It's really a beautiful thing to think that language can make the kind of commitment to us that most of us only get from our mothers.
In the first poem in Reginald Dwayne Betts’s new collection, every stanza ends with the words: after prison. It's fair to say Betts is still wrestling with what “after prison” means.
Betts spent more than eight years in prison, from age 16 to 24, a coming of age he documents in his 2009 memoir, A Question of Freedom.
In 1996, Betts was part of a carjacking in a Virginia mall parking lot. In court, the judge who sentenced him confessed, "I don't have any illusions that the penitentiary is going to help you."
Prison certainly didn't help Betts, but he does write: "I went to prison and found creativity." He paid for his own correspondence courses and spent much of his time behind bars reading, and eventually writing.
After prison, Betts attended college, and then Yale Law School. In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, he explains the gauntlet he had to run as a former "felon" to be admitted to the Connecticut bar.
Betts also published his memoir and three books of poetry. The most recent is pointedly titled Felon.
The conversation with New Thinking host Matt Watkins is about Betts's incarceration and its aftermath. It's also about blackness and the weight of history, both political and personal. "We know the law," Betts tells Watkins, "we know the Constitution, but I think we have no real sense about just what it means, the human cost of having handcuffs touch your flesh."
The following is an annotated transcript of the podcast:
MATT WATKINS: Reginald Dwayne Betts, I've been reading your stuff nonstop for the last four or five days, so it's a privilege to have you here. Thank you.
REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: Thank you. And thanks for inviting me. Reading for four or five days, that's pretty cool. If you lasted five days, that mean the book is either decent, or it just took you forever because it wasn't decent.
WATKINS: Well, I started with the memoir, A Question of Freedom, and then I moved on to Felon.
WATKINS: And poetry is good to read slowly and a few times, if you can do it, right?
BETTS: Yeah, man, that's what I tell people. If you read poetry fast, you miss the music, you miss the meaning, and all you get is a sort of word soup.
WATKINS: I wanted to plunge right into the poetry itself. In the first poem of Felon you write that “it's prison's vastness your eyes reflect after prison,” and I was struck by the number of mentions of the ocean in the poems: there are references to shipwrecks and castaways, and Jonah and the whale, and prison corridors as long as the Atlantic.
You also have the mother of a black defendant in court saying, "You can't throw my son in that fucking ocean." Have you thought about why this image of the ocean and prison keeps recurring for you?
BETTS: This is one of the great things about talking to people about my book, who are both interested in poetry and interested in poetry as literature, and poetry as ideas, because–
WATKINS: And poetry as politics too.
BETTS: Right, because thinking about that, “it's prison's vastness your eyes reflect after prison.” The vastness is that vastness of the ocean, right? And then why do those images keep recurring? It’s probably because there’s some subtle way in which I'm thinking about prison as a disaster that's akin to the Middle Passage.
And this is not really to say that prison is like slavery at all, but it is to say that it is something bewildering that happens when you move from freedom to incarceration.
And it's almost like you have ... You've recognized that ocean, that thing, is what you spend the rest of your life trying to get back across to this thing that we call freedom, and I think that's why it comes up again and again.
And then I also think just on some very personal level: I've been on a cruise, and you go out at night, and you stand on deck, and the ocean, it is so terrifying. Or you go out to a beach, and you stand out on the beach and the waves get very violent late at night, and you're standing there and you're looking at the waves, and you just imagine: 15 feet away from where I'm standing now, I'd die.
At least for me, I think having been to prison, I feel inextricably connected to that whole world of possibility, of both doom and maybe even the best of whatever trauma gives us, if trauma ever gives us the best of anything.
WATKINS: If we pick up this idea of prison being this ocean that is creating this distance between you and the world, there's clearly a before and after in your life though, whether there's really an “after prison,” is, I think, a question that you're wrestling with.
But if we go back to the before-prison Dwayne—that's in 1996, you're a 16-year-old kid, you write you're 5'5 and 125 pounds, you want to go to Georgia Tech, you want to play point guard and get an engineering degree, but then this ill-considered, ill-conceived event happens, and you end up getting a bunch of felony charges in the space of about 30 minutes.
