Why pretend these words don’t seize our breath?
Prisoner, inmate, felon, convict.

In his 2019 poetry collection, Felon, New Haven resident Reginald Dwayne Betts recognizes himself in the titular word, even as so many other words also define him: father, husband, son, friend, public defender, legal scholar, poet. Arrested, tried and convicted for his role in a carjacking at the age of 16, Betts was sent to an adult prison in Virginia, where he was incarcerated for the next nine formative years. “By eighteen,” he writes in his 2009 memoir, A Question of Freedom, “I’d been shuffled between a county jail, a prison intake center and three prisons. I’d been in isolation for thirty-five days and segregation for six months. I’d been at the prison deemed the warehouse for Virginia’s most violent and dangerous criminals. And I’d learned to close my eyes at Red Onion to everything except moving from one day to the next.”

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“Acknowledgment” is his word for what Felon’s title is doing. Not “claiming,” not “owning,” but acknowledging—not just a crime but also the life that followed, both in and out of prison. The collection asks something of the reader as well: a counter-acknowledgment of who Betts and other men, both formerly and still incarcerated, are as human beings. The cover of Felon displays a series of four portraits of black men obscured by masks of dripping tar, part of New Haven artist Titus Kaphar’s The Jerome Project. Like those faces, the lives of people who’ve been convicted of felonies are obscured or even erased by the word “felon,” Betts says. “But if you open the book, then I think the book opens up to something that’s far richer and I think something that can’t be simply noted as ‘felon.’”

The poet’s writing career began behind bars, where he read every book he could get his hands on in the strangely monastic setting of prison. “I think that I got lucky because reading was a thing that I enjoyed to do,” Betts says. Reading made him a better writer, and eventually he began to furtively type his poems at the prison’s law library and send them out to literary journals. He wrote letters as well to writers he admired. “Writing was my major rehabilitative tool,” he says in A Question of Freedom. “My poems let me see the world in a way I hadn’t before.”

Betts’s poems are often written in the first person, but they aren’t just about him. “The whole book <Felon> is like me and not me,” he says. “It’s trying to create different contexts, situations and understanding of what the world is like… It would be quite boring, I think, for me as a writer if I only wrote about my own self. And even sometimes when I’m writing about myself, it is an amalgamation of selves, both mine and others’.”

Felon is Betts’s fourth book and his third collection of poetry. A Question of Freedom, his memoir, came first, published when he was 29 and a few years out of prison. But much of it reads as if told by the incarcerated teenager. Betts’s ability to tap into that youthful voice turns the book into an unspoken argument for reform of our juvenile justice system. If he were to write it today, he says, he might hit that point more explicitly. “I didn’t write it really thinking about the ways in which they failed to notice that I was a child,” he says. Now he thinks more seriously about how and why he was treated as an adult at 16, about the fact that a “prosecutor has to deny part of their humanity—to see that you’re a kid and yet do their job to put you in prison for as long as possible… None of it is okay, you know?” he says. “The carjacking is not okay, but nine years in prison changes everything.”

Betts’s first book of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010), draws on that experience. Shahid was the name he chose for himself in prison after finding a small group of Muslims and studying with them. The name means “witness.” Choosing it, Betts says, gave him “a new set of clothes, and you can start over.” It was also a way of building a story about who he was far from home, among strangers, where it was hard to know whom he could trust.

It’s probably no accident that, in some ways, Betts is living out the work of Shahid. A 2016 Yale Law School graduate, today he’s finishing up a PhD in law at Yale, even as he’s gaining traction as a poet. Virginia got rid of parole in 1995, and Betts is focused on efforts to bring it back by supporting the people on the ground, speaking to legislators, trying to “amplify” that goal. Being a poet is part of that work. “I file a legal brief, I like to think that there’s poetry in that,” he says. “I’m not writing a poem, but I’m bringing that same attention to the task that I would bring to writing a poem.”

His work in the law inspired four “redacted poems” in Felon. Starting with legal briefs filed by the Civil Rights Corps “to challenge the incarceration of people because they could not afford to pay bail,” Betts censored the documents, crossing out entire lines and leaving only those words and phrases essential to telling the story: “bodies cover… the entire… cell floor… untreated illnesses… infections in open wounds… days… weeks… filthy bodies huddle in cold… a single thin blanket…” The words that squeeze between the bands hiding line after line of text sometimes gather like a chorus repeating a refrain: “Plaintiffs claims… should be dismissed Plaintiffs claims should be dismissed… Plaintiffs claims… should be dismissed… Plaintiffs claims… have been unanimously rejected.”

This exercise adheres to a known poetic form, but it’s an especially useful metaphor in Felon for the redaction of men’s lives; it’s also a useful exercise in how poetry works. “What’s the difference between… a taste of unaged and whiskey that’s been aged for 18 years?” Betts asks. “It’s just the distillation, the way in which you are able to achieve a different flavor profile with time… A poem is like an 18-year-old whiskey.” If it’s done right, he says, it will offer its reader a “distillation of emotion, distillation of language, distillation of music that just isn’t available in prose.”

In addition to his legal work, Betts is working on a response to the question of the intergenerational effect of incarceration. There’s data, he says, “but I think that misses something, and part of the intergenerational effect of incarceration might actually be the stories that get passed down from generation to generation.” His concern reaches back to his father and forward to his young sons, who, at 12 and 8, already know much of his story. The first poem in Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015) is for them. He writes:

Our song is how right we got it,
when the light from that moon spilled
out of your mother’s belly, I tell
you, you were smiling then,
as if you knew you were the first song
that found me worthy.

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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