Story at a glance

  • Reginald Dwayne Betts spent more than eight years in jail, starting when he was 16.
  • Inspired to write poetry after another inmate passed him a book, he credits the artform with helping him survive his time behind bars.
  • Since his release, Betts has become an accomplished author, attorney and public servant, having been appointed by President Barack Obama.

The people close to you may tell you what’s what, but a lot of the people you interact with in a day may be harder to read. You may be so used to people hiding behind a mask that it can catch you off guard when someone is truthful.

Reginald Dwayne Betts says right out “I’m not trying to make you love me, I’m trying to make you understand me,” referring to “Felon: Poems,” his latest book, focusing on the interior struggles of life in, and then out of, prison. The visceral language and unflinching reflections are worlds away from the literary marshmallows many associate with poetry.

Like his colleagues, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Sir Walter Raleigh, all once bards behind bars, Betts was an inmate himself. As a 16-year-old kid, he was convicted of carjacking, attempted robbery and a firearms charge and spent more than eight years in jail. Now he’s a decorated poet and author, a graduate of Yale law school and student in their PhD program and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2012.

Betts has a longer list of credits than an animated feature film, which lends itself to irony when he discusses the virtues of slowing down.

Well, in regard to reading poetry, at least. One of the things he is most proud of in this complex, far-reaching project is that it’s out on audiobook.
“Poetry fundamentally forces you to slow down,” Betts says, and it’s in this slowing down that we find the things that resonate. In his poem “For a Bail Denied,” about mass incarceration and one case in that mass in which he was the public defender, “the last line is “we was too tired to be beautiful.”

“Everybody relates to that,” he says, but if you read it like a novel, which is our default speed, it doesn’t sink in. You miss the bus that connects you to them, to him, to the bigger picture.

“I think that’s why poetry, the very art of it, helps me as an attorney because to be a good attorney, to be a thoughtful attorney, [you have] to think through the ramifications of every decision you make.”

So, when you have a minute, here’s a WGBH video of Betts reading “The Lord Might Have Given Him Wings” and another on the Simon & Schuster website, “Ghazel,” which refers to the format of the poem. A ghazel is an Arabic style of verse done in couplets with precise rules. Most dramatically, there is a single word or phrase repeated throughout and in this case it’s “after prison,” a phrase that mingles with all the things that come after being released, including sadness, suspicion and love. (Protip: if you close your eyes while you listen you eliminate a lot of distraction — it’s like listening in HD).

A unique form the lawyer-poet uses is redaction, a legal tactic obliterating the most sensitive information in a court document to readers. The documents Betts redacted into poetry are lawsuits on behalf of people sitting in jail for being unable to pay their court fees. These poems were borne from a collaboration for New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Titus Kaphar, who did cover art for “Felon” — black faces that are partly blacked out, or redacted, including Betts’ own, as he points out in “Ghazel.”

“I had decided to be a writer, not a poet, right after I got sentenced, because what else is one to do?” he says over the phone. But poetry came into the picture, or the room, by surprise.

In his Poets Society of America bio, it lists his biggest influence as “the guy who slid Dudley Randall’s 'The Black Poets' under my cell door in solitary,” among others.

Some of the kids Betts works with, whether as a writing teacher or an advocate for at-risk youth, are about the age he was when he got that book. Those formative late-teen years during which kids outside are thinking about college and getting their first jobs were, for him, spent in prison, but to discount them for that reason would be a mistake, he says.

“This is not an advertisement for prison, but I found myself needing to remind everybody that as ruinous as the time is, it does not necessarily lead to people who are ruined. I think that we become less inclined to deal with the kind of structural reforms that will lead to people being released who have been in prison during those formative years.”

“Those years still existed,” he notes, saying that he was fortunate to make something of the time.

“I’ve got a line in one of my poems that says, 'My dreams are not all nightmares.'"

Published on Dec 27, 2019