. Look, AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] ain’t reading my shit. She’s up there talking about how people at the borders ain’t criminals. She would never say that if she read my poems. But I trust people to say, “Let’s get them to read this.” This is why I like CRC [Civil Rights Corps]. These attorneys are fighting for bail money—they don’t know shit about you. They have no clue. And I’m on their board. I started a conversation with [CRC founder and executive director] Alec Karakatsanis years ago, and when they had the opportunity to give artists money, they did it. So he was invested in the idea that art should be involved in the work that they do. Art should be a part of what they do because if artists want to be political, it has to be honest, informative, and it can’t be what an organization produces.

I try to produce work to help somebody know something of a world they don’t know. I’m acknowledging that even our slice isn’t the world. 

I remember I wrote this poem about Tamir Rice. And the poem was like, if you murder my child, at some point the blood on the concrete is going to be yours. I wrote this while driving my kids to school, and in the back of my head the video of Tamir Rice being murdered by police is playing. It’s like, how does that exist in one mind? I think artists and poets who aren’t in the profession, where our craft isn’t motivated by getting the bag, when we have the time and space to write honestly about something we can’t escape, that is the best part of the work.

Titus Kaphar painted my portrait, then dipped it in black tar. 
He knows redaction is a dialect after prison.

I think I’m still figuring out how to talk to different people. I want to be on The Breakfast Club [a popular hip-hop radio show in NYC], and I want to be on The Daily Show. Poetry should be in the middle of the civic discussion of what’s going on in this country. And we got to figure out how to do our thing and have it stand up without the rhetorical purpose of didacticism. And sometimes it’s hard to say. I don’t want to think about my kids hurt and domestic violence and date rape—I don’t want to think about that; I want to be as far away from that conversation as possible. But if one in four women in this country has experienced sexual assault, then how can I be a writer in this country and not engage with that conversation? And if I engage with it in a suggested way, which is like “demonize, demonize, criminalize, criminalize,” then how am I going say I’m against mass incarceration? Art is supposed to be a mechanism to help us become better than when we came to the page. Both the reader and the writer. 

Who do you want to be thinking about this and grappling with these questions? If poetry is really what people die for the lack of, then I want the poem to be in the center of that. It’s 2019, and everybody you know is three minutes away from a felony. The real argument is: Men in prison doing fifteen to twenty years, murderers, dudes that got bodies, are only there because they in a war they didn’t enlist in. The gambit of failed and struggling human beings that exist in prison is not that different from what exists on the outside. So when someone suggests “we need to incarcerate less people in prison because they become worse in prison,” it’s like, no, we need to incarcerate less people because all of us become less. 

Them fools say you can become anything when it’s over.

Today Betts is a practicing lawyer. He is a freelance journalist. Today he needs to rush back from this interview for family obligations. Today Betts serves as a consultant to advocacy organizations against mass incarceration and invites those affected by the severity of the prison system into the room. Betts is more than an ex-felon and redeemed citizen; he is equal parts Shakespearean swagger and neighborhood bar pastor. His humility lies behind the stories of masculinity, prison violence, and survival. Today his humility is buckled safely into the rear seat of the car as he whips swiftly past a red light in order for this writer to make the Metro-North train back to Brooklyn on time. 


Mahogany L. Browne is a writer, organizer, and educator. The interim executive director of Urban Word NYC and the poetry coordinator at St. Francis College, Browne has received fellowships from Agnes Gund, AIR Serenbe, Cave Canem, Poets House, the Mellon Research Forum, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. She is the author of Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice, forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press in March 2020; Woke Baby and Black Girl Magic, both published by Roaring Brook Press in 2018; Kissing Caskets (YesYes Books, 2017); and Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters or Less (Penmanship Books, 2010). She is also the founder of Woke Baby Book Fair, a nationwide diversity literature campaign. As an Art for Justice grantee, she is completing her first book of essays about mass incarceration and its effect on women and children. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.