Thumbing through the pages of his newest poetry book, “Felon,” Reginald Dwayne Betts admired his own work.
“This is a damn good book,” he said with a chuckle. So good, in fact, that Betts didn’t come prepared with a list of poems he wanted to perform — he just flipped through the book and read whichever poem he landed on.
As he read, he stood still, gripping either the book or the podium in front of him. His hands, usually dynamic when he spoke, were motionless. Some of his stories are autobiographical, and others are amalgamations of stories and experiences he has heard throughout his life. After each poem he read, the audience seemed to let go of a collective breath — shoulders relaxed, people adjusted in their seats, and Betts continued.
Invited to the University by the David T. Kearns Center, Betts shared his experiences as a prisoner, lawyer, and poet. Incarcerated at the age of 16 for carjacking, Betts spent eight-and-a-half years in prison, and it was there that his love for writing and poetry developed. He spent many months of his sentence in solitary confinement, and on Thursday, he recalled reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. He described calling out into the hallway outside of his cell asking for a book, so someone would slide one to him. Some of the books he got were poetry anthologies, and after reading a poem by Ethridge Knight, he decided he would become a poet, too. Now, Betts is a published poet, memoirist, lawyer, and Ph.D. candidate at Yale University.
He read poems from his second book, “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” as well as , “Felon.” In his poems there is a sense of grappling, of coming to terms, of hoping, of yearning. Through his words, Betts attempts to “give people that are clearly in the middle of suffering some dignity.”
Betts’ work is dark but he finds humor in otherwise sad stories — describing his confusion about the college enrollment process, lying about the 8-year gap on his resume (“those stupid motherfuckers believed it!”), and explaining that he’s “ballin’” now that he can afford to go to therapy. In his maroon fedora and light-pink T-shirt, he does not embody an archetypal criminal.
“I tell people all the time — I’m a convict,” Betts said. Later, he added, “People are not the worst thing that they’ve done.”
But Betts also articulated internal confusion about his relationship with the justice system. He shared a story about his mother:
“She says, ‘A couple weeks after you got locked up, I got raped.’” Betts paused. “What do you say to a story like that?”
Her consolation was that “the person would get what he deserved when he was in prison, and I told my mom it doesn’t work like that. I told my mum that most of the time, nobody gets what they deserve — that none of us even know what we deserve.”
Betts told of how he wanted the justice system, which gave him nine years in prison at 16, to help bring justice to his mother.
Recognizing the complexity of the issues related to criminal justice, Betts did not urge his audience to become prison abolitionists or to dismiss the criminal justice system as a useless institution. Instead, he reminded his audience to think critically about the ways in which they choose to embrace and exclude people from our communities.
And so at the end of his poetry reading, he shared a question that seems to guide his work as a lawyer and poet.
“What does it mean to want to be free?”