Can you talk a little bit about who this Dwayne was when he was 16, and what led to him “tapping gently,” as you say, on the window of a guy in a car with a pistol with the safety on.
BETTS: It's so funny, right? Like that whole image, I mean, I could spend an hour talking about that whole image.
WATKINS: Well, we got time.
BETTS: Which I thought it was a good–
WATKINS: Which? The tapping gently image?
BETTS: The tapping gently with the safety on, because what I was trying to make people recognize is that the fact that I tapped gently didn't matter, and the fact that the safety was on didn't matter.
And it's a way that we understand violence, and we understand the crimes that people commit and the way I understand my own crime, where the tapping gently doesn't matter, and the fact that the safety is on doesn't matter–
WATKINS: Because the victim doesn't know that.
BETTS: Right. The victim doesn't know, and the whole act is this thing of: what does the victim experience in that moment? What did that man experience in that moment? And I think at 16, that was the dilemma.
Maybe all 16-year-olds think this, but specifically in that moment, I thought that there were these things that I could do to make what was happening somehow not as bad as what it was.
And so, at 16, I think—and this has nothing to do with me blaming the guys I was hanging around, this has nothing to do with me blaming my community. This actually doesn't really have anything to do with me blaming the resources that did exist or didn't exist. It's just acknowledging that at 16, there was a world at that moment, that might've better had me prepared for whatever I was confronting, and I didn't have access to that.
And what I did have access to was my own absurdities. It was my own imagination, or lack thereof, that made me believe it was possible to pick up a gun and not ruin my life forever.
And I was an anomaly, I was like a nerd, but I could play ball and talk shit, and so I couldn't fight, and maybe not being a fighter's the one thing that saved me, because I had all of these talents, but not that one. And so, going to prison extremely vulnerable, I think it forced me to develop some other skills, and it kind of worked out for me. But I don't know who that 16-year-old kid was.
WATKINS: You do wrestle a fair bit in your writing with your own responsibility for what happened, and we're hearing that right now, but you also talk a lot about history, and the weight of history; history as prophecy and albatross, I think you say at one point.
How do you understand your own role in what happened, and then the role of history, and the larger context in this racialized system, where you go to prison and some of the people you meet have simply adopted the nickname 'Black'?
BETTS: I should say, writing the memoir, one of the things that wasn't a challenge for me as it might have been for other people is, I decided to be a writer at 16, and I spent my whole time incarcerated really asking myself questions about where I was, why I was there, how did I get there, and I started thinking about history and studying history, and reading these books that helped me interrogate what we now call mass incarceration, before that was a word in common parlance.
And now how do I think about it? I think it's really difficult to govern, and I think that if I have a criticism at all… I mean, I got a bunch, I guess, but the primary criticism that I have is that there were so many actors that were just willing to not be thoughtful about the crimes that we had committed, and about the dangerousness of the places that they would send us to. I remember my judge saying, "I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison will help."
WATKINS: That really jumped out at me too.
BETTS: Yeah. So, it's, “but why did you send me?”
WATKINS: For nine years.
BETTS: Right. And, well, he might argue that I could have sent you for life, because that was what was statutorily permissible, he might have argued that your minimal sentence was 23 years, and in fact, I cut that down by a considerable amount of time, so that you would only have nine years to serve. But, still, he made a decision and the prosecutor made a decision, and made arguments that just sometimes weren't factually true, and were completely independent of the person I was at that moment.
I think my criticism of the system, and now too, is that we don't know how to think about crime through the lens of anything other than the crime itself, and I think that's not really a productive way to think about things, because if it was, then we would just all agree that if you steal something, you should get your hand chopped off. If that moment, it's all that matters, that you stole something with your left hand, you should get your hand chopped off, and you will never steal anything with your left hand again.
