Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, a lawyer and the founder of Freedom Reads, a non-profit organization that works to transform access to literature by installing mobile libraries in prison housing units. Freedom Reads libraries are currently located in Massachusetts, Louisiana, Illinois, New York and Colorado.
For more than 20 years, Betts has used his writing to explore the world of prison and the effects of incarceration on American society. He is the author of a memoir and three collections of poetry, including the American Book Award-winning collection “Felon.” Betts received a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2019 National Magazine Award for his New York Times Magazine essay “Getting Out,” which chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney.
PJP's director of special projects Kate McQueen reached out to Betts for advice on growing as a writer from behind the walls.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you started writing?
I became a writer as soon as I was in prison. I was sitting in a cell thinking, what am I going to do with these nine years? And I told myself, I will be a writer, because I imagined that I couldn’t be an engineer from a prison cell. I was wrong about that. I could have been an engineer, but I didn’t know. And I figured I would always have access to pen and paper.
And upon making the decision, I didn’t know what that meant. It was just a declaration. You have to be somebody. You don’t have to, but I thought it was important as a kid. Maybe that was the most important decision I made. You know, there was the horrendous decision to carjack somebody, and then the important decision to be somebody, in the form of a writer.
At first that just meant keeping a journal. I wasn’t saying I wanted to be a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, an essayist or a journalist. I just wanted to be a writer. Then later I read Langston Hughes. I read Sonia Sanchez. I read Lucille Clifton. I read Etheridge Knight, and he made me believe I could be a poet. It’s really difficult to be something that you cannot see. His work was the first tangible example of somebody who had been in a cell like I had been in the cell, and who was publishing alongside Hughes, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay. And so at that point I think I became a poet.
For me, the poem was just an obvious move. You could hold a whole world in 20 lines. And it was something that I felt was manageable. Although over the course of a novel, people say things that stun you, and you may carry a whole novel in your head, but not the way you can carry a whole poem. But honestly, Etheridge Knight was a poet and I just wanted to be like Etheridge Knight. So I always lean towards poetry.
Since you do work with a few different literary forms, when do you decide what shape your ideas are going to take?
You know, the writing process is a long one. As a writer, I’m always perseverating over the world, I’m free to go to worlds I’m afraid of. I’m thinking about my joys and my loves and my frustrations. The writing happens along a continuum.
Can you say a bit more about your process? You just said a little about how you get started. When do you know you’re done?
Once [the rapper] Birdman was upset with some folks on a radio show and was like, “Are you finished or are you done?” As a writer, the reality is that sometimes you’re just done. You’re not finished, though. But you’re done. And you move on, and then you might return to it, and then it gets closer to being finished. But most poems end up being done, not finished.
Did you spend a certain amount of time with a poem before you decided to try to publish?
Again, I think it’s all really deeply intuitive.
Were there specific sources of inspiration while you were inside?
This is a good story. When I first started writing and sending pieces to magazines, I would ask for advice. I would say, if you don’t want to publish this, that’s fine, but it will be great if you want to give me some feedback. And one editor — I no longer remember the name of the little magazine — but he told me I was doing too much. And I should maybe just work on just describing where I was.
I did that, and I ended up getting that poem published. What I learned in that moment was a lot of beginning writers think we’re smarter than we are. We think the world is rooted in the shit we say, the shit we think, the opinions that we have. And what that editor made me do is focus first on what I was seeing. I tried to get to the point where I was deriving meaning from what I was seeing, not from what I imagined that I knew. That was a lesson that I carried well because I think it has a lot of power. Start by noticing anything well, and you move from noticing well to describing well, and then you find these moments where you glean insight and wisdom from what you describe. That became the way I write. And I think it still is. I pay more attention to the world than trying to, you know, just think that I have something particular to say.
What are some ideas and themes that poets inside today might want to consider writing about?
There are as many ideas to write about as there are hours in a day. We know very little about what it means to live in prison. So we focus often on the violence of incarceration, on the sorrow of incarceration. There’s very little work done on the glimpses of joy. I saw a recent piece that [PJP] published that says, “Don’t cry when you see me.” I felt like that piece was one push towards that.
There are other opportunities. I’m not a professional athlete — [but] some of the best basketball players that I’ve seen in my life I’ve actually seen … in prison. I think there’s been very little written on that. We have very little ethnography on prison — there’s so many opportunities to learn what it means to spend all of this time in prison. And, I think there are a lot more imaginative ways to critique the system than exist now.
