'Felon' Author Says, 'Everybody Has To Tell Their Kids Something'

Nov 3, 2019

For years, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts hid the fact that he had served time in prison.

Betts, a lawyer who was sworn into the Connecticut bar two years ago, is finishing up his PhD at Yale University, where he also earned his law degree.

But in his latest collection of poems, titled Felon, this once secret part of his identity is a central feature. In raw, emotional language, Betts uses his experiences in the criminal justice system — he served time from ages 16 to 24 — to challenge our understanding of incarceration and freedom.

He says he decided to embrace his past in this collection of poems because "you can't really get away from it." In an interview with NPR, he said:

"You might be able to live most of your life without confronting what it means to have committed a crime. But if you have people you love, if you have children, you know, as part of your history ... Everybody has to tell their kids something, everybody has to tell their family something."

Here are some highlights from the interview:

On Whether He's The Rule Or The Exception To Life After Prison

I think I'm a part of the struggle. I think that some of what I've done [since] has just been because I was equipped with a certain set of skills I was able to build on while I was in prison. And so, it made things a bit easier. I came home [from prison] — I still look like a 17-, 18-year-old kid — that made things a little easier. But, really, I came home at a moment where people started to think about incarceration in a different way, and that let me slip into certain opportunities.

But it depends on what you mean by a rule or the exception. About a rule, you mean: Do most people come out of prison and just try to figure out what it means to be a father, husband, partner, son again? I think that most of us do that. If you mean, you know, do most of us end up going to Yale Law School — I mean, mostly none of us end up going to Yale Law School. So, in that way, I think I'm just a general type of exception. But I like to think that I'm just part of the struggle because we all sort of exist in this thing, trying to figure out what it means to be human day-to-day and what it means to have, like, suffered and made other people suffer.

On Choosing Poetry

I like to think that the poem is trying to hit you in the gut. I like to think that the poem comes from someplace [of] deep and intense emotion and [is] this thing that I can't run away from. Whereas the other vehicles, you know, I'm using my mind way more, I'm trying to be analytical, I'm trying to say something that could be backed up and supported with facts, with argument, with details. But with the poem, I might have a line that just says 'and we was too damn tired to be beautiful' and that line comes in at the end of one of the poems I wrote ... That, and that that's not supposed to prove anything. It's just supposed to admit something: that, despite it all, sometimes it's just hard. And you could do that in a poem in a way that you can't really do that in any other medium.

When I went to law school and I decided to be a lawyer, I didn't want to be, like, a lawyer and a poet. What I wanted was to be a lawyer-poet. And, so, the redacted poems are sort of my first attempt at making the legal work become poetry and making these legal documents become literature. ... Somebody filed a lawsuit on behalf of these people, but the lawsuit is 70 pages long. Who was actually reading that lawsuit to get an understanding of what happened? Nobody but court actors. ... I wanted to make it represent what I think justice sounds like. And I wanted to turn it into a poem and I wanted to redact everything that was superfluous so that when you pick it up and read it, you say that this is the thing that matters. This is the thing that makes you hurt.

About Talking To His Sons About His Prison Time

I've had to tell my sons. Both of them learned, they were both five. But a friend of mine was telling me, he was like, 'I had [your] book out on the table and my son said, what's this thing?' ... And it hit me, my friends have to tell their children too. ... It was a thing that, you know, we are all a part of this community that's not just trying to figure out how to ... address mass incarceration but we all are part of this community just trying to figure out what it means to tell the people who look up to us that we've committed crimes, that our friends have committed crimes. And that's the part of the conversation that we don't have. I mean, we want to just make this story about how the system has wronged people. But when you talk to a child, when I told my son ... he was like 'I don't understand, bad people go to jail' — and that's just a different kind of geometry to figure out.

