Poet Of The Week

Reginald Dwayne Betts

     April 26–May 2, 2021

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He is the director of the Million Book Project, an initiative out of the Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory to radically transform the access to literature in prisons. Recently, the Mellon Foundation awarded Betts a five-million-dollar grant to implement the Million Book Project. For more than twenty years, he has used his poetry and essays to explore the world of prison and the effects of violence and incarceration on American society. The author of a memoir and three collections of poetry, he has transformed his latest collection, the American Book Award–winning Felon, into a solo theater show. In 2019, Betts won the National Magazine Award in the essays and criticism category for his NY Times Magazine essay that chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney. He has been awarded a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emerson Fellowship at New America and, most recently, a Civil Society Fellowship at Aspen. Betts holds a JD from Yale Law School. On Thursday, April 29, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Arisa White and John Murillo.

Parking Lot, Too

 

A confession began when I walked out of that parking lot.

A confession began when I walked Black out of that parking lot.

A confession began when I, without combing my hair, dressed

For a day that would find me walking out of that parking lot.

There is so much to be said of a Black man with unkempt hair:

He meets the description of the suspect; suspect is running.

I ran away from things far less frightening than the police.

A confession began when I robed myself in black. A confession

Began when I walked out of that parking lot wearing a black

Hoodie. Things get exponentially worse when a hoodie is pulled

Over my unkempt air. A confession began when I walked out

Of that parking lot Black. A confession began when I walked

Out of that parking lot a Negro. A confession begins when

That nigga walked into the parking lot. A confession begins

When that nigga & the pistol he carries like a dick walked

Into that parking lot. A confession begins when everything you

See him doing is seen as sex. A confession begins when

That nigga walked into a parking lot & drove away with everything

Belonging to that white man. A confession begins when

My mother laid up with a man the complexion of that nigga’s

Daddy. A confession begins when my mother births a child

In a city close enough to make me & that nigga almost related.

A confession begins when the police perceive us as one. We must

Be one. He could not have walked in & driven out & I walked

In & walked out on the same night & whatever gaps in the story

& slight differences in the features of our faces was just

More evidence that niggers will lie. A confession begins even if

I didn’t have the fucking car. A confession begins, my confession

Began, with a woman stitching stars and stripes into a flag.

 

—From Felon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

One day, I’m struck with this reality: For every falsely convicted, there is someone out there who did the crime. And a lot of our conversations about wrongful convictions, they don’t leave space for the anger at the person who did the thing. So I’d written “Parking Lot,” which is a confession—and wanted to write the same story from the voice of another. This became “Parking Lot, Too.”

What are you working on right now?

Turning Felon into a solo show. How do you knit stories and poems into a piece of theater is what I’m figuring out.

What’s a good day for you?

It’s a pandemic, and so all these days where I remember I’m not suffering as much as others are good days.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I live in New England. Been here since 2011 maybe. All of the places I’ve lived are similar. It’s colder here, but there are still poets here. And if there is a real and true difference, it’s based on how I’ve changed, becoming a parent and student and then a teacher again and the gamut of things that life brings us.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Yes, been all over Brooklyn. But remember walking the Brooklyn Bridge with my fam. That was cool. And pizza spots and poetry readings and bookstores. Taking pictures in front of Biggie’s home and also Richard Wright’s. Brooklyn is a location and a question.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Not really sure. I mean the poetry community is unlike any other in the history of writing. And this is because community can be built and sustained over social media. But I think of community in the most expansive of ways.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

John Murillo. Nicole Sealey. But you know, Brooklyn is one of those places that defies itself. Biggie. Talib. Yasiin Bey. I can name some names, but then I’m like isn’t Jean Grae from Brooklyn? Doesn’t Kaitlyn Greenidge live in Brooklyn? Tyehimba Jess? Brooklyn has bars is the point, and those spitting those bars have been distinctly important to me.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Honestly, I’d just say the writers in The Black Poets, in Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep, in The Garden Thrives. I mean, the writers in those anthologies shaped who I am. Lucille Clifton and Ishmael Reed. Sonia Sanchez and Afaa Weaver. There are just so many.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is dope. But I’m reading the new Roger Reeves in manuscript and it’s doing some wonderful things. francine harris’s latest book is also so good.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I don’t know. Maybe Pound.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I literally have five books on my desk, all in various stages of being read. Always want a physical book, so hard to take notes on a digital book. And I do take notes, trying to find all the ways I can to vibe with the book.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Humor. Probably humor.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

In a park.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

That spot where the Nets play. And Wright’s old house.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate all of it,

And what I belie you even when you lie,

For every loved me as good a loved you.