An Interview with Holden Scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts

Posted on Nov 25, 2015

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Holden Scholarship recipient Reginald Dwayne Betts (poetry July 2010) is the author of three books: A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery, 2010); Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James, 2010); and Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way, 2015). He currently studies law at Yale and lives in New Haven with his wife and two children.



In a recent videoed interview with Four Way Books, publisher of Bastards of the Regan Era, you speak about the rhythm of poetry: How creating those rhythms allows you to get at and wrestle with truths you otherwise can’t through the recounting of facts in your nonfiction work. While reading your poems, I was caught up in the emotions they embrace and convey without naming. Are the truths your poetry wrestles with the feelings that remain after the facts have been recounted? 

I would say feelings that remain after the facts and something more. This is a personal thing, and I don't want to suggest that this is some unique gift of poetry, but what happens in chasing the sound is that I grasp some things that I couldn't reach otherwise. Sometimes I'm really referring to concepts that the poem allows me to reach—the idea of being an exile, the circling thinking needed to approach a question enough times to touch what approximates the truth. And of course, the poems frequently are invented truth. When they are good at least. This is different from memoir, which requires that I nail down the facts that let the truth have weight. Poetry lets me step outside myself into the world and invent the truth from everything I see.


Would you say more about exile? Is that a place from which you write, like where you go to create? Or is it more permanent, like a state of being, which you explore through poetry? Or something else entirely?

To be clear, exile is not a metaphor. When incarceration exiles it does so by way of sojourning someone forever away from home—through employment discrimination, through housing discrimination. And while these are not frequently the subjects of the poems, these conditions are what animate much of the work in the latest book and really my understanding of prison as a way to understand contemporary society. 


Do you often have to clarify yourself in such a way ("To be clear, exile is not a metaphor."), maybe because the person you're talking to doesn't or can't understand where you’re coming from? I ask that to ask this: Do your poems provide a reprieve from that, provide a means of expression without the subsequent need to explain?

Ideas like being an exile or really anything that reflects upon the actual lived experience of someone in my position as a person that was formerly incarcerated—I do think I tend to clarify. Not because the person that I’m talking to doesn’t understand, but because I want, need to emphasize that there is suffering that can be repaired. That there are different things we can do in this world to address some of the issues in my poems. And because it’s me talking and I’ve been privileged and successful and seem whole, it is easy for me and others to miss that larger point—that there are people suffering immensely because we do nothing.

Going back to rhythm, which I'm guessing is nailed down in revision: Though, or maybe because, we've never met, I picture you revising by pacing back and forth with a rough draft in your hand reciting lines aloud, your steps becoming stomps and your voice rising as you close in on the poem's rhythm. (But that's probably just me hoping revising isn’t so quietly brutal for others as it is for me.) Would you give us a glimpse of what your revision process actually looks and sounds like?

Rhythm is different. With some poems it is about pacing. Maybe for all poems, because the language is worked out over days or months or, in the case of the title poem, years. And so I get that pacing, that finding the sound in the timing of my thoughts. But there are also formal concerns. The title poem is in blank verse and I wanted to have the lines from people I admire woven into the poem, and so that stricture also made me think differently about rhythm. But ultimately, my revision process is a combination of sound and thought—argument and articulation. If the poem is going to be many things and mean many things, often I have to revise those added layers into the poem. I have to try to see more. And that takes time. And ruthlessness. And sometimes tenderness.


You mentioned that "Bastards of the Reagan Era" was years in the making.  Are there poems in your latest collection that began in your time at Warren Wilson. I guess I’m wondering if the Program still resonates in your work five years after graduation.  

Warren Wilson had a huge amount of influence on this book. On a very basic level, I honed my vision there. And on a more practical level—I learned to think more seriously about revision. The long poem, it started as rhymed couplets and then became free verse and then became what it is—300 or so lines of blank verse. But yes, in every way these poems are invested in what I learned at Warren Wilson. They are years in the making and I hope they reflect that—hope they feel and sound both reckless and crafted.


Friends of Writers endowed the Holden Scholarship and provides a range of other financial support to students in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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Adam Jernigan (fiction, January ’15) received The Carol Houck Smith Scholarship in July 2014.
He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.