Published February 4, 2021

On February 4, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts discussed his latest collection, Felon, in a reading and conversation with Amy Woolard, including a contemplation of civic participation accessible to those who have been incarcerated. Read the transcript from the event below.

Through these poems, Betts tells the story of a man confronting post-incarceration life, struggling to reenter a society that doesn’t offer open arms. As Betts makes clear, the trappings of life on the outside don’t make prison simply go away: “You come home & become a parade / of confessions that leave you drowning, / lost recounting the disappeared years.”

These stories are extraordinarily personal to Betts. As he wrote in a National Magazine Award-winning New York Times Magazine essay, “Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out,” Betts himself served nine years in adult prison, and came out the other end; he went back to school, started a family, and ultimately was accepted to and graduated from Yale Law School.

“What she tells me: prison killed you
my love, killed you so dead that you’re not
here now, you’re never here, you’re always.”

from “Night” by Reginald Dwayne Betts

To listen to the related episode, Expanding the Franchise, on With Good Reason Radio, click here.

Felon is a stunningly crafted indictment of prison’s dehumanization of Black men and their loved ones. Through his unvarnished descriptions of the path to prison and its aftermath from myriad vantage points―son, husband, father, cellmate, Yale-educated public defender―Betts does nothing to protect himself, or us, from what he has done and suffered and witnessed. His compassion and breathtaking literary gifts make it impossible for us to look away or remain complicit in mass criminalization’s status quo.” —sujatha baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project

“A searing volume by a poet whose work conveys “the visceral effect that prison has on identity.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“[Felon] shows how poems can be enlisted to radically disrupt narrative… Betts’s poems about fatherhood [are] some of the most powerful I’ve read… The black bars of redacted text [in the redaction poems], which usually suggest narrative withheld, here reveal its true contours… For Betts, the way to expression passes through such troubled silences.” —Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

Sponsors

This program was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Community Partners

Thanks to our community partners, Legal Aid Justice Center and The Democracy Initiative at UVA, for their aid in sharing information about this event.

Transcript

JANE KULOW: Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring live-streamed author events on Thursdays. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.

This program is funded by the Why It Matters Civic and Electoral Participation Initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Counsels, and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We appreciate their funding, and we also appreciate the partnership support from the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Democracy Initiative at UVA.

A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events. 

Now I am pleased to to introduce today’s speakers. Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon: Poems, has written three volumes of poetry and one memoir. He transformed himself from a sixteen-year-old kid sentenced to nine years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School and has earned numerous fellowships and awards. Dwayne is the founder and director of the Million Book Project, an initiative supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will place curated 500-title collections inside one thousand prisons across the United States, including Puerto Rico. You can learn more at dwaynebetts.com.

Amy Woolard is a legal aid attorney working on civil rights policy and legislation in Virginia as the director of policy at the Legal Aid Justice Center. Her debut poetry collection, Neck of the Woods, received the 2018 Alice James Award from Alice James Books and was published in April 2020. Her poems, essays, and reporting have been published widely. Learn more at amywoolard.me. 

Through the poems collected in Felon¸ Dwayne tells us a story of a man confronting post-incarceration life, struggling to reenter a society that doesn’t offer open arms. As he makes clear, the trappings of life on the outside don’t make prison simply go away.

Dwayne and Amy, thank you for joining us. Welcome, and please tell us more.

AMY WOOLARD: Thanks so much, Jane, and thank you to Virginia Festival of the Book for having us today. Hi, Dwayne, it’s so good to see you.

DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s kinda cool to talk to a fellow lawyer poet. Although you’re probably more of a lawyer than I am.

AMY WOOLARD: I don’t know about that, but we’ll get into that. You and I are in conversation here today in Virginia. Or rather I’m in Virginia and now you are too. And maybe you still feel connected to Virginia in many ways. But right now we’re in the middle of a state legislative session where lawmakers—even as you and I speak right now—are having conversations of their own on issues like the death penalty, juvenile justice, parole, court filing fees, voting rights—all things you and I could probably talk for days about. 

But while we have everyone here, I’d really like to start off with a poem, if we can. Because this extraordinary collection, Felon, really so often read to me as a kind of conversation in and of itself. Almost Shakespearean soliloquies or conversations you are having with your own or with someone else’s memories. It really felt to me like a visitation and it opened some really necessary and complex ideas about violence and mercy and accountability and confession in ways that I’m not sure law and policy are really prepared to have yet.

