No introduction to Dwayne Betts LAW ’16 can cut it, really — you need to read his memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.” After being arrested for carjacking at age 16, Betts spent eight years in prison, where he began reading and writing poetry. Since then, Betts has worked at bookstores, started reading clubs for African-American boys and is currently in his third year at Yale Law School. In addition to his memoir, he has published two books of poetry. WKND sat down with Betts last Tuesday to talk about people, places and what poetry might be reaching for.
Q: What’s your favorite word?
A: Aberration. It reminds me of how things are typically not what we might expect, and that if you always allow for the possibility that reality isn’t the rule, then 1) you can probably have a little bit more hope, and 2) you can probably have a little bit less bias.
I remember when I learned it. It was probably the first word that made me think differently about my life and how I frame it. This is like when I was 16 and I was in trouble, and somebody said that I should look at what happened to me as an aberration — not the incarceration and prison, but my own behavior. It stuck with me. And it gave me something to hold on to.
Q: How about a favorite legal term?
A: Res judicata. It means “the thing decided.” Which is so funny, because it’s such the opposite of aberration. I did a one-day fundraiser and started a pop-up bookstore, me and two classmates, and we named it “res judicata.” I thought it would be cool to name a pop-up bookstore that, because the thing that has already been decided is that literature is important.
Q: Have you tried incorporating legal language into your poetry?
A: Not as much as I might. I have before — or maybe not legal jargon as much as talked-about legal ideas. Sentencing and culpability, things like that. It is a distinct language, and a technical language, but some of it sounds good because it’s Latin. Some of it has meaning, like res judicata, that won’t come up in a different way. Imagine, you could write a love poem called “res judicata” and it would be pretty cool — yeah, actually I’m going to do that. Imagine if love was a thing decided, especially when you think about how love … You gave me an idea for a poem.
Q: Why law school?
A: Sometimes a bunch of decisions just [leads] you to a place, and I had a bunch of decisions from my own crime to my own fascination with trying to understand the law and thinking of the law as the language of power. But also love of old-school, Perry Mason TV shows. Madlock. Mystery novels, always reading mystery novels. I always did — still do, really — think of a lawyer as someone out to solve mysteries. Even if the mystery is just how to figure out a legal problem. I like to talk, too. Being a lawyer is a way to be both the center of attention and not the center of attention. It allows you to do the work that’s important and that places your voice at a premium, while at the same time doing it for someone else.
It’s like being a poet, in a weird way — the close attention to detail, the obsession over language, craft, rules. I write a lot of formal poems that have rules and help me think in different ways.
Q: I’ve read that you taught poetry in D.C. — what advice did you most want to impart on your students?
A: Read widely. One of the problems with the lack of diversity in literature, and the lack of diversity in books that people are taught, is that most young writers get exposed to literature and to their models through school. As a black writer, I’ve got to know Frost — I’m in institutions where if you don’t know Frost, you don’t know Shakespeare, you don’t know Milton, it’s a red flag. As a black writer, I also have to know Sonia Sanchez. I have to know Etheridge Knight. Lucille Clifton. Elizabeth Alexander. Agha Shahid Ali. Kazim Ali. Pablo Neruda. I have to have more of an expansive view of the world of literature, both contemporary and older writers. Piece of advice is to read widely, and to not let your reading be controlled or necessarily even dictated by the institution where you go to school.
Q: I read this on the Internet, so you can tell me if it’s false, but you taught yourself Spanish for “a new way to see the world”? What ways has Spanish done this for you?
A: I did, though I can’t really speak in subjunctive and have a fourth-grade vocabulary. But I used to study five hours a day, and I had this textbook that was all in Spanish. I had to use the Spanish-English dictionary just to understand the directions for any given exercise. And then because I thought I could lose the book at any given time, I wrote the whole book out by hand. Which gave me just another opportunity to think about the words and meanings of the words.
It helped me see the world in a different way because it forced me to relate to what it meant to really be ignorant, or illiterate. You forget that there are actually people who are illiterate and what that means. So that was one way. Another way is something simple as how saying “te quiero” is both “I love you” and “I want you.”
Q: Do you see poetry as an agent for social change?
