To my mind, Reginald Dwayne Betts is a supernova. Betts and I come from the same town and generation, so I can say with confidence his range of experiences and accomplishments outshines that of many of our peers. Even better, Betts is a genuinely kind guy. He and I have never met in person, but he's always been tremendously generous with his work, submitting new poems to Muzzle when I asked some months back, and sharing examples of his critical work to help me conceptualize my degree essay. When I asked Betts to send a few poems for this spotlight, he sent his new manuscript in its entirety.
I was a big fan of Shahid Reads His Own Palm when I read it some years ago, and it was a pleasure to see in which ways Betts' work has grown, and which aspects of his voice have stayed constant. Betts is still a master of innovative, obsessive structure, both within a single poem and within a larger manuscript. In his newer work, he seems to be working more with nonces (invented structures), instead of received forms such as the ghazal, for example, that murmured throughout Shahid. Betts' voice is still richly lyrical, still resonant with struggle and darkness, and still weaves “high” and “low” cultural references into a remarkably seamless and exciting voice. It's nice to know that all the success Betts has achieved hasn't made him complacent, not for a moment.
Below is a section from one of Betts' longer poems. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming collection of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era; it's already looking fantastic.
“Our Hero Meets Black In the Belly of a Caravan” (from “Excerpt from Southhampton, Virginia”)
This voyage leaves our hero dead said Black,
so named by wit of youth who mocked his skin,
a wonder bread vanilla toasted hue
that begged for moniker, for slang to say
he wore the veil, like us, despite his eyes
near blue. I kept saying I didn’t know why
I killed the dude, kept saying I felt threatened,
but they ain’t know Monte, ain’t know about
the threats of crazy niggas. I ran out
with rain like fists pounding everyone and fear
had me. They say I was a fucking fool,
the pistol smoking, Monte’s blood and rain
water washing over my sneaks. That’s what
Black says, when someone asks him who will die,
asks who the hero is. But we all dead
already, lost and this a voyage from
death to death, from godforsaken cell
to godforsaken cell and I can’t stop
thinking about before I owned these cuffs.
You remember Raising Hell? This my way
admitting fear to the men with me, to say
I’m drowning, too. And rope is memories, but
this van bends corners, slams on brakes and keeps
me worrying today; and, six of ten
of us are bastards of the eighties who
have never heard Run rhyme. We are, again,
close mouthed and staring dawn down. My eyes shut,
and damned if sleep doesn’t leave me, again,
explaining cuffs to closed eyelids.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two young sons. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Mr. Betts to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. An award-winning writer and poet, Mr. Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. In 2010 he was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to complete The Circumference of a Prison, a work of nonfiction exploring the criminal justice system. In addition, Mr. Betts is the author of a collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. In addition to his writing, Mr. Betts is involved in a number of non-profit organizations, including the Campaign for Youth Justice for which he serves as a national spokesperson. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland and was recently a Radcliffe Fellow to Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies.