“The Difference Between Prison and America Unsettles Me”: A Conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts
By Elisabeth HoustonJuly 2, 2020
Dwayne and I met in New Haven, Connecticut, 10 years ago, but I mostly know him through the range and rigor of his writing. The questions I asked were attempts to probe our shared preoccupations with race, violence, and family — and I found myself in the midst of our correspondence considering how my questions contained within them their own limits. Perhaps there was something about the clarity and complexity of his answers which reflected back to me the ways in which my language can function as its own sort of prison — one I didn’t even know I was in.
Betts’s latest book of poems, Felon, works in a similar way — it offers a kind of wounded revelation. His lyric virtuosity folds into a poetry of witness and returns to mournful song. Poetry calls out to politics, and politics hollers back; the echo is thick and sad — it trembles throughout the pages, and then long after.
ELISABETH HOUSTON: How has your understanding of Black masculinity changed with each of your books?
REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: I’m not sure. Masculinity means something different to whoever you’re speaking. So much of what I imagined to be qualities of man cannot rightly be considered only such. Particularly the things that I find myself valuing the more now: kindness, tenacity, wit. Even violence, though often the dominion of men, is not a masculine quality. And yet, my books have fundamentally been about men: brown bodies lost in cages or struggling with the memory of cages. My father, cousins, friends, the strangers I admired or learned to avoid. I don’t believe every son of a Black man should be tragic. My hair is gray and graying. I have sons who can beat me in a footrace. And I need a masculinity that lets them see me tell their uncles and my brothers that I love them. To admit to the men I love, that I love them. My father calls and says, I love you — and I pause before I repeat the same. There is a sadness in that. This means both that there were things that were always there that I ignored and that I want to create an imaginative space where I and we can be different. But it’s really all in the living and in confronting how I have changed based on living.
Redaction is powerfully used in Felon. How has your understanding of redaction as a political tool changed — especially as you’ve explored its aesthetic possibilities?
Redaction as a tool of revelation — that is what has come to me. Not so much as a way to control language, to say the thing I want to say, to discover some truth that really would have resided in my head without redaction — but rather I’ve come to think of how redaction reveals motivations of a document. And there is much to be said for what motivates the existence of a document, much to be uncovered in breaking that down.
How do you understand the relationship between language and politics?
I want to say that language is politics, but that seems not to be true. Or it seems to suggest that everything is politics and if everything is politics, then nothing is politics. So maybe the way I understand the two is this: for me, the language of poetry is what allows me to recognize something about politics I hadn’t before. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald” by Etheridge Knight is one of the most political poems I’ve ever read — in a real way, you can read the Prison Rape Elimination Act as a much too late response to challenges to the system the poem raises; but, so too is “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, which, if nothing else, made me think of the literal onslaught of things threatening our lives from poverty to violence, to racism, to hypertension, cancer, and regular hurt.
There’s a line in your new book where the speaker is “reinventing myself with lies.” How does this line reflect, if at all, your own artistic process?
Probably, it more so reflects how I hope to not live my life. There is so much we risk by writing, but I’m not sure it compares to what we risk by loving, by living. And there is such a temptation to reinvent oneself with lies. I’m certain I’ve done it and doubt the reinvention was ever as accurate as the process that I went through to make the lie true.
How does your authorial persona differ in prose from your persona in poetry?
All lies are true. But in prose, it’s all true. In poetry, I get to be far more playful, more risky, empathetic in a different way. Prose is where I know I have a million ideas; poetry is where I struggle to make sense of a single one.
Do you begin a poem with a particular set of conceits which you would never ask of prose?
I ask poetry not to be constrained by whoever I am, all the multitudes that we remember Whitman for giving us the scoop on; I demand that my prose be constrained by who I am, to be a place where I mine my own existence for some kind of gospel. And I hope that doesn’t seem reductive. But it really is all there is. Depending on the moment, those conditions stifle or propel me.
How do you begin poems? Do you start writing with paper and pen, computer, or a smartphone? How do you know when your poems are complete?