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The struggles facing formerly incarcerated people is something poet Reginald Dwayne Betts knows well. He served eight years in prison for putting a gun to a man's head and stealing his car. After getting out, the stigma of prison followed him. When he looked for work, applied for school, inevitably, there was the question - were you ever convicted of a crime? So for a time, Betts hid that he'd been in prison. But, today, he's flourishing while embracing his past. He's a lawyer by way of Yale Law School. He's published books. He has a family and is completing his Ph.D. also at Yale.

In his new book of poems, "Felon," Betts writes about the struggles of prison and the aftermath, but he also writes about love and family. When we spoke, I asked why he chose to name the book "Felon" after once hiding that part of his life.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: I think the first part of it is you can't really get away from it.

FADEL: Right.

BETTS: You know? You might be able to get away from it. With Ban the Box, your employer won't know. You might have universities decide that they don't want to ask you. You might be able to live most of your life without confronting what it means to have committed a crime. But if you have people you love, if you have children, you know, it's part of your history. And you can't run from your history. You can't just subdue your history. And I spent, you know, my formative years in prison, from 16 to 24.

FADEL: Right.

BETTS: So trying to hide that is sort of like creating a black hole that always threatens to swallow me.

FADEL: You know, so much of your poetry talks about that, about the impact of incarceration in these heart-wrenching powerful passages. And there's one poem I hoped you could read for us.

BETTS: Definitely. So it's called "Essay On Reentry" for Nicholas Dawidoff. (Reading) Of prison, no one tells you the time will steal your memories until there's nothing left but strip searches and the hole and fights and hidden shanks and the spades games. You come home and become a parade of confessions that leave you drowning, lost recounting the disappeared years. You say [expletive] this world where background checks, like fingerprints, announce the crime. Where so much of who you are betrays guilt older than you. Your pops, uncles, a brother, two cousins and enough childhood friends for a game of throwback all learned absurdity from shackles. But we wear the mask that grins and lies. Why pretend these words don't seize our breath? Prisoner, inmate, felon, convict.

(Reading) Nothing can be denied, not the gun that delivered you to that place where you witnessed the images that won't let you go. Catfish learning to subtract, his eyes a heron-slurred mess; Blue-Black doing backflips in state boots; the D.C. kid that killed his cellmate. Jesus. Barely older than you, he had on one of the white undershirts made by other men in prison, boxers, socks that slouched, shackles gripping his shins, damn near naked. Life waiting. Outside your cell, you can see them wheel the dead man down the way. The pistol you pressed against a stranger's temple gave you that early morning. And now boxes checked have become your North Star, fillip, catalyst to despair. Death by prison stretch. Tell me what name for this thing that haunts, this thing we become.

FADEL: Tell us about the poem.

BETTS: In this piece, I realized that I was sort of returning to a story that I've been telling for a long time, which is the way that prison itself becomes this thing that constantly circles you.

FADEL: Right.

BETTS: And, sometimes, you know, when you talk about incarceration and you think about mass incarceration, it's always figuring out how you are the victim. But with that poem, I'm trying to acknowledge that it's, like, four or five or six different things going on at once. And the truth is had I not carjacked that man, some of the memories I wouldn't have.

And those memories aren't all bad, you know? Sometimes, there's the joy of a game a spades with people that you're friends with. Sometimes, there's the guy, Catfish. I taught him how to read and do math. And I was just his GED tutor. It's also the kid that killed somebody. And all of that stuff ends up becoming, like, what predicts your future, which is sort of strange for me to say, given that I've accomplished so much that I would've never dreamed of accomplishing even before I went to prison let alone while I was in prison and post-incarceration. But, still, it feels like, you know, despite the law degree, despite the success, that it's something about incarceration that predicts a doom.

FADEL: You know, let's talk about your other writing. In 2016, you wrote an essay in The Yale Law Journal Forum entitled "Only Once I Thought About Suicide." And it's about your experience in solitary confinement. And I just want to read a little from it.