Like if you murder somebody, then you should just get executed, and it should happen as quickly as possible, and you will never murder somebody again. But we recognize that that's absurd, and yet, we haven't really pushed ourselves to figure out, well, what makes more sense?
WATKINS: Why don't we do a poem now? I mean, I think one that describes some of your experience in prison, where you're sent for nine years at 16. This is one that really struck me, called ‘November 5th, 1980,’ which I take is your birth date?
BETTS: Yeah, it's my birthday. Yeah, no, so it's a poem that's after a Joseph Brodsky poem, called ‘May 24th, 1980,’ and I think one of the things that poetry just teaches me is there's a way in which somebody else's experiences speak to yours in the most unexpected of manners.
And he says a line in there that says, "I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages." It's like, what?
WATKINS: He underwent forced labor, a Russian exile.
BETTS: Yeah, so this poem is patterned after that in terms of rhyme scheme, but also intention.
I have called, in my wasted youth, the concrete slabs
Of prison home. Awakened to guards keeping tabs
On my breath. Bartered with every kind of madness,
The state's mandatory minimums and my own callus.
I've never called a man father; & while sleep, twice
Wrecked cars; drank whiskey straight; nothing suffices—
I fell in love with sons I wouldn't give my name. Once
Swam at midnight in the Atlantic’s violence,
Under the water, rattling broke the silence. I cussed
Men with fists like ham-bones & got beaten to dust.
Buried memories in my gut that would fill a book.
I've carried pistols but have never held a bullet.
There is frightful little left for me to hold in fear,
Definitely not the debt that threatens to hollow
Me. I've abhorred transparency, confessed to so-and-so,
But what of it matters? In this life so much has troubled,
& the few things that didn't, never failed to baffle.
WATKINS: Thank you for that. It's interesting, Brodsky's poem ends on more of a hopeful note in some ways. Something about “my mouth will be stuffed with gratitude”–
BETTS: Yeah, well, I mean, I think being baffled is hopeful!
WATKINS: I guess so! <laughter>
BETTS: I think… You know the automatic watch? The automatic watch; it's a work of art. It's built with gears, and you put the watch on, and your movement is what stores that kind of energy to keep the watch going.
So, if you wear it for eight hours, then it's good for the next, maybe, three or four days. But if you take it off and you don't wear it for a week, then it stops. And so, living is what allows you to keep living. But the other, for me, beautiful thing about the watch is that every one of them is idiosyncratic. The second hand always has a different movement, and you always lose time, so you have to go back and check the watch, because every day, you're losing a few seconds. It's not like Quartz, just keeping perfect time forever.
But the other beautiful thing about it for me is that when the watchmaker is making the watch, if the watch tells you what day of the month it is, that's called a complication. If the watch tells you the day of the month and the day of the week, that's two complications.
And so the idea of a complication, to me, is the same thing that troubles you, but it doesn't necessarily have to be this thing that ruins you; it's just a fact that the world is complicated and that you have these things that trouble you, and the watchmaker has these things that clearly trouble him, because it requires more skill, it requires more technique, but that trouble that he goes through is a benefit to us as the wearer of the watch.
And so, maybe what I'm saying is that I don't know if I see trouble, in that sense, as necessarily a bad thing. It's just, I think, me holding onto this idea that there's always this duality and being aware of it doesn't necessarily have to be unsettling. I like that poem.
WATKINS: I like it too.
So, you clearly got a hell of an education in prison. You're there from age 16 to 24—that's a third of your life. You spent time in five different prisons. I suspect the answer to this is pretty brief: what kind of formal educational opportunities were ever offered you in prison?
BETTS: Yeah, that's brief!
WATKINS: That's brief.
BETTS: Zero. Offered. I mean, they allowed me to take advantage of things I could pay for on my own, so I paid for a paralegal course.
I took a writing course while I was in prison, as well as the paralegal course, and the writing course was quite useful because it was really modeled like the MFA program, and so you had this one person who is a published writer, who is sort of like your mentor, and takes you through the paces.
And the first piece I wrote—again, this has been my obsession—was about juveniles being tried as adults, and I talked about the historical perspective of juveniles being tried as adults, and I got it published.