Poems tend to begin days, if not years, before I write them. “On Voting for Barack Obama with a Nat Turner T-Shirt On” began the day I voted for the first time. I spent years though, thinking about what voting meant, what being a father meant, before those ideas even begun to percolate into the poem. And when it did begin to percolate, it started on paper. But sometimes the poem starts on a screen, on my phone, on some scrap paper, or on some decent paper with me scratching out lines with a Lamy 2000.
I taught in a women’s prison while I was also working at Harvard. I was struck by how fear and paranoia were deployed in both environments. Are there particular similarities that you find between life in prison and life in an elite university?
I’m not sure. I mean, I do believe that fear and paranoia operate in both spaces — though for me I felt the fear in prison more acutely, the paranoia more acutely. But there are all kinds of similarities, mostly because prison is just a microcosm of everything else. It’s a petri dish. So much of everything concentrated and constrained and threatening to create diamonds or explosions.
What has been the hardest part about navigating white literary establishments?
Sometimes the difference between prison and America unsettles me. The former was far more difficult to navigate, and yet on some days I got far more love there than anywhere else. There is no real way to answer these questions is what I mean. I don’t know where the Black literary establishment ends and the white literary establishment begins and then I become struck by how little I know of the work of my contemporaries who are not Black.
My father went to Old Dominion as a freshman in 1978. He didn’t last a year and never graduated. My mother, born the same year as him, graduated from college 30 years later. Point is, often the literary establishment, Black or white, doesn’t seem to move well across class and race. And my struggles to make sure my poems speak to my folks is more bewilderingly difficult than figuring out whether I navigate the white literary establishment well. Put a different way, Toni Morrison long ago settled the problem of race: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
What is the hardest part about writing?
I want to be honest and vulnerable and Nas after Illmatic famous. I want to be Shakespeare and Tupac with a healthy relationship to women and violence. I want to be L Boogie on her first album and Etheridge Knight when heartbreak and everything else made him say fuck everything. And you know, I want to be me and to admit that I’m none of those things but still want it.
What is the hardest part about publishing?
Honestly, it’s different now that I’ve published four books. Getting things into print isn’t as hard as before, but making sure that I am patient enough to only push out there what’s ready and needed is a challenge. Then, to be frank, I have been pushing myself to do work in other areas — writing longform for The New York Times Magazine, writing reviews, things like that. Figuring out how to be excellent in these areas is a challenge, and the excellence part is far more difficult than the publishing part. Because at some point, it becomes easier to get published than it is to be a rigorous thinker on the page, which for me is ultimately my goal.
Do you think it is possible to overcome traumas of the past? How does your writing process relate to your healing process?
I’m not sure what we mean, ever mean, by a word like overcome. Because naming a trauma makes it more than a maybe, and then you get forced to figure it out if you can overcome. I know that writing is not healing for me. It is thinking, and in the thinking sometimes I discover what I need to do to heal. But writing is not therapy, as much as I might wish it were and some people claim it is.
Many of your poems read like love poems. How has your understanding of love changed with writing? How has your understanding of love changed with time in prison?
I love my sons, my wife. I love my mother. My mother was, as most of us, my first love. It took a long time for me to love my father. To even contemplate such a thing. And the poems have been where I have always gone to clarify and admit that love. It’s where I have gone to think, really, about what it means to be me and alive in the world.
Which of the following forms would you afford more attention to: crafting a difficult email to loved one or writing a poem or writing an op-ed?
Maybe the same. I know that each can be time consuming. You want to say the right thing, or maybe not even the right thing, but the honest thing — or even the lie. And I revise the poem and op-ed more, obviously, and that’s because the difficult email becomes a phone call. There should be a better answer to this question, but the truth of it is that the spoken word is where I allow myself to be most spontaneous and flawed. On the page, I am constantly trying to make things comport with my best self and that is not necessarily a good thing.
What artistic forms would you like to explore outside of poetry and prose?
I’m going to write a play one of these days. (I’m writing a solo show now and am having a certain kind of joy learning my poems by heart.) And learn how to dance.
Do you consider yourself a prison abolitionist? Why or why not?