DWAYNE BETTS: I’m not sure if poetry is really prepared to have it yet, to be frank. But I’d love to share a poem. And I do want to say I appreciate you contextualizing the poems in that way because I think poems are ideas and multiple ideas. And one of the beauties of poetry is that they could push you to conversations within the poem and outside of the poem. The outside of the poem is scary, you know, and people don’t like to admit that. But the outside of the poem is really scary. 

Was there a particular poem you wanted me to read? Maybe I should just start with “Ghazal.”

AMY WOOLARD: Let’s start with that one. I love that one.

DWAYNE BETTS: Okay. All right. “Ghazal.” I should just say for the audience, and I don’t usually do this, but it’s nice to know just as a keynote. A ghazal is like a Persian form, and it’s a poem in couplets. On the first couplet, you set up the form. So “after prison” is the last line of the first two couplets—of the first two lines in the first couplet. And then each subsequent couplet, the couplet ends with that phrase “after prison” and the word before it rhymes. So it’s expect, suspect, dialect. And part of the beauty of it and the challenge of is how do you make this dance? You know, how do you make the rhyme bounce and become different and let that word change? So.

Ghazal

Name a song that tells a man what to expect after prison;
Explains Occam’s Razor: you’re still a suspect after prison.

Titus Kaphar painted my portrait, then dipped it in black tar.
He knows redaction is a dialect after prison.

From inside a cell, the night sky isn’t the measure—
that’s why it’s prison’s vastness your eyes reflect after prison.

My lover don’t believe in my sadness. She say whisky,
not time, is what left me wrecked after prison.

Ruth, Papermaker, take these tattered gray sweats.
Make paper of my bid: a past I won’t reject after prison.

The state murdered Kalief with a single high bail.
Always innocent. Did he fear time’s effect after prison?

Dear Warden, my time been served, let me go,
Promise that some of this I won’t recollect—after prison.

My mother has died. My father, a brother and two cousins.
There is no god; no reason to genuflect, after prison.

He came home saying righteous, coochie, & jive turkey.
All them lost years, his slang’s architect after prison.

Them fools say you can become anything when it’s over.
Told ’em straight up, ain’t nothing to resurrect after prison.

You have come so far, Beloved, & for what, another sad song?
Then sing. Shahid you’re loved, not shipwrecked, after prison.

AMY WOOLARD: Thank you so much for that. I just think that form is so extraordinary. And I want to talk to you about repetition a little bit later. But I want to start with talking about something that you and I, at least in part, have in common. You said you don’t want to be known as a lawyer and a poet, but rather a lawyer poet. Talk to me about what that means to you. What does the whole of those two roles together mean to you that’s greater than the sum of the parts?

DWAYNE BETTS: That’s interesting. I think one way is just a bit of . . . it gives me a way to sort of push back at some of the things that people generally say to advocates and the writers, respectively, when they live in their separate categories. Sometimes the rule of an advocate is to, like, obscure the truth. It’s to present the narrative in a way that makes it most likely that whoever you’re fighting for will win. I can respect the space for that, but I think being a poet is about kinda adhering principally to what you think is true and just and right. And so it balances me out. You know, it balances out my advocacy. And it makes me remember that I ain’t gotta be a f***ing liar to fight for what I believe in. 

I remember when I started the Million Book Project, the first thing somebody said on Twitter was, “You know, books are cool, but what are you doing to get people outta prison? I mean shouldn’t we focus on getting people outta prison?” And I was like, you know, I got three people outta prison this year. My bad, fool. How many people you got outta prison this year? But, you know, I shouldn’t have had to make that response. And it just so happens that I did get some people outta prison, but that’s because I’m a lawyer. So being both allows me to be more secure in what each individual aspect of that identity is. That’s just my own insecurity. I’m not saying that people who aren’t both aren’t doing their thing or not doing important work. But I think my own insecurity is, like, I got people in prison; I left them in prison. And I feel much better about myself as a human being knowing that I represented this person on parole or put together this parole packet. I put together this clemency petition. I don’t know, man, I’m okay with how my people see me in the world, and it’s because I’m both. I don’t know if I would be as okay if I was just one.

AMY WOOLARD: I’m really interested, too, that you titled this book “felon,” and using that title as an identity, as a kind of person. How long were you writing these poems? Were you writing them during law school? And I’m just so interested. You’ve known the law from so many different angles. And how is the Dwayne Betts that wrote Felon the same or different because of law school and working as a lawyer in the context of this book?

DWAYNE BETTS: Felon, I think the hardest part about poetry is figuring out how you’re going to—well any writing, really, is how will you reimagine yourself for others for each new piece. Going to law school, it made me seriously think about the cost of freedom and the struggle to get freedom and think about it in some really concrete and specific terms. It had me thinking about guilt. So some of that went into the poems. It changed how I was thinking about the world ’cause it changed how I thought about my own power and agency. And so some of that comes out in the poems. 