(Reading) They tossed me in a cell with a door so thick that no sound escaped. I was 16 years old. Each morning, they took my mattress from me so that I could not sleep during the day. Each day, I lost a little bit of what made me want to be free. I've never told this story. Those were the longest days of my sentence. One afternoon, in a fit of panic, I slammed my right fist against the wall. I fractured my pinky. I thought about suicide. I almost disappeared.

You know, it's clear you're sharing your personal story to show the horror of solitary confinement. But I also get the sense that there's catharsis in this writing, that it's deeper, that it's personal.

BETTS: I don't know if it's catharsis. I think what it is is, sometimes, you just got this thing that you feel like you need to say. And, actually, you know, what made that essay jump really is that I was in a barber chair. And my barber asked me what I was doing. I said I'm writing this essay about prison. And he was like - what do you mean you writing about prison? I said, yeah, you know, I went to prison when I was young.

And it turns out that my barber had been in prison, too. And he struggled for a minute to understand how I could be a student at Yale Law School and had been to prison. And then I told him the essay was about being in solitary confinement. And he was like, you know, I was in the hole once, too, and it almost broke me. And so I don't know if the essay for me is cathartic as much as it's a duty. In prison, I told them to call me Shahid (ph). I picked a name myself.

FADEL: And that's Arabic for witness, right?

BETTS: For witness. Right. I mean, I wrote that piece. And when you read it back to me, it hurt something to me, you know? It means - it's not like I go back and read it. I mean, it's actually pain. But duty is duty.

FADEL: You also write about seeing yourself through your sons' eyes and having to, at a certain point, confess to them.

BETTS: Yeah, no. That's been - I mean, you confess again and again, actually, I think. But through everything, I think that's been the most painful thing I've had to do. And, actually, recently, I was reminded of a different iteration of this, you know? I've had to tell my sons. Both of them learned when they were both 5. But a friend of mine was telling me - you know? He was like, I had your book out on the table. And my son said, what's this thing? That's Dwayne's new book? What's a felon? And it hit me that, you know, my friends have to tell their children, too, and that that's a thing.

And I just didn't understand that it was a thing that, you know, we are all a part of this community that's not just trying to figure out how to decarcerate (ph) and address mass incarceration, but we're all a part of this community just trying to figure out what it means to tell the people who look up to us that we've committed crimes, that our friends have committed crimes. And that's the part of the conversation that we don't have. I mean, we want to just make this story about how the system has wronged people.

FADEL: Right.

BETTS: But when you talk to a child - when I told my son I took somebody's car, he was like, I don't understand. Bad people go to jail. And that's just a different kind of geometry to figure out.

FADEL: What did you tell him?

BETTS: I said, sometimes, people do things that are bad, but that doesn't mean they're bad people.

FADEL: Right.

BETTS: He looked at me like I was a damn fool. He's like - what does that mean, you know? If he was older, he'd been like, isn't that a tautology, you know? And we just ended the conversation there. And a few weeks later, he was telling me how somebody didn't want to be friends with one of his classmates. And I was like, I get it.

A lot of times, people don't want to be friends with me, either, because I went to prison. I took something from somebody. And they decided that's - the only person I am is the person that did that thing. And then he was like - you know what? I'ma be friends with such-and-such. And that's when he got something about me I think.

FADEL: What do you hope people will take away from this collection?

BETTS: It's called "Felon." But the thing is, "Felon" is just such an inadequate description of anybody. And I hope that, you know, people read the poems. It's an audiobook. You can listen to me reading the poems. And I hope that they connect to it, and they recognize that these stories aren't just the stories of somebody who been to prison, that these stories - as you know, there's love poems in here. And everybody has to tell their kids something, you know? Everybody has to tell their family something. And I try to create a landscape of words that give you a range of what it means to walk around in a world like this.

FADEL: That's poet and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts. His collection of poems "Felon" is out now. Thank you so much.

BETTS: Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.