Depends. What is an abolitionist? I want to answer some difficult questions. How do we respond to sexual assault? To robbery? To burglary? The idea of abolition is wonderful — and at the surface level absolutely needed. We cannot have prisons exist as they do now — they are poorly funded, dangerous, lacking programming, lacking trained staff, hidden away from the public. People are sent there for far too long. But, the question of abolition, while being rooted in all of those problems, is really what should happen when people harm others. I’m not committed to what should happen being prison. I believe, if ever, prison is the absolute last resort and should be dramatically reduced to only seriously be a reflection of questions of danger. And even then, not the prisons we have. And I try to take this seriously. We need to figure out how to have the abolition conversation in a way that is not downplaying the actual harm of selling crack in 1988, of stealing a car, of raping a woman, of murdering anyone. Shit, I think way too much about this. In my family are people who went to prison as teenagers for killing folks and people who went to prison as teenagers for robbing folks, women who have been raped, men who have been murdered, domestic violence ringing out like a goddamn anthem. And I just want a talk of abolition that is as muddy as those facts. And then, you have the coronavirus and a bunch of 12-month prison sentences become death sentences and you wonder, what is all of this for? Abolition demands that we ask that question in a way very little else does.
How do you understand the relationships between advocacy, activism, and direct service? How have any of this political work shaped your understanding of your work as a writer?
I’m a writer. Not a polemicist, not a politician. I try to honor how complicated it all is, not just winning. That ethic guides my understanding of those very conflicted relationships, but frankly, that understanding does not guide it nearly well enough.
Mass incarceration is a trendy topic. What is your relationship with the nonprofit-industrial complex? How do nonprofits exploit the lives and stories of those who’ve been impacted by incarceration? How can we stop this phenomenon?
I hope to avoid words like the nonprofit-industrial complex. We all are out here exploiting each other and trying not to exploit each other. What I’ve found devastating is hearing someone who doesn’t know a friend of mine explain how exploitative they are — and hearing their explanation completely rooted in the most simplistic and dishonest attacks. My relationship with the human complex is twisted, you know? And my life wouldn’t be what it is if some of those same organizations that get criticized didn’t throw me a fellowship or whatever. Which isn’t to say that they are above reproach, but maybe that those who run the organizations are as flawed as the rest of us.
What role, if any, do you feel you play within the Black bourgeoisie?
Wild thing, I just learned the high school I went to has a program for students who hope to be first-generation college students. I went there 20 years ago. Would have been first generation in 1998. And now, 20 years later, there are still students from Suitland High School who are first generation. It’s baffling. Makes me realize being where I am and who I am, Yale graduate and all that shit, has convinced me that the world has moved in ways it hasn’t. Maybe that is what makes me a part of the Black bourgeoisie. Yet I know that them Negroes don’t want me either. Ask Howard University, who snatched a full-tuition scholarship from me because of my crimes and time in prison. I walk around these streets with three felonies. I think about the literary world a lot, how I fit in with my folks who remind me of A Different World, but then, I find I’m obsessed with prison, with the knowledge that my close friends may die in prison.
I ask about the nonprofit-industrial complex as a way to think about organizations where money and status is deeply embedded in the ethos and structure. Foundations and universities are two examples. How does mission align with money and status in these institutions?
The first thing I understood about the Pell Grant was that as a community college student, the grant would cover my class costs, my books, and leave me something to hold in my pocket. Later, loans and scholarships became a way to pay rent and do everything else, from paying child care to paying car notes. I don’t know if I believe in calling things a complex — because the prison-industrial complex is America. Go into a courtroom in America for a robbery charge, a burglary, a rape, a murder, a violent battery, a domestic violence. Those people in there who have been harmed want some kind of redress, and that’s often prison. Naming our failure to offer them something else as the prison-industrial complex is to suggest that the problem is outside of us. I believe the same is true of how we name nonprofits and universities as the problem. Truth is, we know education completely changes lives and that nonprofits exist because there is no money in a range of issues nonprofits work on. I’m not a really smart man. But until I run for office to radically change the dissemination of services, I know I’ll rely on nonprofit money to get people I love what they need, because I work in a world where the profit margin doesn’t exist. So my critique isn’t radical. It’s about making some money move the scales of freedom.