And then also, you know, I had these cases after I finished law school, Civil Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis. He was working on these cases around money bail. I thought it was a beautiful thing and the height of democracy when you could sue the city where you live and say that you’re violating my constitutional rights by locking me up because I can’t pay traffic tickets, because I can’t afford to pay small bail amounts. I thought it was a beautiful thing. But who knows what the word numerosity means, you know, jurisdiction, federal rule to civil procedure 42—like none of that make any sense to anybody. I thought what if I turned it into a poem. So took these 60-, 70-, 80-page lawsuits, and I started redacting lines that I thought were superfluous. You know, redaction is usually principally based on what is above your pay grade, what is so essential that you can’t see it, in fact. Right? I wanted to use redaction as a tool to reveal what matters most. So I redacted everything I felt like was superfluous, and then you ended up with this. 

And my man, Titus. In a book, it’s just the poems, it’s just the words. But then in the art we created, Titus etched images, he etched faces. But the idea that we wanted to bring beauty and combine a visual. And thinking about the words is actually visual. So we wanted to create a more complex landscape. And he etched two portraits on each print, so it’s two portraits on each print with my poem. That is actually just a true product of law school. I wouldn’t have gotten to the point of even thinking about doing something like that had I not been in law school and then graduated from law school and everything else.

AMY WOOLARD: I really love that project. And I love how you kind of—you put redaction up against what people call erasure poems, I guess, on a broad scale. In law we think of redaction as sort of taking out all of the identifying information, the individualism. 

DWAYNE BETTS: Right.

AMY WOOLARD: And you’ve sort of turned it on its head in poem, you know, hyperfocused everyone on that individual information, on the story of it, and the repetition of it. It made me think a lot about how in the legal world or the policy world we get people focused on stories. There’s always this tension between data and anecdotes. And people’s lives become anecdotes as opposed to lived experiences.

DWAYNE BETTS: I think that happens way too much both with the poem and with the advocacy. It’s like how to do you—but that’s the tension. I think that’s the fine tightrope line that we’re walking is how do I keep from reducing folks to these anecdotes about their lives. It’s a struggle, but I try.

AMY WOOLARD: Jane mentioned in the beginning, you know, if we talked about other documents. I really would love if everyone had a copy of the Ferguson Report. I think at least a couple of the redactions that you did were from St. Louis cases.

DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

AMY WOOLARD: Those stories are just extraordinary, and it just makes me think about all of the ways people don’t sort of understand the full complexities of, like, what unfolded in Ferguson and the years before that.

DWAYNE BETTS: And I do think that me being a lawyer—you know, I was listening to a podcast about the Navarette case and whether or not the police could basically search your vehicle because of an anonymous tip. I think my whole understanding of things like that comes from both lived experience and then learning about the legal cases and the Supreme Court opinions that define what’s permissible. I think that’s what sort of animates my understanding of, say, then reading that lawsuit and then reading the Ferguson report. Then that changes the way I think about the poetry. ’Cause part of it’s like poetry is an attempt to give voice to all of these complicated ideas that get discussed and summarized in the law and op-eds and all of that. I feel like poems is supposed to be the vehicle for that whole world that is closer to the public.

AMY WOOLARD: I know one of our themes today mentions the phrase civic participation. We always think about that in the context—or usually think about it in the context of voting. Right? But civic participation also, to me, expands to the way people are forced into our court systems, being forced to engage with government and agencies and the courts in the way that you’re bringing out in these redactions. But in thinking about that phrase, civic participation, I’m wondering if you would read another poem for us, and read “On Voting for Obama in a Nat Turner T-Shirt,” which is one of my favorites in the book.

AMY WOOLARD: Yeah, yeah, let me see. 

