Reginald Dwayne Betts on Politics, Poetry, and the MacArthur Fellowship

Poet, memoirist, attorney, and MacArthur Fellow Reginald Dwayne Betts recently partnered with artist and filmmaker Titus Kaphar on Redaction (Norton), an innovative collection of art and poetry confronting the abuses of the criminal justice system, drawing on his experience of incarceration. Retired researcher/librarian Eldon Ray James spoke with Betts about the collaboration and where politics and poetry meet and about Betts’s Freedom Reads project, through which he plans to install Freedom Library book collections in every residential prison unit in the United States.

Reginald Dwayne Betts head shot
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Photo by Mamadi Doumbouya

Poet, memoirist, attorney, and MacArthur Fellow Reginald Dwayne Betts recently partnered with artist and filmmaker Titus Kaphar on Redaction (Norton), an innovative collection of art and poetry confronting the abuses of the criminal justice system, drawing on his experience of incarceration. Retired researcher/librarian Eldon Ray James spoke with Betts about the collaboration and where politics and poetry meet and about Betts’s Freedom Reads project, through which he plans to install Freedom Library book collections in every residential prison unit in the United States.

Eldon James: You have accomplished so much since leaving prison. Do you see those accomplishments as a kind of continuing escape?

Reginald Dwayne Betts: No, I wouldn't say that. The accomplishments continue a return. Prisons are tragic sites, and they usually get memorialized, if at all, with horror stories. If we imagine moving beyond prison as tragedy, I think we [must] be willing to return to it with something else and try to encourage others to be something else, to become more meaningful than the rough and troubling parts. I've tried to be very intentional about tying my work to prison, and to trying to recognize the deeply meaningful things that we're able to do post-incarceration, and how those things could be driven by changing lives and outcomes and possibilities for people inside, particularly around literacy and literature.

It’s difficult for many formerly incarcerated people to overcome the stigma that society places on them. What allowed you to unlock those doors?

Once you start accomplishing some things, the way people deal with you is to tell you that you don't remind them of somebody who's been to prison. It's not that they believe you could become something more, it’s that they believe you could have never been one of them. One of the things I've tried to do with my life is not to run away from the thing that I was, not run away from the mistakes that I made, and try to remind folks that you can't tell me I'm somebody else. You could say that I've transformed my life, I've grown, I'm matured, I become thoughtful. You could talk about my regrets, but you can't tell me that I never belonged there, because when you say that you're suggesting that the people who are there now belong there forever.

It just so happens that I chose a profession, a way of being in this world, that allows me to publicly reckon with some issues that deeply matter. But that's not to suggest that people who aren't me aren't reckoning with those issues in a private way that deeply matters.

I overcame the stigma because I’ve got a huge chip on my shoulder, and I like to believe that I'm not just doing it for me. Some of it has been sheer necessity. I've taken steps because I wanted to live with dignity and pride, and I wanted to not run away from what happened.

What impact did the MacArthur Award have on your daily life and on your plans for projects?

The MacArthur validated the work I chose to do. I got the grant from [the Mellon Foundation] to do Freedom Reads before I got the MacArthur, but even before that, when I was in a PhD program and could have been writing about administrative law, I got this opportunity to write about what it meant to know that I might not be able to be a lawyer because I had these felony convictions. I was like, this just matters, and I'm getting some joy out of writing about this, and I'm reckoning with some things that I want to reckon with. That piece transformed my life in a real way. I won a national magazine award, I got some other opportunities, and it made me [realize] that I wanted to do the scholarship, but I also wanted to think about how to communicate with a wider range of the public.

I was trying to build a sense of myself, having left the creative world to become a lawyer. I was trying to combine these two worlds, and getting the MacArthur meant that it mattered. It mattered it to me already, but it meant that the Yale alumni magazine did a profile on me.

