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Spring/Summer 2023, Topic of the Quarter

“The Works of Poet Lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts” by Jonathan Watson

In honor of April’s National Poetry Month, this posting will focus on activist, playwright, performer and self-described “lawyer poet” Reginald Dwayne Betts. Maryland-native Betts was a high school honor student when—at the age of 16—he was tried as an adult for participating in a carjacking (Lim, 2022). It was during his nine-year incarceration that Betts began reading and writing poetry.

In “Finding Freedom In Words: Lawyer Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts Receives MacArthur Fellowship” (Mosely & McMahon, 2021), Betts mentions how he was influenced by poets Etheridge Knight and Lucille Clifton. In a 2016 PBS News Hour segment, Betts shared how poetry “…was my idea of how to be somebody. Being a poet…gave me something to pursue, and I could easily tell when I was doing it right by people’s response.” You might view the following lines from his poem “A Postmodern Two-Step” as a peek into his thoughts while imprisoned:

Some people say prison is the country

where life is cheaper than anywhere else;

you wouldn’t think that watching us take leave,

our caravan three deep and black against

the wine-dark asphalt, and two of three

are nothing but escorts: four uniformed

shotguns (off safety) leading and flanking

our coffle, all intent to keep us here…

After serving his time, Betts attended Prince George’s Community College. He earned his B.A. degree in English from the University of Maryland, MFA from Warren Wilson College, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Yale Law School. In 2021, Betts began working on his PhD in Law at Yale University (Maryland Today, 2021). His other accomplishments include serving as a member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and having founded Freedom Reads (an organization devoted to providing access to literature in prisons).

In 2023, Betts and artist Titus Kaphar released the book Redaction. As described by Griffiths (2019), the work started off as an exhibition and “…draws on source material from lawsuits filed on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees”. On “All Things Considered” (NPR; 2023), Betts hoped that “…when you read the poems and when you look at the images, you see that it runs the gamut…of the American experience in America.” Fellow interviewee Kaphar expressed how “…as artists, we can somehow get people to feel, that’s a powerful gesture in itself…”

Solano County Library carries Betts’ poetry collection Felon at Solano County Library. You can request a copy of Redaction via the LINK+ system. LINK+ also allows you to request other Betts titles such as his memoir A Question of Freedom. Be sure to also visit his Poetry Foundation profile to read more of his poetical works. You might also check out Betts’ interview with the Library Journal (January 2023).

This blog posting is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. Please consult with a legal expert for the best guidance.

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