Growing up, Reginald Dwayne Betts RI ’12 loved to read—everything from biographies of basketball players to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The urge to write, however, didn’t come until he was serving a nine-year sentence for carjacking. Although it was Betts’s first offense, Virginia categorizes carjacking as a “certifiable” crime, meaning that he was treated as an adult at the age of 16 and served time in some of the state’s toughest prisons.
A couple of years into his prison term, Betts came across a copy of The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall, and lived with it for the next two months, copying poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and others onto any scrap of paper he could find. “That book crystallized for me that poetry was a way to articulate something I wanted to say in a short amount of space,” he says.
Released in 2005 at the age of 25, Betts attended community college and earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College in just five years. In 2009, he published A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery) and a year later, the poetry collection Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010).
Betts’s current project is tentatively titled “Bastards of the Reagan Era.” “It’s set in the Washington, DC, area, but it’s also global,” he says, describing a book of poetry that pulls in Nicaragua, the Contras, Len Bias, Tip O’Neill, and the scourge of crack cocaine. “I was born in 1980, and people my age speak of that decade as if we know it, but we really don’t,” Betts says. “The popular history that has been passed down isn’t nuanced. As a result, we have this black-and-white context of villains and heroes, which doesn’t work.” Anchored by two epic-length poems, the collection incorporates a diversity of voices that highlight the differences and complications each of us brings to telling our personal narratives.
The solitary work of writing is something that Betts understands and likens to the thousands of push-ups and pull-ups he did in prison. “Nobody is there to help you get from one set to the next,” he says. “I’ve taken little bits and ideas from other fellows’ presentations, but the actual work of writing happens in my own mind, in my own little office. I can get lost in it in the same way that I could get lost in physical exercise.”
Married with two young sons, Betts reflects on what it means to be a father and the lessons he would most want his children to learn. Interestingly, one comes from his fellowship year. “At Radcliffe I saw people who devote a considerable amount of time and passion to their work, regardless of the market that exists for it,” he says. “Poetry doesn’t sell a lot of books, but it’s still a vocation. I would like my sons to understand the importance of following their passion and not be influenced by whether or not it can be made into a commodity.”
Excerpt from Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts
"The Day Carlos Jumped From the Top Tier"
A bloodied white shirt, the body of a life
Sentence half hidden by the icebox. Everything
Darkens. A dozen or so wild eyes over
It. Steam from the shower over it. Rehabilitation
A lit Newport. This is what we talk about.
The body below the tier, the small gasps
Without a story, with no words for this story.
It is a man. He is someone’s son. A heartsore.
When he screams, our eyes open. Again.
A bid’s honesty: time staring at time.
Whatever smell is there lies low, won’t step
Up. A sock kicks out & the sigh that follows
Follows a stray cat’s yowl. It is always raining.
From the outside, everything in here inspires
Screams. If you stand on the top tier, the drop
Is from hell to hell. It is many falls. Someone
Pretends to know something worth knowing.
The body is fifteen feet past knowledge. People
Say he bodied himself. Stretched himself out.
If he rises, who will he turn to? Or turn into?
Reginald Dwayne Betts, “The Day Carlos Jumped From the Top Tier,” from Shahid Reads His Own Palm. Copyright © 2010 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Alice James Books, www.alicejamesbooks.org. All rights reserved.