I first met Reginald Dwayne Betts at the Cave Canem Retreat in the summer of 2006. There, we received the sublime gift of studying with luminary black poets such as Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Elizabeth Alexander, Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, and Cyrus Cassells. We stayed up each night with wonder, whiskey, and dancing, and still managed to turn in new, searing black poems each morning.
I will always remember first seeing Betts clearly, the sound of his laughter, the bold light in his dark eyes, the shuffle of his Timberlands. He spoke expansively, across frequencies, bringing history, violence, humor, race, and love into uneasy and difficult tensions. This is what is at stake in Betts’s poetry—those unbearable transmissions of desire and fear. I recognized him as a brother I had known my entire life.
Betts writes about black bodies, black masculinity, and America itself with an eye toward a devastating reckoning. Betts was himself incarcerated at age sixteen, and he confronts justice only to show us, and himself, that it is always both personal and political. Years ago, I photographed Betts for the cover of his first book, the memoir A Question of Freedom, but the most acute portrait of who he is exists, brutally and urgently, on the page.
In Betts’s writing, no matter the form, his voice is electrifying. His poems are about the complicated relationships between black men, between black men and freedom, between black men and love, and about how those black men—loved, unloved, murdered, freed—risk their lives for one another by attempting to see one another.
In his third poetry collection, Felon, Betts looks at cages literal and psychic, and at how imprisonment happens in the cages of love, family, and art.
One of the first things I noticed about the book is the cover, which features the art of Titus Kaphar. You and Kaphar collaborated on “Redaction: A Project,” an exhibition at MoMA that draws on source material from lawsuits filed on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees. You have four poems in Felon that are erasures/redactions with specific titles (“In Alabama,” In Houston,” et cetera). They’re all mappable, yet the erasures show the systematic obliteration of black life. Could you speak about this?
I’m trying to find ways to connect my identity as a lawyer with my identity as a poet. I’m on the board of the Civil Rights Corps, which deals with money bail. They are specifically trying to challenge the fact that many states incarcerate people and leave them incarcerated just because they can’t pay their bail or because they owe fines for traffic tickets or things like that, citations.
But nobody can understand these court documents. I mean, you get sixty to seventy pages. It’s like reading a novella, and you don’t want to really read a novella that’s talking about things like jurisdiction. But what I thought about was this poetry-ness, and if we can find the poetry. Instead of thinking that redaction is a tool to get rid of and hide what is most sensitive, what if we thought about it as a tool to remove the superfluous? What if I tried to find the rhythm, the poetry, the character, the story, the person? If I allowed the document to actually be a voice of the person writing it? That’s what I attempted to do.
For me, this says a couple of things. It represents the attempt of the state to physically remove you, but then it also represents the attempt of people to reassert their existence. Those two things get to exist as one. In the same way that these two things are happening, there’s this fight against erasure. I think that’s what the poems end up mimicking. Even though the portraits on the cover represent that erasure, they also represent the existence of something underneath. It’s pushing back against that.
I wonder about the relationships between men, particularly fathers and sons, in the book. How does a father meet his son’s awareness of who he is as a father, beyond what the father is prepared or able to say?
It’s fascinating how you write a book. You consciously weave certain things in. Then some things are unconsciously woven into the book, both because you write one poem at a time but also because the motivations for each poem exist within the world of that poem. They subconsciously transcend the world of that poem and go to other places.
For instance, in “For a Bail Denied,” there is a defense attorney who is sort of acknowledging that he is not this kid’s father, but at the same time the poem admits that fatherhood is far more complex than we give it credit for. While he’s not the father, he feels responsible. He has a duty to the child beside him. He’s trying to figure out what that duty is. But also, the prosecutor, who is a man and who is also black, has a duty to this child, too. This is a world in which two people ostensibly have competing duties.
The kid has another interest. He says, “I did it. I did it. I mean, Jesus,” which is to say, How do we deal with responsibility? We have a huge conversation around criminal justice reform where we aren’t even reckoning with what it means for our young people, or the people whose care we are charged with. They need to find ways to become who they will be in the world and to own who they have been. Then, in that poem, you have a mother who was there but not given real agency. I was trying to figure out how to acknowledge the presence of the mom and the lack of voice that’s often required of the mom.
When you represent a juvenile, a parent has to be there. Typically, it’s the mom. And we don’t even need to turn this into a conversation about the myth of absent black fathers. People say that, and I’m like, Well, go to court and let’s talk about what we actually see in court. Let’s not talk about the myth per se. Let’s say, What do you feel like in these particular moments?