On Voting for Obama in a Nat Turner T-Shirt

The ballot ain’t never been a measure of forgiveness.
In prison, people don’t even talk about voting,
about elections, not really, not the dudes
you remember, cause wasn’t nobody Black
running no way. But your freedom hit just
in time to see this brother high-stepping with
the burden, with the albatross, willing
to confess that he knew people like you.
& you are free, and you are what they call out
& off papers & living in a state where you’re
not disenfranchised. In prison, you listened
to ballot or the bullet & imagined that
neither was for you, having failed with
the pistol & expecting the ballot to be
denied. But nah, you found free & in line
notice that this is not like the first time
you & the woman you’d married got naked
& sweated & moaned & funked up a room
not belonging to either of you. That lady
is with you now & a kid is in your arms,
& you are wearing a Nat Turner T-shirt
as if to make a statement at the family
reunion. Everyone around you is Black,
which is a thing you notice. & you know
your first ballot will be cast for a man
who has the swag that seems inherited.
It’s early but there is no crust in your eyes,
you wanted this moment like freedom.
You cast a ballot for a Black man in
America while holding a Black baby.
Name a dream more American than
that, especially with your three felonies
serving as beacons to alert anybody
of your reckless yesterdays. That woman
beside you is the kind of thing fools
don’t even dream about in prison, and
she lets you hold your boy while voting,
as if the voting makes you & him
more free. Sometimes, it’s just luck.
Just moving to the right state
after the cell doors stopped
clanking closed behind you. The son
in the arms of the man was mine,
& the arms of the man belonged
to me, & I wore a Nat Turner
T-shirt like a f***ing flag, brown
against my brown skin.

AMY WOOLARD: Thank you. Do you want to talk about the poem at all or writing that poem? I feel like Obama continues to be such a different symbol for different people in this country. Everything we’ve been through with the election in the last year. Has anything changed for you in relation to that poem? Are you still interested in the topics it picks up?

DWAYNE BETTS: Say it again.

AMY WOOLARD: I’m just wondering if that poem interests you differently given everything we’ve been through in terms of elections in the last year or so.

DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, right, because this time I did a whole of stuff. Not a whole lot, but I did some things, I wrote some letters. I was writing letters to folks in Georgia. It was sort of a form thing, and you got to fill in your own piece. And it was like I believe voting and supporting because. I’m like, you know, because a lot of people like me can’t vote. I’m convicted of a felony for a crime I committed when I was sixteen. It’s just really fortunate to live in a state where my right to vote isn’t denied based on that conviction. And so I vote each time, recognizing that it’s many who can’t.

I think, you know, sending all those letters to Georgia, and maybe some folks wrote it. You just kinda never know. And so I think of it that way. But also you think about Desmond Meade’s work for Amendment 4 in Florida trying to restore the vote to folks in Florida. You just kinda see the significance of it.

But the other thing, which is interesting, it’s like voting is part of being in community. I do think . . . I carjacked somebody. You know, I put a pistol to somebody’s head. And I went to prison for it. And I do think about the ways in which my behavior was the antithesis of being in community. And being in community is sort of a lot of things. And voting is not the end-all of it, but it’s a aspect of it. It’s a component, and it’s a very important component. And it allows me to remember that part of community, part of democracy is voice and responsibility. 

I think about how I think about criminal justice reform and getting people outta prison. And I think a lot of it misses what I remember hearing in prison, which is that once you confront some of the things that you might have done to folks you realize that you weren’t being in the community in a way that would bring honor and dignity to the people that you love. That’s a way that that’s missing from the conversation about all of these things. And maybe that’s part of why I find myself increasingly feeling like it’s a fantasy world that folks are living in. When I talk to my guys that have been locked up ten, fifteen, twenty years, we got demons. You know, we struggling with things that happened in the past. And it’s just not as easy as folks would have it seem.

So the voting matters because the voting is a step towards acknowledging what it means in some small way to bring dignity to the people who struggled, and fought, and died for that very right, you know.

AMY WOOLARD: This reminds me. We kinda touched on it in the beginning, and it’s something I’ve also seen unfolding on social, all of that. But this question of sort of violence and where people draw lines around forgiveness and restoration and what that means. And even just talking about voting. You know, just this morning we had in Virginia a senator propose a state constitutional amendment that was not about restoration of voting rights. But it was about saying no one ever loses their voting rights based on a criminal record. And I know in a lot of states the progressive conversation is around restoration of rights. That just gets me thinking about that word restoration and what it means in terms of judgment and what it means in terms of moving on, and forgiveness, and where people draw lines around . . . especially in the context of violence and how people can emerge out of that and be restored. 

I don’t know if you have any thoughts about it. I think it’s one of the interesting things you really bring to the conversation for me, which is to acknowledge the violence and how awkward that conversation is.

DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah, I mean, I think . . . I mean I struggle with it, you know, because like people don’t want responsibility for s**t, you know what I mean? Like people be talking all of this crazy s**t, and ain’t none of them legislators. And ain’t none of them judges. And it is so easy to condemn the decisions that other people make, and they gotta make hard decisions. Right? It’s just really, really radically easy for that. They aren’t on parole boards. And we aren’t encouraged to be so. You know. And but then I go and witness what a parole board does, and I’m like that is the height of injustice. Is that what you’re doing?

