#ThrowbackThursday: Art Talk with NEA Creative Writing Fellow Reginald Dwayne Betts

By Rebecca Sutton
Man looking off camera and lifting hat slightly off his head

Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

"I feel like poetry introduced me to myself in a way that nothing else actually had." — Reginald Dwayne Betts

At age 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts was tried and convicted as an adult for carjacking. Since his release at age 24, Betts has become an attorney, a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School, an award-winning poet, essayist, and memoirist, and an advocate for juvenile justice reform. In 2019, he was named one of 35 new NEA Creative Writing Fellows. While his time in prison has certainly shaped Betts, his trajectory makes clear that it in no way defines him.

In his new book of poetry Felon: A Misspelling of My Name—the writing of which was supported by his Arts Endowment fellowship—Betts explores this incongruity of a life fuller than a conviction and how it is often the only part of his biography that society sees. We spoke with Betts about his introduction to poetry, the overlap between his literary and legal careers, and where he looks for inspiration.

NEA: To start off, I was wondering if you could talk about when you were first introduced to poetry.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: Remember Shel Silverstein? Where the Sidewalk Ends? It was the poem “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too / Went for a ride in a flying shoe.” That might have been my first introduction to poetry. At least that was one of the first books of poetry that I really found myself fascinated by, to the point that I still remember some of the lines of that poem even though it’s been literally decades since I read it.

But in terms of being introduced to poetry and thinking about it in a context of possibly being a writer, that happened when I was in prison. I was in solitary confinement. Deprivation is a strange thing. Even if we didn’t have a word for it, not being allowed to have books, not being allowed to go to the library—I think prisoners recognize the need for it. In a way, they’re kinder to strangers than they might have been in other circumstances. So there was an informal system of reading a book and then passing it along to somebody else, because we all recognized that other folks needed to read books, too. You would just call out and ask for a book, and like manna from heaven, somebody would slide a book into your cell. Sometimes you wouldn’t know who the person was that slid it into your cell. You wouldn’t know their name, you wouldn’t know why they slid that book, and you wouldn’t ask. You would just read it or not.

I got The Black Poets by Dudley Randall one day. I was probably about 17 years old, and I devoured the whole book. I’m reading all of these poets: Maya Angelou. Nikki Giovanni. Sonia Sanchez. Countee Cullen. Claude McKay. Laurence Dunbar.

I read Etheridge Knight, and two things struck me. First, he had a poem called “For Freckled-Faced Gerald,” and it was about a 16-year-old that had been raped in prison. The second thing that struck me is that Knight had been in prison himself. And I thought “If he can do it, I can do it.” I don’t know why I thought that, but it was just a confident notion that there was a person who had did time in prison and became a poet and was good enough to be put in this book.

The other thing that hit me is that at 16, I was sent to prison with adults. Everybody wants to be special, and I thought that I was a part of this first generation of kids sent to prison with adults. It turned out that that was completely untrue, and America had been sending kids to prison for a very long time, and that prison has always been dangerous and violent. It made me think that being a poet meant that you could say something about history. You could say something sonically, and you could say something about the world that you live in. I feel at that point, at that moment, I decided to be a poet.

NEA: Can you tell me about Felon: A Misspelling of My Name?

BETTS: The idea is that the way we think about incarceration and the way that we think about people who have spent time in prison becomes a way to define them and to characterize them. The notion is that it becomes as significant as your name. Felon: A Misspelling of My Name is acknowledging this is not who I am, and maybe this is not who anybody is. The poems end up talking about how you carry that with you. It’s this weird catch-22, because it becomes both who you are and not who you are; it’s the violence that may or may not lead to incarceration and then the violence that you take home from prison. It’s that interplay. The poems in the book are trying to grapple with what that means in people’s eyes and what the stigma means. It tries to cover a range of emotional and psychological statements.

NEA: Your legal work often appears in your poetry, but I was wondering if you feel that your poetry influences your legal career?

BETTS: In terms of trying to be a good legal writer, I think that it does. But also I think a lot of what you do as a lawyer is try to capture the poetry of the moment. You write a brief of 30, 40 pages, but I think the best lawyers recognize that it’s really how you nail eight or ten lines. For me, being a lawyer is actually close to being a poet: it’s about the way I think about the world. They both really come from the same place—maybe that’s the tragedy of it. Maybe every writer is obsessed with something, but I don’t know if every writer is obsessed with something to the extent that it sort of consumes them. My decision to be a lawyer and my decision to be a poet were both made out of trying to figure out what it meant that I was sent to prison as a kid. In that way, they are ultimately related.