We are still trying to find a point where we are ready to school the incarcerated, to afford them the right to be treated seriously, enough so that people can tell you when your work is not good. I think a bit of pandering and patronizing goes on. So, it would be great for incarcerated people to really develop healthy, critical chops, and extend those chops out into the world. I would love to see more criticism. We should have people who are currently incarcerated writing reviews for the New York Times Book Review. We should also have them write reviews for the literary, academic and legal journals, like the Yale or Harvard Law Review.
When I was first trying to get published, I would always look at where I might be published. And I would be like, okay, I’m not as good as you yet but I’m gonna try. That’d be my reach magazine. But then I would try for other magazines too — I had the ones where I felt I really fit in. It’s also important to find ways to partner with organizations, like [PJP], where you can get some sophisticated critique. It takes a lot to step back and write about somebody’s work and give them some insight into what you imagine they’re trying to do. It didn’t happen as often as I would like, but I think that if you could push for it, you can find people who are willing to do it.
So, can I ask where you first submitted? And what were your reach publications?
I first was published in Poet Lore and Hanging Loose, and a magazine called AIM that came out of Chicago. My reach publications back then were magazines like Poetry and Callaloo. I’ve been in most of them now.
You mentioned a few people already, but I wanted to ask about a few more writers that were essential to you, or whom you might recommend to other readers?
That’s an interesting question because I’m older now. I’m 41. And so when I started writing, the people I was thinking about were Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, and I’m still thinking about those folks. Marie Howe. Jack Gilbert. But then you also have to be reading Natalie Diaz. You have to be reading Major Jackson. Roger Reeves. Tyehimba Jess. Adrian Matejka. You have to be reading a new generation of really talented writers. And then you still want to be reading Robert Hayden, Reginald Shepherd. You should be reading Japanese haiku. As a practice, you should understand what it is. You shouldn’t be writing about incarceration without reading what John J. Lennon is writing.
Essentially, you have a library that you carry around in your head. You’ve got to be reading George Saunders. You want to be taking the time and reading translations, work from other cultures. You’ve got to be reading the Dostoyevskys and the Wole Soyinkas. Right now I’m reading Alejandro Zambra, a book called “Chilean Poet.”
So, it’s interesting. In Gabrielle Zevin’s book “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” she says, “We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone.” We read because we know that by reading, we make ourselves a little bit less so. This is what it means to be deeply engaged with literature.
What should you read? You should read “All God’s Dangers,” which is a history of a Black man who lived in the South and just had this fantastic life. You got to read that book. If you’re not reading Gabriel García Márquez, how do you understand the world is just beyond the world? N. K. Jemisin. [Jonathan Letham’s] “Motherless Brooklyn.” This cat who wrote “Razorblade Tears,” S.A. Crosby, you’ve got to read him.
There are more writers that you should be reading than any one person can name.
And, you know, I saw somebody reading “Blood in the Water” [an account of the 1971 Attica prison uprising by Heather Ann Thompson] at the bookstore yesterday, and I said something to him. And he said, “This is just such a fantastic book. I’m reading it for the second time.” This was some random older white guy whom I might not assume that I had anything in common with. But that book on his table led us to have a two-minute conversation. I’ll remember him a month from now or a year from now, just because of that interaction.
You read to discover who you are, and you read to discover who your kin are. So, what we should be reading is probably as limitless as, you know, our joys and our suffering.
Any other advice you would give to inside poets who are just starting out? Or something you would have liked to have known when you were just starting out?
One thing I didn’t learn how to do in prison was pitch to a magazine. I think that’s a really powerful thing to know how to do. Plus, it helps you organize your thoughts and have a sense of what you want to write.
I would have liked to know that you don’t have to be tied to one genre. You know, I’ve won a National Magazine Award for nonfiction. I’ve written about myself. I’ve written about my family. I’ve been able to write pieces in memory of Bill Withers and Michael K. Williams. And these are things that I didn’t really ever expect to do. I think that you should open yourself up to the unexpected. It’s important to remember that what you may end up doing five years from now is likely going to be unimaginable to you today. But you want to develop skills so that when you decide to do it, you’ve got the skills to do it.
That’s great. Thank you so much for your time.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.