“Crime is…a product of proximity”: An Interview with Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts is an acclaimed poet, memoirist, and attorney residing in Connecticut. He is also formerly incarcerated; he served eight years in prison for a carjacking he committed as a teen. His latest book of poetry, Felon, is a deeply humanizing portrait of the lingering impact the criminal justice system has on a person’s life. Betts also partnered with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on the Million Book Project, an initiative to distribute a curated 500-book collection to 1,000 prisons across the U.S.

Amanda Knox 

What experiences in your life led you to where you’re at today?

Dwayne Betts

That’s an interesting question because if you can ask the same question to a person a dozen times, each time they might have a different answer. I think that’s definitely true for me. I would say, I remember as a kid, I was going to my mom’s closet to find something, probably a Christmas gift or something I had no business getting access to early. 

Amanda Knox 

Been there.

Dwayne Betts

Yeah. And a book dropped out of the closet and it was called Illusions by Richard Bach. And this was one of those New Age texts that was really a story about this guy who was a messiah, and people kept coming up to him to answer their questions and to solve their problems, and he got tired of it. He just became a mechanic and he worked on biplanes and he flew planes. What I really found fascinating about the text is that the book was really a story about what it meant to resist the idea that one person has the answers. It was trying to empower you to think about how you could provide yourself with answers. And I don’t know, man, I just believed it. It’s probably one of those traps, though, that is really about worshiping gritty self-determination. And that’s probably not true at all, because I was getting sentenced, and my judge’s name is Bach, and I thought this is a signal and I can make this become what I wanted. Illusions had talked about how you could imagine things in your mind and make them come to reality, and so I was imagining my freedom, and I thought I had this conduit, which was this guy named Bach. He sent me to prison, so obviously, that wasn’t true. But it was the first book that I was just utterly fascinated about. It was like an adult book that seemed to say something about the world, true or not. And then I go to prison, and I got this book in my head, mainly because I thought this guy would set me free. And I was reading other books that were along that, Jonathan Seagull, and these books in the same category. And I once had a guard at juvie who saw me reading at night. He’s like, “You got to put this stuff up. You can’t be reading at night.” And when I gave him the book to put away, he recognized the author and was like, “You read this?” I was like, “Yeah.” Now, mind you, this is not a deeply revered or respected intellectual book, and it was written in the ‘70s. He’s like, “Maybe you could keep reading,” because he was digging these authors, too. And I remember I get to one page, and I open it, and like a dozen four leaf clovers fall out, because my aunt found four leaf clovers all the time, and she would put them in books, and I still do the same thing to this day. A dozen four leaf clovers fell out, and I’m in this prison cell picking up four leaf clovers. And so those two things connect, because I’m still believing in this notion that you could make things in the world happen. But then I get to prison. A lot of people imagine that prison is a place where you have to survive through a kind of gritty self-determination, but prison allowed me to revise that. Maybe the reason why you don’t need a messiah isn’t because you could do everything on your own, but because you’re willing to engage with other people to do these things that you need to do. I spent a lot of time collaborating with people in prison when I was a juvie tutor, when I was a law clerk, I was a librarian, and that just really helped me transform my life. So that leads me to this moment today―poet, memoirist, all of these things―I think it’s that more than anything else.

Amanda Knox  

I also went into prison with a poetic leaning. The first thing I did was ask for a piece of paper and a pencil so that I could write down what I was experiencing. I was processing what was happening to me, which I didn’t understand. And I was wondering if I could talk to you about how you developed your own poetic voice in the prison environment?

Dwayne Betts 

It was a desire to be attentive to the world. And it’s like survival. People always think you’ve got to have empathy to write about certain things. The thing about Flannery O’Connor is that it has nothing to do with empathy. It has to do with her keen ability to pay attention. What do you see? And how do you see it? For me to survive in prison was figuring out to see a sufficient amount of the world that I was in, not to be buried.

Amanda Knox  

What you’re talking about really reminds me of the daily struggle of needing to be vigilant and present to what is happening around you. You’re not in control of your moments in the way that you are in the outside world. I spent most of my time in prison with earplugs in my ears reading books, so I felt like I was constantly drifting between being hyper vigilant and being totally checked out. Was it different for you? 