Hopefully, the MacArthur will lead people to believe more deeply in my vision when my vision requires financial support. Building libraries in prisons, building beautiful things, costs money. We're building libraries in prisons. We put them in three prisons in Louisiana last week—they were built by people who serve time. I feel like the MacArthur might be a thing that makes people say, you know, maybe this guy's worth using those resources on.

Did you have access to a library at Sussex 1 State prison?

No, that joint was like a Super Max, so no library. But they had [a list of] books that you could pick. I would have six books plus my cell partner [got] six books, and people in the cells beside me got six books too, so I ended up having 18 library books in the cell. I didn't get to a physical library until I got to Southampton, and then the library got shut down—they lost the librarian—so I only got to go there once. I got to Augusta years later. Augusta was the first time that I was able to spend time in a physical library. But I only hung out in 810, 811 [Dewey Decimal Classification for English literature and poetry] because I got 30 minutes in the library. There was a huge swath of things that I didn't read because I didn't know to look for them. I probably had a wider reading experience at Sussex than I did at Augusta, ironically, because I had this list of books, and so I was able to spend some time across genres and subject matter.

I don't think my project replaces physical libraries. What we do with our Freedom Libraries is you get a mixture, 500 books that theoretically will be like. “Oh, yeah, man, I read a guy on Nietzsche,” and then you go to the library, and they say, “Oh, that's the philosophy section,” and all of a sudden you expand what you understand exists in a library based on getting this little taste of it.

Was exposure to books in prison a critical element in the change that you brought about in your life after prison?

Some of us make profound mistakes, and we just need an opportunity to right the ship. I was really young, and from the day I got sentenced—even before that—I was working on righting the ship. I think books played a profound role, but it happened very early on. It was me deciding to become somebody, and books became a conduit for me becoming somebody, largely because I decided to become a writer.

I would argue, too, that books became vital to me becoming able to understand the world better, able to understand my own failures and other people's failings—but also better able to grasp what hope means, and how to chase some joy.

You have been actively engaged as founder and executive director of Freedom Reads. Could you describe the purpose of the project, and why you took on such a challenge?

We want to put a Freedom Library, a 500-book beautiful arching library handmade of hard wood, where it might be used. The modules stand 44 inches high and create a space of solace, of solitude, of introspection, of challenge; a space of community.

We start with just this idea of building a micro-library and putting it in a housing unit where people live. Then you send writers in there. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to see something beautiful every day and connect that beauty to the bountifulness that you find in a good book.

Somebody asked me what would I do if money wasn't an issue. I said, we put millions of people in prison, I'll put millions of books in prison. I understand books to be like ice cubes and people like water and prison to be the glass that's holding it all. If you put enough books in then the water will spill over and the people will spill out.

Normally in a library, a library worker guides folks to find books. But Freedom Libraries have no librarians. How are people making out on their own?

So far, pretty consistently, folks have organized themselves, or they've organized themselves with the support of staff. It's like collective expertise. Now we're trying to develop some more support for them. Because if you’re just throwing books on the shelves you ain't creating community amongst these writers. You might read Tolstoy and then take two years to recognize that Dostoevsky is a Russian name as well, and that they are part of the same tradition. You might not have had the poets grouped together. Or crime novels—how do you know that Motherless Brooklyn is a classic of the crime-writing genre when you are just looking at the books, and you have no reason to think that it is related to The Maltese Falcon? So now we are creating a run of microessays to help people think about how they might organize a library.

How many libraries are there now, and how many do you see eventually?

We want to put a library in every housing unit in America. So it's probably about 60,000, eventually. Right now we have one percent of that, we have 60.

You are part of the American Library Association [ALA] Project creating new standards for library services for incarcerated and detained individuals. How did you get involved?

I got involved by working with Tracie Hall, the executive director at ALA. She's on our advisory board, so we try to stay deeply connected. Standards are a necessary part of figuring out what it means to do this work, and I was happy to be invited. Being able to be a part of this project gave us opportunity to acknowledge that we are not trying to replace libraries, and in fact we are in conversation with librarians, and we are getting guidance from librarians, and we have members on our team that are deeply steeped in this work in every possible angle.