WATKINS: While you're in prison?
BETTS: While I was in prison, and I remember when I came home and I went to sign up for community college after a whole bunch of other things had happened, but I had that piece with me as a talisman, to say: one time, a gun was my talisman, and that didn't work out, and I had this published piece that I got published while I was in prison, to say if somebody challenged me, “but, look, this is what I did.”
So those were the only two opportunities, I think, for formal education, and they weren't offered by the prison, but the prison didn't prevent me from having access.
WATKINS: They didn't prevent you from paying for it yourself.
WATKINS: But there you are in prison, in solitary even, reading Great Expectations and Max Weber. What role did reading play for you?
BETTS: It was just identity, which… It's interesting, because, partly when I was 16, and I was smoking weed and committing petty crimes, and then committed this robbery, that was also about identity. As much as I might say I was intending on going to Georgia Tech, and intending on playing ball, and intending on being an engineer, all of those moments that I spent smoking weed, I knew that they weren't contributing to me actually achieving those goals.
And because most people in my family didn't know the stuff that I was struggling with, and it's the era in which I think it was easy to miss a lot of stuff, and so it was interesting. I think that those were choices about identity as well, and getting locked up forced me to realize that that was a choice about identity.
And it's hard to talk about prison because you have to rationalize these individual choices with all of the systemic failures, and what I do know how to do though, I think—or what I did know how to do then as a child—was pick a new identity.
I didn't grow up with my dad. My dad came up in the '80s, and we think about I was a '80s baby, but that means that I wasn't really in the War on Drugs. My dad was a young man, a 20-year-old in 1980, and he was in the War on Drugs.
He was in the streets, and he remembers the generation of men his age that became drug addicts. It's a line in a Pusha T song that says, "A toothless crackhead was the mascot." This is the world that he remembers, and I came of age in that world and my friends became drug dealers, but I'm talking about the first scourge that turned so many people away from their communities and was a part of this uptick in incarceration.
So, my dad disappears, and so much of what I talk about, about criminal justice reform, is really about the War on Drugs, and what that did to my community. But when I think about my dad, I can't have a conversation with you about the War on Drugs.
I can only have a conversation with you about every single individual choice he did that asserted an identity, and that he could have chosen to assert a different identity, and he didn't, and I have to grapple with how I deal with that, and how he deals with that, but the way that I deal with that on a personal level is just not thinking about the system failures.
And going to prison, the way I dealt with my own situation, I think, was just to assert a different identity, and it became a reader, as if being a reader alone would solve some complicated moral dilemma that had buried me to the point that I thought it was acceptable to pick up a pistol. And in some absurd way it did. Just becoming a reader changed so much.
I don't know if it'd change so much for everybody, but I think, in books, I found the questions that I needed to really grapple with, and some of the answers. And even I found the, I don't know, maybe courage, or wherewithal, or just ability to think about a world that was larger than my own troubles.
WATKINS: And then you say it's in prison, in solitary, I think, actually, where you make this decision to take the identity of a poet, which I think you write, that might sound very romantic to you, to make this decision, but in fact, there's nothing romantic about it, it was just a necessity.
BETTS: Yeah. I mean, look, Etheridge Knight, he's writing poems about prison. His book is literally titled Poems from Prison, and he's writing about people that I recognize. And in fact, he got this poem called ’For Freckle-Faced Gerald,’ which is about a kid that was 16, that went to prison, and this is history, and this is written in the '60s, and all of a sudden, I'm recognizing that a poet could chronicle history–
WATKINS: Somebody slipped this anthology of black poets under your door in solitary, right? I mean, I'm romanticizing this now–
BETTS: That's so funny, because in my head, I was thinking that's a really ... That's what I said though, and I was like, “yeah, that's a really romantic image.” I don't know if it was that romantic, I actually think what happened was... Because the cells were parallel, and you could just say, "Yo, send me a book."