You know, we did a study here in Connecticut, and we were looking at what the parole board was doing. And I just thought geez. And they didn’t know that I’d spent time in prison. And so I’m just watching. They literally gave a guy a extra year in prison because he—they was like this is the most disgusting crime ever. And I-I know crime; I know violence. I was like damn, I wonder what this gonna be. This must be some Stephen King-level s**t, you know. And they were like, “This is horrific; I just couldn’t believe somebody would do such a thing.” 

This guy’s in jail, and he’s appearing before the parole board. And they say, you know, “What you did was completely disgusting.” And he apologized and everything. And I’m just waiting to hear what he did, ’cause I’m just thinking, ooh, this must be a horrible person. I mean I guess he’s gonna get life; I don’t know. But I wonder if he deserves it. Let’s see what he did. He put a bag of feces in his girlfriend’s car and a water bottle of urine with holes poked in it. And they gave him a year in prison for that. And that was what they said was the most disgusting thing ever. And I just thought—the police didn’t even charge him for the conduct. He didn’t even get a criminal charge. He had to pay the money to clean her car out, you know. It was disgusting, but a year in prison for that? 

And then I thought the problem is that none of us will be on a parole board. Like it’s just a thankless job and none of us want to do it. That’s why the people on the parole board could act under the cover of darkness. 

The flip of that is the Virginia Parole Board, who is doing great work right now. It’s not enough people getting out. But I mean they are doing significant work. And they’re taking hits for it, and you don’t see the community jumping up and saying, “Look, I think that they made a hard decision. and it was a thoughtful decision, and it’s one we need to live with.”

So my take on it is I think that we have to discuss violence, we have to discuss what it means in how it changes the landscape of a community. But we have to do it in a way in which the discussion of violence doesn’t automatically say lock somebody away forever.

AMY WOOLARD: Yes. For me in your book that’s what the poems start to open up in the way the law hasn’t been able to yet, that we want to have these categories in the law that we put people inside of and then push them away. I think your poems at least acknowledge that the conversation is deeper than that, it’s more complex than that. And if things can be true, then we can start to heal from them too. 

DWAYNE BETTS: The trick, though, is I think many of us just want to be the state. We just want to be the state for certain things, you know. So we’ll be anti-incarceration for drug offenses or for car theft. But then when it’s seven cars that get stolen on our block, it’s like, well, you know, we need to start locking more people up. And we’ll be anti-incarceration for robbery if it’s not a gun involved. But if it’s a gun involved then you gotta go to jail. And then God forbid you commit a sex offense, then you need to go to prison forever. You know what I mean? And if you murder somebody . . . you know, it’s funny. Some people will act as if like—I don’t know, it’s weird, it’s a complicated, difficult conversation that we gotta figure out how to have on a local and national level. And one in which people could actually be wrong in public and not feel like being wrong in public means that they’re gonna get chastised and rejected by their friends.

It’s so funny. Like these two white dudes yesterday said they were disappointed in me, in something I said. I was like who the f**k is you to be disappointed in me? We don’t even know each other. Like because you disagree with something I say you want to publicly say you disappointed in me? Like get the f**k outta here. And the only reason that that is a part of the conversation that we’re having about justice is because everybody wants to be a zealot, and nobody wants to be confused, and nobody wants to be conflicted. But the heart of art, right, I think is confronting that confusion and confronting the way that you’re conflicted.

I got friends that’s like, “I killed somebody when I was a teenager. And yeah, I been locked up for twenty years. But the man I murdered is still dead.” And it’s like they come at it with a more conflicted, complicated emotional landscape than a lot of us do. And it’s disappointing. I often believe that we don’t take it seriously. And I think that the writing of literature forces us always to take these things seriously. So that’s why I’m glad I’m a poet.

AMY WOOLARD: I’m glad you’re a poet too. I mean what you’re talking about, it’s a kind of nimbyism, right, but for criminal justice reform. People like to be able to say they’re abolitionist until something hits their lives in a personal way. And then different lines get drawn.

DWAYNE BETTS: Somebody asked a question, they said, “One third of Americans are living in an alternate reality and won’t believe facts about COVID, about the election, about the attempted coup.” Like one third is a lot of people. Do we really think one third of the people are living in an alternate reality? I mean I think it’s a way in which we frame questions and we try to start a conversation that immediately begins by belittling the people who disagree with us. It is not one third of the people in the country. First of all, it’s not even a way to actually accurately measure that. What poll was developed to fact check that point?

So I think it’s frightening. We can’t even confront lies when the only way that we can have a conversation is by immediately trying to debase the person that believes other than we do. The reason why the whole idea of alternative facts I think gained so much traction is because we have studied and practiced how to lie to each other in public. We have no give. It’s like we condemn people who think differently from us with alacrity. And we pretend that it was different.

