In 'Felon,' Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts Returns To His Time In Prison

Mar 22, 2020
Originally published on March 30, 2020 9:40 am

The coronavirus crisis has forced the cancellations and postponements of countless events. But, thankfully, the global pandemic can't take National Poetry Month away from us.

Every April, All Things Considered calls on you, our audience, to help celebrate the art of the verse.

Here's how to participate: Tweet your original poems to @npratc in 140 characters or less with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. Every week through the end of April, we'll feature some of our favorites on-air and online.

We're kicking off the celebration early this year: Since people are spending more time self-isolating at home, what better way to pass the time than creating poetry?

"Hopefully, this'll be over soon, but I like the fact that it gives us some more time to think about poems while we've got to go through it," Reginald Dwayne Betts said in an interview with NPR.

In fact, the poet produced his latest collections of poems, Felon, as the result of a more sobering period of isolation; Betts, 40, spent more than eight years in prison, from age 16 to 24 for committing a carjacking.

Since incarceration, the poet, memoirist, and teacher has been pretty busy thinking about other things. Betts became a lawyer, he's currently working toward his PhD at Yale, and had published three books before Felon.

But he returns to his time in prison in his latest work. Betts says he wanted to refamiliarize himself with his own experience to make sure he can help others, including his two young sons, ages 8 and 12, learn from his "horrible mistake."

"It's sort of like returning to it as a way to kind of center myself," he says, "but also recognize that in returning to it, I think about the ways to return to all of those folks who are still locked up."

"I don't want my success to encourage me to forget them, to forget what it meant to make such a horrible mistake and almost ruin my own life to such a degree that I don't tell the story to prevent somebody else from going down that path — or just make sure other people know what's going on."

In 2016, Betts wrote an essay about the time he spent in solitary confinement when he was 16, in which he described its horrors, feeling "alone in the hole, nearly broken."

What helped him persevere during the large stretches of confinement, he says, was, in part, his use of the time to contemplate. He first started writing poetry while he was in prison.

"I found that I was able to do something that I hadn't been able to do when I was young, and that was to kind of engage with the world," he says.

It's a mindset he's continued to inhabit today.

"I mean, me and my kid were taking a walk, and I heard the sound of a squirrel's claws as it climbed a tree. And I realized that I had just never heard that before because I'd never been outside in nature without the hum of a car," he recalls. "I just never had a reason to notice this other thing that was just a part of the beauty of life, sort of moving and percolating, right?"

Betts thinks people who are self-isolating right now can find some value in that.

"As stressful as this time is, it gives us the opportunity to reflect and maybe to imagine what it is for everybody who has to endure this on a more constant basis," he says.

To help our Twitter poets get started with some inspiration, Betts points back to the trusty tool of observation.

"Spend the 100 or so characters just writing about a room that you're in," he says. "You want to get a sense of what the room is, that you want to convey some one idea. It's like taking a picture."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for one of our favorite things, and we know it's one of your favorites, too. We're talking about poetry. National Poetry Month will soon be here, and every April, we ask listeners to share their original tweet-length poems. You can read all of them by following the thread once they start to come in, and we read as many as we can on the air.

And yes, we know - it's not April yet. But we figured since people are spending more time at home, what better way to pass the time than creating poetry? So we're going to start a little early this year. And joining us to help us kick off Poetry Month is Reginald Dwayne Betts. His most recent collection of poems is called "Felon," and he's kind enough to join us - remotely, of course.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, thank you so much for joining us once again.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me again.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit about "Felon." No disrespect to you, but, you know, it arises out of the fact that you spent - what? - 8 1/2 years in prison yourself.

BETTS: Yeah. Actually, it's about 8 1/2 years - from 16 to 24, which seems like a lifetime ago.

MARTIN: You've had a very rich life since then. I mean, you've gone - you're a lawyer. You've published - this is, what - you know, your fourth collection of poems. You are getting your Ph.D. So you've done a whole lot of things. This book, though, really kind of takes you back to that experience, and I wondered why you wanted to go back to that experience.

BETTS: Well, I think it's a question of almost closing a loop, you know, and recognizing that it is a loop. And so the further away I get from incarceration and my crime, the closer I get to it in the sense that I have two sons - you know, 8 and 12 - and I'm at the point where I have to tell them all about it.