When I sent somebody books, I would, because even if it's a cell right across from you, you got to put some oomph behind the book as you slide it, because you want it to go. And the person that gave me The Black Poets, they weren't in a cell that was right next to me, so they had to angle the slide too–
WATKINS: And you still don't know who this person is?
BETTS: Nah. They just sent me the book, and that's ... So maybe that is romantic. I mean, I think there is something romantic about that, to say that ... I don't know, man, I got this book, I don't know who gave it to me, I don't know why that person slid it to me, besides the fact that I asked for a book and we were in a community in which this is what you did.
The library didn't come to us, so you read a book, and then you passed it on. And you didn't pass it on and say, "I love this book, you should read it," you passed it on to say, "You get to make your own decision about this, because me and you ain't even friends."
But the book now is yours for the time period it takes for you to read it, and the honor code says that once you done with it, you pass it on to somebody else, and in that way, I don't even know who I gave The Black Poets to after I finished it.
I know that I read it, I copied the poems down longhand because I wanted to carry them with me, and I was like, "I'm a poet now", and I passed the book on, and I carried around that sheaf of handwritten poems for a whole bid.
WATKINS: You talk about the secret of survival in prison being learning to do it all alone, something you had to start learning as a 16-year-old. I don't know if you still feel that way. And then I also wonder, now you're somebody with a family and you've been out 15 years or something…
BETTS: Yeah, but it's a catch… I think it's complicated, because I think in prison, I learnt to do it on my own, but yet, I learned that it’s easier to survive within a community, and that you get to pick.
And so I used to say… I had this idea that I had to do these things on my own in terms of: I couldn't rely on other people for whatever my material needs might have been, and I couldn't really rely on people for my emotional needs.
I think the only time that you learn to rely on people for your emotional needs is that you have these really intense, open conversations with your cell partner, and when you’re in the hole, you frequently had these intense, open conversations with the person that's either in the cell beside you and you talk through a door, or in my case, you could talk to somebody on a vent.
But I think it's this dual notion of doing it on your own in terms of figuring out how you are the person that you rely on, but also, for me, it was thinking about how to become a community with people, and so that was as a librarian, as a tutor, later on as a law clerk. It was choosing the ways in which I wanted to interact with the world—running book clubs in prison—that allowed me to be myself and do the things I wanted to do.
I'm picking my own thing, both to stay safe, but also to create boundaries in which I wanted to respect, and I wanted other folks to respect, and by and large, it kind of worked out.
WATKINS: You know what's interesting about this interview is, I just read your memoir that you wrote about your time in prison, which was published ten years ago. I just read it this weekend and I was totally engrossed by it, and I keep confronting you with things from the memoir that feel, to me, like they were just written this weekend, and the Dwayne of ten years hence, every time I confront you with something, kind of grimaces a little bit and goes, "Yeaaaaaah, but…" Which is sort of hopeful, in a sense, that things have moved on for you.
BETTS: That's interesting, man, because, one, I'd like to think I'm a better writer, but also I'd like to think I'm a better thinker. You're making me return to some of these ideas that I had about my own experience before, and I realize, I mean, that's what memoir does, memory does, you’re constantly amending it to try to say something that's truer. But it's wild though, because my homeboys read the book now in prison, and some of them use it to run reading groups and discussion groups, and to think about incarceration.
I was always afraid of what they would think about the book, mainly because I wasn't a keen enough writer to reach out to them and talk to them as I was writing. Not just to check the facts and things like that, but just to be point, counterpoint: this is how I saw things, but maybe that cellblock wasn't even as dangerous to you as I thought it was, and what does that even mean?
And so, I don't know if the amending of the book, and the revising of the book, and the rethinking of these things is about me disagreeing with what I said earlier, or if it's just about me trying to work harder at not being the hero of the narrative.
WATKINS: Unfortunately, this next question is going to continue to make you the hero of this podcast, because you really do have a pretty fascinating trajectory.
You get out of prison after being in there for nine years. You get into higher education, you get into an MFA, and then you're at Yale Law School, and then you've got to get through all the obstacles, as someone who's been marked by the system, to get admitted to the Connecticut Bar, which I think happened two years ago now.