In 1996, nobody thought prison was a problem. And by nobody I mean like mostly nobody. The ACLU wrote me and they was like, “This is not our issue.” When I say, “Listen, my homeboy got fifty-three years, and he didn’t commit a rape, he didn’t commit a murder, he didn’t even commit a robbery. Nobody got hurt in this crime he allegedly did.” It was an alleged attempt at capital murder where the gun was never fired and no bullet emitted from the gun. We wrote the ACLU. The ACLU wrote us back, “This is not our issue.” Form letter. 1998. Never forget it. People want to convince me now that it was the social justice movement that was always jumping, and that’s just a lie. And those are the same folks sometimes who will spit out the harsh critique of people who disagree with them. Not even critique. That’s fine. It’s the harsh condemnation of people who disagree with them.

AMY WOOLARD: We have a short memory now. I mean even now in session in Virginia there are legislators who are standing up and making passionate speeches to repeal laws that they themselves voted for twenty years earlier or put into play twenty years earlier. I just see that playing out every day, and it’s just so interesting to me. 

DWAYNE BETTS: And I think, though, if we were honest and say, you know, twenty years ago I made some decisions that now I think are absurd. 

AMY WOOLARD: Yes.

DWAYNE BETTS: Then we could create a body of knowledge that could live and be present five years from now when we turn another corner and we’re confronted with a lot of powerful people who could do more to bring harm to people’s lives.

AMY WOOLARD: Yeah. I want to get you to read a couple more poems, if you would. It really interested me that you have these poems “Parking Lot” and “Parking Lot, Too.” It goes with a lot of what we’re talking about of how things that seem different can be true at the same time, depending on the prism you look through. And so I’d really love for you to read those two, if you would.

DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah, sure. It’s a funny thing about one of them, but I’m gonna read it anyway.

AMY WOOLARD: Okay.

DWAYNE BETTS:

Parking Lot

A confession begins when I walk into a parking lot

Near empty, the darkness a kettle. The burner against

My skin cold like any story that ends this way.

The parking lot more of an opening than an opportunity.

The man was waiting for home, asleep in a car after

A working man’s day. Everything I know of home

Is captured by the image of a man running from 

The police, his arms flailing unlike any bird you’d expect

To fly. Walking into a parking lot begins a confession.

The burner is a key and afterwards there will be no home

To find. My boots echoed against the black of asphalt.

Hours before I flashed the pistol on their family, I kissed

My kid goodnight. I told a woman that I loved her.

But when has love ever been enough.

Parking Lot, Too

A confession began when I walked out of that parking lot.

A confession began when I walked Black out of that parking lot.

A confession began when I, without combing my hair, dressed

For a day that would find me walking out of that parking lot.

There is so much to be said of a Black man with unkempt hair:

He meets the description of the suspect; suspect is running.

I ran away from things far less frightening than the police.

A confession began when I robed myself in black. A confession

Began when I walked out of that parking lot wearing a black

Hoodie. Things get exponentially worse when a hoodie is pulled

Over my unkempt hair. A confession began when I walked

Out of that parking lot Black. A confession began when I walked

Out of that parking a Negro. A confession begins when 

That n**ga walked into the parking lot. A confession begins

When that n**ga and the pistol he carries like a d**k walked

Into that parking lot. A confession begins when everything you

See him doing is seen as sex. a confession begins when

That n**ga walked into a parking & drove away with everything

Belonging to a white man. A confession begins when

My mother laid up with a man the complexion of that boy’s

Father. A confession begins when my mother births a child

In a city close enough to make me and this boy almost related.

A confession begins when the police perceive us as one. We must 

Be one. He could not have walked in & driven out & I walked

In and walked out on the same night & whatever gaps in the story

& slight differences in the features of our faces just explains

The evidence that n**gers will lie. A confession begins even if

I didn’t have the f**king car. A confession begins, my confession

Began, with a woman stitching stars and stripes into a flag. 

AMY WOOLARD: Especially “Parking Lot, Too” really jumped out at me when I read your book in full. I think it makes me think, too, about how little people know about systems, court systems from the legal system. And what they want to believe versus what actually happens. You tell that story in two different poems in a couple of different ways and focus on the word confession. I would just love for you to talk about what do you want people to know about confession.