Let's turn to your poetry and related work. Did you create poetry before prison?

Not at all. It was the desperation of prison. I [was] 16 and didn’t have anybody around me to discourage me, and I was like, man, I need to become something. I might as well become a writer. I love books, and the one thing I have access to all the time is a pen and paper. I was exposed to poetry in the shape of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, and that’s when I decided to become a poet. I realized that within 13 lines you could create an entire world, and that amazed and frightened and inspired me.

Why did you choose to work with Titus Kaphar on this project, and how do you see his images and your words complementing each other?

We work together because we’re friends, and it’s nice to collaborate with people who you love and have a meaningful relationship with. We both were trying to push each other. We were in a print studio, and it was interesting because he was trying something new. So we were able to chop it up and discover some things together. These ideas are local and national and global, and we are local to each other. I never thought of partnering with a with an artist before. I would have never put this on a list of things to do.

These were action poems, and they created an opportunity. The etching could communicate with the text. We decided to do the prints on black paper instead of white paper. We did double etchings. We did double silk screenings. We were trying to combine different methods within the printmaking process. Every single print is its own poem but can work in conjunction with the next thing, so that it stands on its own. We did little interventions like that to make it sing in a different way.

We had an exhibit and thought, what would it be to make a book? We designed the book ourselves. It has three different kinds of paper. We were really intentional about how we ordered the book, how we presented the book on a page, and even how we named the pieces and who else would be involved. We were trying to talk about how we are in conversation with each other, and how these mediums are always in conversation. People read novels again and again, and we aren’t frequently taught how to decode the mechanics of a visual piece, so by pairing it with poetry it suggests this could be contemplated.

But also vice versa, for the visually inclined people they might already recognize these kind of decisions as made in visual art and then think, oh, same kind of decision. We create a relationship between them by juxtaposing it, depending on what you’re familiar with. You begin to understand the other piece a little bit more because you begin to apply your tools.

Redaction works in this book as a powerful technique. What’s its aim and impact?

I was thinking about the way that legal documents are so dense and hard to understand and that typically redaction is a means to tell you what’s above your pay rate, to make a document harder to understand. I wanted to take these lawsuits that were well written, one of the rare cases where a lawsuit really [has] a humanity and a suffering…[and] redact so that you could just hit a humanity narrative—the lives that have been damaged through the inability to pay small bills. The inability to pay traffic tickets. I wanted that to jump out on a page. Legal writings use redactions as a tool to conceal, but we want to use redaction as a tool to make people pay more attention.

The tragedy is that any legal case often is not about the people. It’s about some narrow legal rule, not necessarily how the people suffer or didn’t suffer. The court is trying to address a particular, like, were your 14th amendment rights violated by the imposition of bail? Answering that question does not need the court to consider whether you lost your job while you were incarcerated, whether you lost your children. I didn’t need the court to consider whether $500 is worth locking somebody up for. What I want people to think about is, those things matter, and so sometimes the answer to this might be political. Sometimes the answer to this might be poetry. That’s what lifts it above a legal case into the world of literature.

There’s this notion that the law is far away from poetry. I wanted to make an argument that that’s not true. The poem itself is a different experience because it’s moving back and forth between text and image. It gives you a different kind of soulful connection to what’s there.

Your writing is often imbued with tenderness. How and why combine this tenderness, this personal expression, with social critique?

When the poems are good, they make a case for the fact that, even if the personal and the social are separate, both could exist within a moment. This is poetry, but also art, but also social commentary.

Where do you expect this book to sit on library shelves, which are inevitably divided by subject?

I hope that it sits in poetry, and I hope it also sits in the art books. Staff could fall in love with it, and…put it where I hope it sits: in people’s hands and on that coffee table.

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