And people who want to know more about that can read this really great essay that you wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine, that I'll put on the page for this episode. But I'm just wondering: are there things that you have learned working as a lawyer about the criminal justice system that you didn't already know?
BETTS: Definitely. I didn't understand how just the sheer numbers in scope, in scale—just in terms of even in a place like Connecticut, which doesn't have the highest incarceration rate. It's not like New Orleans, it's not like Louisiana, but there are a lot of people locked up in Connecticut.
And I didn't understand how so much of the system is about managing failure, and about figuring out how to deal with guilt in a world that doesn't want you to deal with guilt in any kind of honest and merciful way.
I didn't know that so much of the attorney's job is figuring out how to tell a story about who you are, or what happened, in a way that keeps you out of prison, and that attorneys are trying to do that without knowing who you are at all.
WATKINS: But they still need to craft some kind of narrative.
BETTS: And that is the most depressing part about all of this, is that we spend so much time needing to know who people are, without the time or the resources that allow us to know who people actually are.
When a judge that sentenced me says, "I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison would help," what he's saying is that, “the little bit I know means that this is a fool's errand that I'm sending you on, but I'm not really willing to interrogate just how profoundly traumatic this thing I'm sending you on may be for the future, knowing that you're going to get out in nine years.” Maybe this decision is so horrendous that it shouldn't be made.
So, I think the most profound thing I learned being an attorney—working in a space for a little bit, going to law school—was how little we know about how the law just acts on the lives of people, the criminal justice system really acts on lives of people who are stuck in it.
We know the rules, we know the law, we know the Constitution, but I think we have no real sense about just what it means, the human cost of having handcuffs touch your flesh.
WATKINS:I've heard you say that you don't want to be known as the poet who's also a lawyer. You want to be a poet lawyer.
BETTS: Yeah, yeah.
WATKINS: And you have these four poems in Felon that reproduce very dry legal filings from Civil Rights Corps. These are filings that are challenging people's incarceration because they couldn't pay bail, and these are poems that you make by selectively redacting the documents in the way that we're familiar from seeing intelligence documents that get released. I was wondering actually if you could read one of those. It's called ‘In California.’
BETTS: And so this one is different because this one is a habeas corpus petition, and so it's interesting, because the habeas corpus petition is one client, and it's saying, "Get my client out of custody now." Whereas the other three deal with lawsuits in which the clients were largely no longer in custody, and the lawsuit was saying that the way I was treated was unconstitutional, and therefore, you have to pay me damages.
WATKINS: So in this instance, because I'm not a lawyer, "habeas corpus" means show me the body, and in this instance, we are literally talking about a body. Like, “give me the body.”
BETTS: Right. And I wanted the things to have different voices and pieces, but you'll see that this is just one person, and it's saying, it's demanding a body.
In the state of California, petition for writ of habeas corpus, arrested. A 63-year-old man, a retired shipyard laborer, a life-long resident, arrested, charged first-degree residential robbery. First-degree residential burglary, inflicting injury on elder, theft. Not a capital offense. No threat of great bodily harm.
Defense requested release. Humphrey's advanced age, lifelong resident of San Francisco, shipyard laborer, lack of a recent criminal. Prosecutor requested $600.000 money bail. A criminal protective order. The judge denied release. Set bail, $600.000. The court emphasized public safety. $600.000, Humphrey did not have money to pay. Humphrey argued bail beyond his means. Violated the 14th Amendment, the 8th Amendment.
Prosecution argued public safety, flight risk concerns. Prosecutor requested detention. Court denied Humphrey's request. Humphrey presented acceptance letter, Golden Gate for Seniors. Asked to be released to Golden Gate. Emphasized advanced age, treatment for battle with addiction. Too poor to pay the cash. Petition to ask a writ of habeas corpus be issued, ordering released, an expedited hearing. The court inquired into ability to pay release, not to detain him, release, release.
WATKINS: It strikes me that you're sculpting these documents in a way to reveal something that was always already there.
