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News & Ideas

Peeking Behind the Poet’s Mask

Reginald Dwayne Betts portrait.
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle/University of Maryland

At 16 years old, Reginald Dwayne Betts took part in an armed carjacking.

He was arrested the next day, tried as an adult, and sentenced to nine years in prison. While incarcerated, Betts discovered poetry and soon began writing his own; he also completed his GED. After his release, he earned a BA in English from the University of Maryland and an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College.

Betts’s conviction shadowed every job application he submitted. In 2011, as his search continued with little luck, he was named a Radcliffe fellow. Betts spent his time at the Institute working on his second poetry collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015). After his Radcliffe year, he earned a JD from Yale Law School and was admitted to the Connecticut bar. In October, he published Felon: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2019), a collection that examines life after prison. 

When you received a voicemail notifying you of your Radcliffe fellowship, you listened to it five times over. How were you feeling in that moment?
I just remember being so in shock and pretty much elated. If you work in the arts, so much of it is trying to find support. And I was surprised because it was a Hail Mary at the time. 

How did you spend your year at Radcliffe?
A lot of research. A lot of writing. I met some attorneys in the area to talk to them about Bastards of the Reagan Era. But really a lot of writing. Me and a friend of mine, Uzo Iweala [’04, RI ’12], would write at the Harvard Law School. I might not have gone to law school if we hadn’t been there writing every day.

So much of the Radcliffe fellowship program is about meeting people in different fields. Were connections like that useful in your work?
Yes, in work, but also in life. There was a mathematician, Michael Brenner [RI ’12], who introduced me to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It was one of the first books that I read to my son. You have some of these moments that are directly related to the work, but other things are just sort of related to life.

For your last two books, why was poetry the right form?
Poetry is a combination of memoir, fiction, nonfiction. But it’s also song. It’s music in a way that other mediums just aren’t. Sometimes poetry works best for the things that need to be said. If I write memoir, that’s a product of my life. But if you write a collection of poems, you might want to raise issues that don’t exist in your life. So Felon thinks a lot about challenging post-incarceration experiences that I didn’t necessarily experience. The material calls itself to that form. But, honestly, I’m a poet. As a poet, I gravitate toward writing poetry. 

Felon is written largely in the first person, but as you noted, a lot of the content isn’t from your personal experience. Why aren’t those poems in the third person?
Using the first person draws out a different kind of empathy in me as a writer. I wanted to confront how people who have done certain things grapple with the things that they’ve done. Then—as a public, a community, the world—how do we think about people who are telling these narratives and stories? 

But it’s dangerous. Poetry is maybe the most personal of the arts. It allows you to wear a mask and maybe challenge the world through the wearing of that mask. But it’s dangerous, because when you write the poem and you wear the mask, you don’t get to tell people, “Really that wasn’t me. I didn’t do that.” For some of the poems in Felon, I would not want to be the person who has done the things in those poems. 

I think far too often we make the assumption that poetry is personal in a way that we don’t necessarily about fiction. You can write a novel that’s actually quite personal, that just operates in the world in a different way. 

In a piece you wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2018, you mention that you wrote 1,000 bad poems. What happened with the 1,001st?
I spent years writing and writing. Just for myself, really. Then I started sending poems out for publishing. I would always ask the editors for some feedback even if they might not accept it. 

Once I got a rejection and the editor suggested that I write a poem about a room. I just wrote a poem describing a cell. That eventually got picked up and was called “Hanging Loose.” 

But around the same time, I got another poem published, which wasn’t me taking his advice at all. I wrote this poem called “A Different Route.” It was about a father who was writing about going home and the struggles he was having. Sometimes it is just not easy to be who you want to be in the world. But, ironically, I didn’t write that based on the prompt that first editor gave me. “A Different Route” feels really personal now, especially now when I have children. I think this second poem predicts the way that I would be as a writer.

Who makes up your audience?
I think we spend a lot of time imagining that we write for a specific audience. But the audience that you wrote for may or may not exist. You know, if you are writing a poem for this group of people or for this reason, the poem will always surprise you.

Casey Campbell is a communications specialist at the Radcliffe Institute. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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