And so it's sort of like returning to it as a way to kind of center myself but also recognize that in returning to it, I think about the ways to return to all of those folks who are still locked up because I don't want my success to encourage me to forget them, to forget what it meant to make such a horrible mistake and almost ruin my own life to such a degree that I don't tell the story to prevent somebody else from going down that path or just make sure other people know what's going on.

MARTIN: I do want to note, though, that given the current crisis around the coronavirus, a number of jurisdictions are trying to let as many people out as they can as a health and safety measure - and not just for the incarcerated people but also for the staff who are in these environments. And I just wonder, what do you think about that?

I know that there's sort of an active process going on in a number of cities close to here, the D.C. area, where they're just going through cases expeditiously, trying to figure out who they can, you know, release because it's just understood that being in such dense surroundings - it's not safe.

BETTS: You know, it's 1,600 - it's at least 1,600 prisons across the country. So one way to think about it is to say that we have 1,600 cruise ships that are docked, but we won't let the people off of those ships into society for whatever reason. And I think right now, you do have a lot of localities that are saying, well, wait a minute - particularly at the jails - you know, jails that are trying to curb their new intake. So you have judges that are now awarding bail or, like, letting people go without having to even bother with bail.

So I think that's been significant and important. But I think the really important part of it is, it demonstrates the way in which we've locked up too many people anyway. I hope that we'll begin to see that we have people locked up now who've been locked up 10, 15, 20 years who have long served enough time who we need to release. And hopefully, that'll last beyond this crisis.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people feel very isolated right now in a way that is very painful for some people. In 2016, you wrote an essay about the time you spent in solitary confinement. You write about how you found out that your barber had also spent time locked up. And I just want to read a bit.

And you said, (reading) after I told him about the long stretches I spent in solitary, he told me that the hole had almost crushed him. It reminded me of when I was 16, alone in the hole, nearly broken.

You know, I don't want to minimize the experience and say that they're comparable. But for some people, being so confined is very painful for some people. And I just wondered if you have some thoughts about how one survives such a thing.

BETTS: How do you deal with it? Part of it is in prison, I found that I was able to do something that I hadn't been able to do when I was young, and that was to kind of engage with the world. That kept my interest because it forced me to think more deeply about something that troubled me. This is the opportunity to fall in something that gives you a problem to wrestle with, gives you an idea to, like, contemplate.

I mean, me and my kid were taking a walk, and I heard the sound of a squirrel's claws as it climbed a tree. And I realized that I had just never heard that before because I'd never been outside in nature without the hum of a car. And so I just never had a reason to notice this other thing that was just a part of the beauty of life sort of moving and percolating, right? As stressful as this time is, it gives us the opportunity to reflect and maybe to imagine what it is for everybody who has to endure this on a more constant basis.

MARTIN: Any advice for people who would like to start writing poetry or who maybe have tried their hand at it before - maybe they wrote some poems in school, weren't that happy with the results, found it corny? Any advice to help people get started?

BETTS: I would say you write in this Twitter poem - spend the hundred or so characters just writing about a room that you're in. You want to get a sense of what the room is, that you want to convey some one idea. It's like taking a picture. I'm staring at my son's bed right now, and my son is a huge reader. And so he has literally 29 books on his bed, a "Harry Potter" T-shirt and, like, a stack of Magic cards.

And the poem might be, scattered across where he rests is a thousand pages of knowledge and one shirt that helps him imagine that he might find a broomstick to fly away. That was a horrible poem, right?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BETTS: It was just, like, you know...

MARTIN: I was impressed (laughter). I was impressed. Freestyling - I appreciate it.

BETTS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much.

BETTS: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. That was Reginald Dwayne Betts. His latest collection of poems, "Felon," is out now. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BETTS: It's always a pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Hopefully, this'll be over soon, but I like the fact that it gives us some more time to think about poems while we've got to go through it.

MARTIN: True that. If you'd like to participate in our poetry month experience, tweet it to @npratc with the hashtag #nprpoetry every week through the end of April. A professional poet will join us on the air to talk about some of the submissions that caught his or her eye. And even though Twitter has changed its character limit since we started this, we are sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.