BETTS: See, usually, redaction is like: I'm redacting the sensitive, I'm redacting the things that are above your pay grade, and I say: I am actually redacting the superfluous. $600.000 bail? He can't afford to pay that.
And this is not about dangerousness. This is using money as a proxy for who you believe should be free. The absurdity of it, even in this case, we got this 63-year-old drug addict. You have an attorney who did what a good attorney should do, which is find a way to let the court know that we are also going to alleviate some of the things that made the cat commit the crime, allegedly commit the crime.
So, he’s a drug addict, so we’re going to get him into Golden Gate for Seniors to deal with treatment. And the court is like, "nah, $600.000 bail." That is just about saying that we don't want you to be free.
To loop back around to the earlier question, I think these kinds of cases, when you really get into the specifics, then you could see where the systemic failures actually heighten whatever individual failures exist, and actually reproduce harm that triples the individual failure. So maybe the point is never: I carjacked somebody, so let's act like I didn't carjack somebody and let me go; it's like, no, but let's consider whether or not the state's response triples the effect of that violence and that crime.
I think about my own victims and the fact that I don't think that anything existed to help them deal with the tragedy of having somebody pull a pistol out on them, and nobody asked them what might help them. I know in my experience, working at the public defender's office, it's very rare that the state comes through to support the victims in a way that's offering them more than incarceration.
And I think those poems particularly though is me trying to really… It’s me actually arguing that I'm a dope poet. If I could turn a legal complaint with all of that jargon, into a poem, I think that you accomplished a bit of something.
But also, these documents are people fighting for their freedom and fighting for their constitutional rights, and what I was trying to do, the poet's job is to make the people be heard, and these documents, the lawyer's job is to do the same thing, but we frequently had these legal documents that actually do that work, but can't get consumed on a level of what I just was able to do by just reading this piece of what matters, and I think that that's a kind of public service in itself.
It's like I want people to be able to think that this is great work that the Civil Rights Corps is doing. And they explain that work well, but explaining it in prose, and explaining it in talking points, is not the same thing as explaining in literature, I think, and poetry.
WATKINS: To end, actually, I'm surprising you with something; I wanted to ask you to read a poem, but a poem by somebody else. One that I know is really important to you and that I learned about through your writing, and that's Lucille Clifton, ‘won't you celebrate with me.’ But you probably don't need the sheet there, you probably have it memorized. If you could read that, and then we'll just talk about it briefly.
BETTS: Lucille Clifton, ‘won't you celebrate with me’
won't you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
WATKINS: That's a remarkable poem.
BETTS: Yeah, man, it's actually, it's stunning. I realize there's so much of this stuff that's just like... It's both me and not me, because it's strange, it's like, “won’t you celebrate with me / what I have shaped into / a kind of a life.
Yeah, I think about that a lot, and I had no model, except to say I had a lot of models, and she was one of them, and Etheridge Knight was one of them. But this thing, though, when I was shaping it, this idea: what is a model? And when I was figuring this out and I first read her poems in that anthology–
WATKINS: In The Black Poets anthology–
BETTS: Black Poets, yeah. But then it's this thing: what did I see to be except myself? When I was like, "I'm going to be a writer," I got this nine year prison sentence… So stupid, man. Sixteen-year-old kid, I get sentenced, and the first thing I think about is, fuck it, what am I going to be when I go home? I'm going to be a writer. This is just absurd.
WATKINS: Yeah, but you did it!
BETTS: I know! That's probably the absurdity of it too. But I made it up though! And this poem, I carried it with me—whole prison sentence, I carried it in my head. I remember when I met her. It was at this poetry workshop.
My mom says I don't talk about her on interviews enough, actually—my mom says I don't talk about my mom enough for interviews. And it's interesting, my mom wrote the first poem I ever read. I can't remember the poem, but I know it was like a four-line poem about what life is for.
I say I had no model, but my mom was a real model in a sense that she was the first poet I knew who didn't say that they were a poet; who had made all kinds of life decisions that didn't lead them to write poetry.