DWAYNE BETTS: I don’t know. Well I think it’s complicated, and it’s a couple of things. I would say, you know, for every person that’s falsely accused there’s somebody who committed the crime. That’s one thing. And then everything between that is what we kinda erase with the simplistic ways that we talk about some of these issues. I wrote it thinking specifically about somebody I know, this cat Rojai Fentress who did 23-odd years for a crime he didn’t commit. We were locked up together. And I remember when I was in law school he wrote me a letter, and he was like, “I ran into the dude that committed the crime I’m in here for.” And it was on something like Shawshank Redemption time where the dude was telling a story, and it just ended up being the story that he was locked up for. The guy didn’t even know that the person he shot died, because he just shot some drug addict who then sped off to the hospital. And he just figured he shot him in the leg or something and he lived. But he died. And my man was like, “It’s crazy, right?” 

This is one of the most profoundly unjust things I think about about our system. So we got this affidavit from the person that allegedly committed the crime. And I was in law school when I saw the affidavit, and I’d already been taught to think like a lawyer. So I was like, the indicia of reliability of this affidavit is quite low. ’Cause, you know, the cat had life, and it was like oh, you know. But then it’s like wait. Ain’t nobody in prison pining to take another life sentence just ’cause they got one. That ain’t how that s**t work. You know what I mean? No, it’s weight that comes with saying you committed a crime even you already doing life. People don’t just start confessing to everything because they already have life, right?

But in my own head I was like well if I get him a lawyer, and actually he gets a lawyer because of a journalist who actually says “Okay, we got this affidavit but what is the evidence?” And then a journalist does a long-form piece on him in which he just finds out so much, and the evidence of my man’s innocence is so overwhelming that then a lawyer takes the case. 

When I showed the affidavit to the lawyers, they was like, “The indicia is low. You know that, Dwayne. I mean you go to Yale Law School.” 

I’m like, “Yeah, I go to Yale Law School, but this is my man, and he said he didn’t do it.” 

“But the indicia law, you can’t allow your personal feelings to get in the way of the law.”

I mean it was like f***ked. But then this article comes out. And when I send the article to them, they like oh, oh yeah, we’ll take that case. The first hurdle is how do you get the information to prove your innocence, right? But then the second hurdle is they went back to court with all of this evidence, and habeas corpus after habeas petition got denied and denied and denied and denied, ’cause the truth ain’t matter. You know, what mattered was procedural rules. What matter is like everybody in the case was dead. The defense attorney was dead. The judge was dead. The crooked detective had committed suicide. Everybody was gone. The victim was dead. The one witness also had committed suicide. So it was like you’re the only one left; you can do the time. And the only reason he’s free is because of the governor and the governor’s team looked at the evidence. It was an extraordinary remedy, a pardon. 

But I think what I’m trying to get at with those confession pieces is that that is a world that exists. But also, you know, vis-à-vis who I am in the world, the first confession, the thing that I did that, like, haunts me, I hope that the reader reads that and thinks because of the proximity that I have to that narrative that even a person that’s guilty deserves a modicum, an expansive modicum of the possibility of mercy. I think that’s what those two poems are trying to get it, that it’s complicated, and it’s never one story.

AMY WOOLARD: I think one thing you just said is so interesting to me, especially about poetry coming together with law. In this case you said truth don’t matter. And there are so many ways in law that the truth don’t matter. And in poetry, everyone talks about truth is almost the only thing that matters in one way or another. And to have those worlds collide like that I just think really comes out so strongly in Felon. And I really appreciate that quality about it.

We have a couple of questions in the Q&A that I’m gonna kinda combine that are coming from teachers who work in either correction education or in prison initiatives around the country. They want to know what should we do, what can we do, how can we empower our students? What should be next around this?

DWAYNE BETTS: I live in a world where I usually don’t ask people for anything. I meant that’s the worst part about prison is it kinda teaches you not to ask people for things. Although people in prison gave me a lot in terms of calling me poet, calling me lawyer, calling me teacher, professor, s**t like that. But I typically don’t ask people for things, but I’ll make an ask now.

I started this project; it’s called the Million Book Project. Our website that’ll launch this week is an amazing website, but you could go to the landing page now, millionbookproject.org. what we do is we send literature into prisons. We are curating a 500-book freedom library, and the books range from, you know, Jane Austen to John Edgar Wideman. They have some graphic novels to Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jack Gilbert. And also some history books, you know, Jill Lepore, other folks. But it’s shaking out to be a fantastic collection, but I won’t tell you the titles yet ’cause it’s not gonna be revealed until—you know, check out the website. It has a countdown for when it’ll be revealed.