A: I think poetry can be an agent for making us more aware. Poetry has an obligation to do something with the world that wasn’t done with it before that poem was written. I just imagine what it would be like if poetry was one of those required classes growing up, and you just constantly had to memorize poems. Think about it: It’s like music, the way we carry songs around in our head. Poems help you reach for something that’s not obvious. Martin Espada. His new book is called “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.” It’s like, you have all these public defenders all over the country who lose all the time, representing clients who end up getting 20 or 30-year sentences — that Espada book made me think about that in a way I realized I hadn’t.
Q: Do you have a poem of yours that you most like to share at readings?
A: I’ve been doing a lot of readings lately and it’s been a challenge, because I have to ask myself, “Is the book really good if you read the same three or four poems?” I bounce around now. Etheridge Knight said a poem’s really published when you read it aloud. But there are poems I like. The title poem, “Bastards of the Reagan Era.” I don’t get to read that a lot because it’s so long, and I usually just read sections of it. And then it becomes like an old friend; I find myself reading a section I haven’t read in a while and I think, I actually like this.
That’s the good thing about doing public readings. I get to be reminded of that. If you don’t like the stuff you do, you shouldn’t do it. At some point everything becomes work, and we don’t get to take really random joy in this thing that you spent so long producing.
And the challenge is, how do you make it less work?
Q: Do you remember the first time you did a reading?
A: I do. I was so bad. It was at this bookstore called Sankofa in D.C., right across the street from Howard University. I have no idea what I read, but I remember being so nervous that my heart was jumping out of my chest. It was a nice feeling though. It’s easy to forget that — you get the opportunity to read at a bunch of places in front of different audiences, and you forget it actually is a privilege whenever someone says they want to hear what you’ve written, what it is you have to say.
I actually remember reading before that in prison, but that was the first one that wasn’t in prison.
Q: What was it like when you shared in prison?
A: It was at an event, and I shared a poem. I thought the poem was okay, but it was still nerve-wracking. It wasn’t the same kind of nerve-wracking, though. I don’t know why — all kinds of reasons, maybe. There was more than one person reading. And I remember people responded to one of the other poems — the other guy had a poem that was better … No, it wasn’t … I know this guy, I remember him. I haven’t thought about him in years. He has a life sentence. Which is really hard. But his poem was better than mine.
Q: Do you remember where you were when your first poem was published?
A: I was in prison, and I got a letter. I remember opening it and running around the block and jumping up and down. And buying so many copies. It was called “A Different Route,” published in Poet Lore. It’s so interesting because the poem is about a father who has two children, and he’s visiting his old neighborhood, which was my old neighborhood, and he’s searching for the thing in his children that is missing in their eyes. I didn’t have children then, and I think that’s one way poetry allows you to think about worlds that are adjacent to the ones that you live in now. This idea of loss, and this idea [of] being in prison, thinking about what it would mean for somebody to have children and feel that they’ve lost so much that they have to go back home to try to find that thing … But I was happy about the acceptance. I bought so many copies.
Q: Do you find yourself reading poems you wrote a long time ago? What goes through your head? I guess it depends on the poem …
A: Yeah, it depends on the poem, but sometimes it’s just the poem is an artifact. I used to work at the prison kitchen, I used to be house man — the equivalent of a janitor in prison — and I would write on the back of my monthly pay stubs. I’d be getting paid $24 a week. And that work, I would usually buy books with it, and then I would be writing poems on the back …
Sometimes, I look at those older poems, and I’m just humbled that out of that came this. And I guess I’m appreciative of how tenacious, and maybe unwavering — how foolish I was. You can’t predict these things, right? The thing is, if you don’t do something — whether it’s poetry, or whatever — you end up not doing something else. But it’s so easy not to do something. So when I look at those early poems, most of them are bad. But I believe the writing of them was something important.
Q: Are you a writer that revises a lot?
A: The real fun is in revision. To see that you’ve said something wrong, and be like “Wait, that’s not true.” It exposes you in a way that a lot of other things we do don’t necessarily expose us. There is at least some approximation of a right answer, and you could write a poem about anything and just be like “I missed it.”
You can be writing about anything — love, politics, children, power, Yale Law School — you write this stuff, and suddenly you think, I was wrong about a lot of what I said. I think it’s nice to be able to go back and get it right. Because when you talk, you can’t. You can apologize, but it’s already out in the air, you’ve said it, and depending on where you’ve said it, people will hold you to that forever. But a poem, at least you have an opportunity to keep going back, keep checking yourself, imagining that there is one right thing to say.