Who do you think these nonprofits are actually accountable to? How can we hold them accountable?
All of this depends, right? Because nonprofits are not so much like government that you’re asking how do we begin to get into leadership positions so we can shape missions. Elizabeth Alexander has done that. The Mellon Foundation, those changes. They belong to her. So she is my example. But you know, other foundations are also doing good work too. It’s just — ain’t no widgets being built by foundations. And so, we have to figure if those institutions can have a stake in the radical transformation of our society. I believe some of them can. People who tell me I’m lost — I just say, a jury of Virginia citizens sent my homeboy to prison for life for a crime he didn’t commit. I don’t have the ignorance to be holier than thou.
What was your first reaction to the protests and riots in the wake of the murder of George Floyd?
My friends are doing life in prison and should be free and that’s long been the case, and as a Black person, even to Black people, your life is more valuable dead than alive. With criminal justice reform, with people in prison — those who have made others victims, the undercurrent is that what happens is justified. When Floyd was murdered, he became a victim. The cop became like all the dudes in prison. We protest because no one will lock him up. More people will die in prison than by the hands of the police. It is what it is. There have been three graveyards built in Angola during my lifetime. Those killed by the police won’t fill one. Those dead in Angola has made three necessary. I’m pessimistic, not because things don’t change, but because as a society we are dishonest about what and who matters.
What writer do you wish were still alive to speak to this current cultural moment? What do you imagine they would say?
Lucille Clifton. Or Etheridge Knight. Or Robert Hayden. I’ve been thinking a lot about Hayden, as he wrote about Black folks with more expansiveness, on a historical and personal level, than anyone else. Hayden offered a vision that’s clean and straight and unadorned with the kinds of myth that we use to hide from ourselves. The militant negroes would despise him and the white folks would say his craft isn’t on point, and yet, when all is said and done he’d be writing the lives of those whose names we chant into history with a elegance and grace that today’s writers mostly grasp for.
I think it’s what comes from feeling deeply a part of some project of humanity more than anything else. I think of Hayden and am reminded a bit about what it means to be so sad sometimes that all you can do true is set something down straight. Loud talk is for the angry, there’s a kind of weeping in what he writes. Like he’s reconciling himself with remembering a failed experiment or like he’s joyous knowing there is a corner to turn soon.
Who has been one Black writer whose politics you think went wrong?
This is an interesting question. Tough too. An easy answer is Ben Carson, but he is not a writer. I’ll say Eldridge Cleaver. I hate to say his name. His politics, first, didn’t let him reckon with how odious and foul and perverse his crimes were. Second though, he was searching to become and the politics so fail him that his becoming isn’t the progression of El Hajj Malik Shabazz, but just a retrograde move. He becomes right-wing conservative, Mormon when they say Black folks can’t get to heaven? His writing had long quit being thinking.
How do you imagine Black self-determination in this current moment?
I grew up on the rhetoric of 5%ers and crackheads. My first political statement was a grievance form. I don’t even know if I want Black as an adjective for self-determination. I remember telling a white cell partner that he was a devil. Dude had 60 years in prison and had to listen to me, both of us 16, calling him a devil. He knowing he was gonna die in prison. I been Black and righteous long enough to know that if self-determination will mean anything it ain’t gonna be cabined by Blackness. Shit, the KKK was out for white self-determination for a long as time too. And don’t get me wrong. What I’m saying is Natalie Diaz is my friend. Swapna Reddy, Avi Samarth, Pat Rosal — whatever. My landscape is not just Black. And so for me, I imagine Black self-determination including them, and including Carly and Joe and Natalie and Cathy and Catherine and Nicky and this Black girl I know named Becky. Why is her name Becky? But I digress.
What is holding us back?
More intelligent people than me fail to answer that question coherently. I’ll just say that it’s hard out here.
Elisabeth Houston is an invisible warrior writer. She teaches in the English and Pan-African Studies departments at Cal State Los Angeles. She can be found at elisabethisonline.com.
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