But what I would say is—you know, it was two questions. There’s one, do people read my work? Well, yeah, people read my work. But my work is hardback, and it’s f**ked up because it’s hardback. You can’t get hardback books into a lot of prisons. So what I did was I got together with some folks, and I created a freedom edition of Felon. And I’ve been sending this in hundreds of copies at a time to people in prison all over the country. And I did that because I had dedicated this book my guys in prison who when I wrote this they were locked up. And now, sadly, one of them came home in May and died in December. But, you know, some of the other guys are out, and some of the other guys are waiting on answers from the parole board. 

So yeah, in some ways this is like . . . it’s crazy. For two of them, for Rojai and my man, uh, Christopher, February 7, like a year ago today, I was in Virginia talking to the parole board presenting their case. Then Chris got out in May, and he died in December. Rojai got out—he got the pardon—on July 3rd. Anyway, I sent it in to a bunch of people. Sent thousands of copies in, so that’s one thing I do.

But then with the Million Book Project, you know, we got all of these literary ambassadors, and they go in with their books. And so we’ve sent in so far 5,000 books. We sent in nearly a thousand copies of a Jason Reynolds book. We sent in Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, and it’s just a fantastic novel that deeply and richly engages with all of these questions that we’re asking right now in the most profoundest of ways. So we sent out hundreds of copies of that. We sent in Jacqueline Woodson, we sent in Heavy, we sent in Randall Horton. I mean we have been seeding sorta book circles already in preparing folks to get the freedom library. And the freedom library will come with 500 books, the collection that’s curated. But it’ll come with a bookshelf, because prisons are stark, grimy, dark places. And so we want to bring these books into the spaces where people live so that they can reach out and touch the books in the same way that I just reached out and grabbed this book.

So that’s what I’m doing, and I think that tries to answer both of those questions. And when people say what can they do, I mean you could go to the website, and you could check it out. The full website will be live probably on Friday. It gives you a lotta information about what the project is. It gives you different ways to donate. You could fund, you know, twenty copies. You could fund a book circle which is 20 to 100 copies of a given book going to prisons all across the country. Or you could just give a dollar, give two dollars, give five dollars. The project is funded by the Mellon Foundation, so even if you give nothing we straight, it’s gonna happen. But sometimes people want to be able to do something, and so that’s one thing that you can do. 

Our project, 80 percent of the resources go to providing a material good for people in prison. That material good is literature, because I feel like it transformed my life. I believe in it. So I would say check out the Million Book Project. And yes, we are in conversation with all of the organizations inside, all of the education programs. I mean not all of them but, you know, we are in conversation with a lot of them. And we are working to be in conversation with all of them because we want all of them to have access to a freedom library in their housing units. 

And I know we’re over time, but the last thing I want to make sure I say is that this freedom library isn’t even just for the prisoners, the men and women and children in prison. We’re also making sure that we provide one at every institution where we put them at for the correctional officers, for the staff. This is not a f**king antagonistic us-versus-them situation. My man been locked up for twenty years, and his brother is a CO. And this is kinda one of the things that frustrates me. We act as if the people who work in prisons don’t live in the same world that we live in. As if like you got these young folks. Especially people that’s elite with these law degrees and s**t. They always acting like they righteous, as if like folks are young, pining away hoping to be a correctional officer when they grow up. You know, correctional officers got high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and everything else. And if we don’t bring dignity to their lives, then how are we going to expect to bring dignity to the lives of people in prison? So I think for that reason the Million Book Project is not just a project for those who are incarcerated; it’s a project for everybody who has been touched and ruined by what prison does to people. Prison ruins people.

So, I’m so sorry for the rant y’all. You know, some of y’all probably ain’t even watching anyway, but my apologies.

AMY WOOLARD: Thank you. If you need help with Virginia prisons, you’ve got my email. So get in touch.

I knew this was gonna happen, though. I feel like we could talk all day for weeks on a lot of this stuff. But I want just to share. You wrote this amazing note for the Yale Law Review on some of your experiences. And there’s a line in there that I feel like your work really puts to the forefront and embodies. And you said, “All around us there are men and women made invisible, their spirits wiped out by policies that we don’t notice.” And I just thank you for your work, and for saying that, and for dedicating so much of yourself to pushing back on that. I thank you for your time today. And thank you for our large audience who have been watching. 

It’s time for us to wrap things up. Please consider buying Felon from your local bookseller. Please consider going to the Million Book Project and helping out with that. You can also check out future Shelf Life events from the Virginia Festival of the Book taking place every Thursday at noon. And you can learn more at vabook.org.

So thank you to Virginia Festival of the Book. Dwayne, thank you so much for talking with me today, and let’s keep talking.

DWAYNE BETTS: My pleasure, and thank you folks for listening. Take care.

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