NEA: Has poetry helped you work through that?

BETTS: I’m more of a fan of therapy than I am of poetry as therapy. I don’t know if poetry helps you work through anything. I do think it allows me to reach for some clarity of perception and clarity of my emotional understanding of the world. But those two things have very little to do with processing. You could be brilliant at emotionally describing some experience or descriptively depicting some experience and be a wreck in terms of your mental health. It just has something to do with me being able to chase some kind of clarity of vision and thought.

NEA: When The New Yorker profiled you, your aunt was quoted as saying you had “found a way to let [your] worst moments inform [your] contribution to the public good.” Can you talk about that from a literary angle, and how you feel your experience in prison shaped your writing and how you hope that might continue to the public good?

BETTS: “Contribute to the public good” is such a large-scale proclamation. I think I do contribute to the public good, but in a way that’s about interacting with people as readers, in a way that’s about teaching workshops. For a while I taught poetry in DC, and I interacted with these students. That’s probably for good—being an educator, being a teacher.

But also being a literary citizen is for good, so I think I contribute in that way. And just trying to have these conversations. Being a poet has enabled me to return to prison a number of times as a guest, not as a prisoner. That’s something that I would’ve never expected. When I’m able to go back and chop it up with the guys or chop it up with the women, and talk about writing and literature, I think it adds value. These are the kind of things that without poetry I probably wouldn’t have done. They don’t invite people to prison a lot. But authors, poets, artists are thought of as a class of citizens that stands up and speaks before a crowd. So in that way, poetry has just given me access to a community that I wouldn’t have had access to, even as a lawyer.

NEA: You mentioned that you taught writing in DC. Why would you encourage young people to read or write poetry?

BETTS: Because I need a job. No, honestly, I like teaching poetry. I think it was very different than if I was teaching English. I was responsible for what I felt like was the fun stuff, and even though we went through figures of speech, and even though we went through structure, tone, syntax, it would always be in the service of trying to say the things that you wanted to say. There’s something about poetry that allows you to reveal your inner life in a way that is just so difficult to do as a child, and even as an adult. The poem invites you to reveal something of yourself. I like, as a teacher, being able to help introduce folks to their self, because I feel like poetry introduced me to myself in a way that nothing else actually had. I discovered it at such an early age that I like to think I became maybe more aware of what I was.NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

BETTS: With each project, you develop a creative process. The process I’m developing for this next book is to sit down every day and write from 9:00 to 4:00 and just get it done. I’m frequently one of those people who is juggling different projects. I’m often writing poems on the run, and writing poems on the train; I’m thinking about poems in the morning while I wash dishes, and then that stuff becomes poetry later.

NEA: Where do you look for inspiration?

BETTS: I look for it in the world, maybe the same place that everybody else does. I look for it in some version of a sentence, some version of a thing that’s tried to capture one moment. I coach my son’s basketball team. My son is always the smallest person on the court, but he’s just so tenacious and skilled. He got a last-second shot the other day, and everybody was cheering. But what I felt inspiration in was that he wanted to take the shot at the last second, that he wanted to do it and that he was excited to get the chance. My older son will go to a game, and by the third quarter, he’s reading a book. It’s this real inspiration in him being able to be that comfortable in his skin, and to be undisturbed by all of the noise around him. Maybe that’s the long way of saying I find inspiration in my children. I find inspiration in the people I’ve taught, find inspiration in my wife. The better question is where don’t I find inspiration. And I don’t know even know the answer to that. A lot of my poems have always been dark and working their way through some really difficult subject matter. They’ve been occasions for me to find intimacy, inspiration, and hope even in dreary moments.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me, or is there a question that you wish I had asked?

BETTS: One question people ask me a lot is, “Will you write about something other than prison?” My answer to that changes all of the time, but for some of us, there are places that we’ve been in our lives that have defined who we are, and we go back to those places again and again with the hope of figuring out that thing. When you go back and think about the writers of the past and their obsessions, I hope that we recognize that their obsessions also say something about the society that they lived in. If my writing’s good enough, 100 or 200 years from now when people go back and think about it, [they’ll see] that we live in a society that has created this thing that leads to a cavernous weight on a person. It’s astonishing.

Read a sample of work by Reginald Dwayne Betts and get to know other National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellows here.