You have this incredible poem, “If Absence Was the Source of Silence,” where you write about women and their relationships to these men. I admire this poem for the turn where this moment comes—“And because is what I tell my sons about what their hands might do in long conversations about what the hands of men do.” There’s a reckoning that happens in this book within the self about prison, cells, cages, and bodies.
I was excited when a friend, Alexandra Brodsky, who was editing an anthology about feminist utopias, asked me to contribute something. I wrote that poem while I was a law student. One of the things I was grappling with was thinking about my involvement in movements to reform the criminal justice system. I was thinking about my own writing. I was thinking about the fact that maybe women weren’t really present at all in my previous book. I mean, they were present. But I can count on one hand the times that women come up in Bastards of the Reagan Era. That wasn’t intentional at all, but I think it was a glaring omission. The book is contemplating the state against black folks but also the ways in which we harm one another, but really the ways in which black men harm other black men.
I’ve realized it’s really easy to get caught up in how you’re hurt and not really think about whom you are actually hurting. At football games, they kneel, but they’re not kneeling for domestic violence in the NFL. They’ve had a huge rate of domestic violence, intensely physical domestic violence that has become public, and you know that’s the tip of the iceberg. That’s not even talking about accusations of sexual assault. It’s not talking about the actual murdering. This is part of the culture where men, who have been professional athletes, have done things. We don’t talk about that. They aren’t kneeling for that.
So how do I write this poem in which I’m thinking about sexual violence, sexual assault, and actually talking to my child about it? One of the things I try to do in terms of writing about intimacy is to think about sexual assault, about domestic violence, about what a man has to tell his sons in a world like this.
As a writer, I think about the ways in which the voices of women get into the poems in different ways. It’s tragic in some ways. It’s fucked up that the way these voices get into this work is through harm and violence. I don’t know what that says about me, or about society, except to say that when I contemplate what was absent in the previous book, I felt like what was absent is all the ways I’ve hurt women I love and all the ways men I know and care about have hurt women that they love.
There’s a resistance to talking about any of that because a poetry book in the contemporary world is essentially first a dating ad. You want to use the lyric “I” in a way that makes people admire you and makes people want to be close to you. I get it. It’s the same thing as what a memoir is, but my question is always, How do you subvert that?
In the poem “Parking Lot,” the ending line is, “But when has love ever been enough?” I feel you’re pushing for something more than love. People will use the word love as a filler, to disarm or dismiss instead of doing the work to get themselves there.
In some ways, it’s like saying mass incarceration. If you say mass incarceration, then you don’t have to talk about the fact that I was locked up for beating up my girlfriend. I remember working on a case where the guy had committed an assault, and I remember thinking that’s not a major crime, assault—he put his hands on somebody, maybe it was in a fight. That’s not a big deal.
For whatever reason, I had to go into the record and read more about the case. He had an attempted assault but it was an attempted sexual assault. He had hit a woman upside the head with a bottle, and then punched her in the face, and then raped her. I was like, How is it that you get this down as assault? And I remember somebody was telling me, Because it was a black woman. That’s how you get an attempted assault when the absolute description of what happened is a violent rape.
In the book, I was trying to say that in the same way, the term mass incarceration can shut down some of these conversations, can make us not talk about what it means. I’m trying to say love could do the same thing, like love is what wraps my hand around her throat in this way, which is to say that it’s complicated, and sometimes it’s brutal, and sometimes it’s inexcusable. It’s a kind of vulnerability. If it is vulnerable at all, it comes from actually reckoning out loud with this kind of fundamental failure.
It’s compelling how all these different voices are inhabiting the “I” in these poems, the lyric “I.” I want to ask you about that lyric “I” in this book. Not all of them are you, but they are of you because you’re sharing the stories.
I think after the book comes out, people are gonna be like, Man, Dwayne is a lot of people, man, and most of them I don’t like. Like, I liked him before, but I don’t know if I like him. What does it mean if you write about people who are struggling with things? For me, the writing is trying to figure out what it means to better yourself in the face of a history that troubles you. It’s thinking about how I care about men in the face of all we’ve done. And, selfishly, how do I care about myself? That’s not even to be super weird or feminist or no shit like that. It’s just that I got people that murder folks, and how do we deal with this? I’ve hurt people. How do you reckon with that? How do you tell your son that? The writing was trying to imagine answering that question, even if ultimately I don’t know if I have any real answers.
You mentioned history just now, and in the last poem, “House of Unending,” you begin the second section,
Of lockdown, hunger time, and the blackened flower—
Ain’t nothing worth knowing. Prison becomes home;
The cell: a catacomb that cages and the metronome
Tracking the years that eclipse you. History authors
Your death, throws you into that din of lost hours.