So, I'm reading these Lucille Clifton poems, and I get out of prison, and I'm at this workshop, and I remember the first time I met her. And the connection between my mom and Clifton is that Clifton was doing all of these things that I don't even know if my mom wanted to do, but I know that I grew up in a world in which women—and men, but men weren't in the world—but in which women couldn't even make these kind of decisions.
And so, I sit on the front row—and as a kid who'd always sit in the back row, I literally sat in the front row—and, I had just got out of prison. This is my second summer home, I came home in March. It's 54 black poets and we all love her work. It's only me and my man Jamaal May, we’re the only people that's there that don't have a college degree, and me and him carrying around books in our book bag, like talisman.
Maybe people think we're not supposed to be here, so we got a book bag with seven books on us at all times. And I ask her a question, raise my hand, ask a question, and another question. I asked her like eight questions.
And I didn't know her. You know what I mean? I just loved her work, talked to her, and that was it. It was just a world in which everybody needed to know their heroes, and I was sort of like, "I'm good", and I remember leaving, and we were going to lunch, a little while later. I went back to my room, it was on the college campus, first time staying on a college campus. And we were going back to the dining hall, and I remember just weeping, just breaking down.
And I did a whole prison bid, man, and I cried maybe twice. The first time when I found out that I wasn't going home for Christmas, I broke down. And then I remember the second time, and the only other time I cried, was I was at receiving, and I was listening to one of those civil rights joints, and just feeling like I was a fucking failure, man.
And that's one of the things that we don't talk about when we talk about mass incarceration. It's just some bullshit, like Martin Luther King ain't march for me to carjack somebody, but it was just something profoundly unsettling about just listening to everything that was going on in the '60s, on Martin Luther King Day, listening to it from a cell. That just fucked me up completely, just made me think that I had ruined everything.
And so those are the only two times I cried in prison though, I was just like, "Fuck it." But, man, I walk into the dining hall that day and I just like ... I couldn't even move, man, I was like some kid who just was inconsolable. And I think the beauty of her work, and of literature and of language, period, is it made me believe something was possible, that I had no right to believe was possible.
And then meeting her years later just fucked me up, because it was like ... It's a weird way in which poems can sort of make a promise to you. And so, you say this out loud, "Come celebrate with me, that every day, something has tried to kill me, and has failed." And when you say it, it's you saying it. And it's a way in which she demanded, I think, that the poem make a promise to herself, that then the poem was making to you when you read it, and I did all this time in prison not understanding that I was believing this shit.
And then to finally meet her, as a poet, I was like, damn. It was one of the truest commitments that, outside of my mom ... And that's why I started talking about my mom at first. My mom is the only other person in life that had made that kind of commitment to who I was or who I might be. And so, it's just really, I think, a beautiful thing to think that language can make the kind of commitment to us that most of us only get from our mothers.
And I like to think that me and Terese, me and my wife, that we make the same kind of commitment to our children and to each other. I like to think that because it's something cool about being able to loop back around to these things that shaped you, a decade or so later, and feel like it was a true promise.
WATKINS: Well, Dwayne, I just want to thank you so much, man, for coming in here and for celebrating, a little bit together, the kind of life that you've shaped, and I want to congratulate you on the writing.
BETTS: Thank you.
WATKINS: I really look forward to seeing what you do next.
BETTS: Thank you. I appreciate it, man, it was fun. Yeah, it was special.
WATKINS: That was my conversation with poet-lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts. His latest collection of poetry is called Felon, and his 2009 memoir is A Question of Freedom. I heartily commend both of them to you. For more information about Dwayne and this episode, click the link in your show notes, or visit courtinnovation.org/newthinking.
This episode was produced and edited by me. Recording was by the kaleidoscopic Bill Harkins. Samiha Meah is our director of design. Emma Dayton is our vice president of outreach. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. And our show’s founder is Rob Wolf. Please consider leaving us a rating and review on Apple podcasts and share this episode with people you think will like it. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.