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. Read More