This right here—I kept coming back to it, this idea of narrative eclipsing you, language, experience, but also this kind of authorship. The revision of the history, how does it happen?
The last poem—some of it is absolutely me and some of it is absolutely not me. I remember submitting it, getting it published, and somebody asked me about the last section. In the last section there’s this line: “A girl once said no to my unlistening ears.” And the person was like, Yo, it sounds like somebody got assaulted in the last section. Did you mean to say this? And I was like, Yeah, I did. But what they really were asking me is, It sounds like you raped somebody, and were you willing to admit that? They didn’t say that, but that’s what they were thinking. And that’s what the poem says, right?
The thing is, though, a woman is assaulted every three to five minutes. You can read a hundred poetry books or a thousand, you can read a bunch of op-eds about incarceration, and nobody mentions the word rape at all. What does that mean for the discussion that we wanna have? I posted about that cop Amber who killed the black guy whose name I should know but I can’t remember right now.
You gotta be the subject of five protests for people to remember your name. So I posted about that, right? A friend of mine was like, Well, maybe she is sorry. Most of y’all ain’t killed nobody. So y’all talk this shit about how she’s being disingenuous, but I killed somebody, and people are always saying I’m disingenuous, too. My friend’s saying this, right? He’s saying, You know, I murdered somebody, and people are always saying I don’t mean it when I say that I regret it. But maybe everybody could rejoice in the fact that she’ll be grappling with this for the rest of her life.
The point wasn’t that she shouldn’t be incarcerated. The point was that we just decide who people are forever on the basis of this thing that they’ve done. And so, killing is not that bad, though. Rappers talk about killing all the time. See, people don’t talk about killing women and children because that’s not really cool, right? We can abhor the people who’ve done that. But what he was saying was, Well, maybe she fucked up, and maybe she does regret it. And how do we respond to a world in which we accept that that’s a possible truth?
When I wrote that poem, I was thinking about people I know who’ve been accused of shit, people I know who might’ve done things. We live in a moment where mass incarceration can be the center of our existence and our space, but it is absolutely the last thing we want to talk about when it relates to certain kinds of crimes. And so, the parallel to that poem is the poem for my sons, “If Absence Was the Source of Silence.” It troubles me every time I read it because, first, it’s hard not to be troubled by the fact that people will hear it as a confession. But then, I got to the point where I didn’t really care. I mean, I am who I am. Second, there’s shit in there that is actually me. It’s like, you’re saying that ain’t you, but you got the murder of crows on your arm. Is that a coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences.
But it’ll haunt me forever. I mean, maybe that’s why being a poet troubles me so much. It’s much easier to just be a memoirist and an essayist because I don’t have to ask myself if it matters if I say something in the first person, if it matters that I say I’ve done things that I haven’t done. The memoir never has to grapple with that. The essayist just doesn’t have to grapple with that. But I feel like as a poet, shit, what would the world look like if no man wrote about domestic violence, you know what I mean?
I feel that this book needs to be in the hands of people who need it, but especially in the hands of those who think they don’t need it.
I’m trying to get a million copies of my book sold. Somebody told me there’s 1.7 million people in prison, and it takes 117 hours to earn enough money to buy my book. Books fundamentally changed my life, and I got books in prison in all kind of ways—some legit, some not legit. I sold people tobacco at exorbitant rates for a couple of years. I’m talking about a $6 bag of tobacco I would sell for $130, which is not a nice thing to do. That shit funded my poetic education, you know?
I wrote this book because I think it fundamentally matters for encouraging conversations that help to change and shift people’s lives. Bastards of the Reagan Era was in some ways more system-centric. I feel like this is my grown-man book. This is, What does it mean to be a father? This is, What does it mean to be a partner? This is, What does it mean to be homophobic, what does it mean to struggle with employment, to struggle with alcoholism?
I want this thing in the hands of a million people not just because of the cachet that would bring but also because of this idea of the role of the poet in society. You have millions and millions and millions of dollars right now being generated each year off the backs of incarcerated people. People might say, Well, I went to the University of Maryland, and the whole school read this book that one year because they thought literature was valuable. But if you talk about people in prison, like literal human beings in prison? My life was fundamentally changed because I read Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep, because I read the black poets.
I think, at least, with this book, I wanna have reckless ambition. To me, that’s the reckless ambition to say this aloud often enough that I begin to believe it’s possible. And then, I’m willing to fail. Like, Yeah, he tried to get a million books sold, and he got six thousand. But shit, six thousand is a lot of books, you know what I mean?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of, most recently, the poetry collection Lighting the Shadow. She will publish a new poetry collection, Seeing the Body, in 2020.