Dwayne Betts

I read all the time, but I learned to operate. I’m about to spin a story about how I cultivated the ability to work within chaos because I thought it would make me a better human being, but it’s all bullshit. The truth is, we didn’t have earplugs. It’s not that I was hypervigilant about survival, so to speak. I was just hyper vigilant about seeing a world where I was and I didn’t always do a great job of translating it. I didn’t always do a great job of recognizing anything about it. But it became ingrained in the way that I operated as a human being. I don’t want to downplay the need to be vigilant in prison, but I want to say that the thing that cultivated my skill as a writer was something else. It was just that prison, it was such an unknown world that it encouraged and mandated that I noticed things that I otherwise wouldn’t have. 

Amanda Knox  

What experiences and people and works of art were your touchstones through the process of developing yourself in that place?

Dwayne Betts 

One is the cultivation of the ability to work within chaos. I think so much of the world is chaos. That’s important. And two, I don’t know, I looked forward to being anything. The world doesn’t expect much out of you. What you’re really doing is finding a way to turn your story into a hero story. Prison taught me that. You can start making decisions about who you want to be. Thinking about life is like a continuous process of learning something. I learned how to be a law clerk and write a habeas corpus petition. I learned to speak Spanish. I learned to hold the pencil or ink pen with the correct tripod. And at the time, I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that I was brushing up against my pinky all the time, the way I held the pen. And I remember I learned that because I broke my hand and actually was forced to learn it because I couldn’t write, I broke my pinky. In order to write with my pinky in a splint, I had to learn how to write where it was just a nice tripod, and the rest of my hand could be splayed out. And so what prison taught me was that you could break things down into pieces. That’s what I still do. I take on a big project and I break it down into pieces. And since I wasn’t expected to necessarily do anything, seeing others do things that they weren’t expected to do became a belief system almost, that you could figure it out.

Amanda Knox 

I wanted to talk to you about Felon. Can you tell me at what point in your life were you when you began writing it? And what did the process of writing it do to you? 

Dwayne Betts

Part of it was trying to connect. You know, art gets produced so quickly in the United States that sometimes it gets produced without the kind of germination period that allows you to make what you did as good as it can be. I was thinking about figuring out: how do you say something great? And not fancy great, because I wasn’t thinking, “How do you say something great?” That’s a fucking lie, actually. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I had a contract for a book, and I was thinking about how you write this book. And I couldn’t figure it out. And then I started really just capturing moments that I wanted to get at, you know? So usually books reflect on years and years past. I wanted to talk about violence, and I wanted to talk about the ways in which men and women inflict violence on each other. And I wanted to create a book that allowed me and anybody who read it to process different types of emotions, right? So I knew that. But I didn’t really know how. And then the writing would just be me triggered by something that’s going on in the world. I don’t know. You kind of get lost in it. 

Amanda Knox 

I think what I’m taking away from it is how it’s an ultimate act of re-humanization. Even just the title itself, people look at the word felon and they think, “I know everything I need to know.” And then you open the cover of the book and you have a whole world of love and loss and self-realization and self-recrimination, a deeply vulnerable and human experience that deconstructs that label that came before it. I wanted to know if that was a goal of yours in making this book, and if that’s one of the things that you’re hoping audiences take away from it.

Dwayne Betts 

I wanted to say that, like, labels tend to be fickle anyway. You know, someone said, “It’s really powerful that you wrote about black males.” Like, there’s like a few black men in the poems, but most of the people in that poem are white. And they’re like, “What do you mean?” I was like, “Look, none of them are raced. Let’s just turn to a page.” And I flip to the page and I was like, “In Alabama, the plaintiffs impoverished, jailed by the city, unable to pay traffic tickets, pay or sit in jail, $50 per day, plaintiffs unable to pay, each sent to jail so they could work off debts, $25 per day cleaning the city, scrubbing feces and blood from jail floors.” It’s like, why would you think that’s somebody black? It says “they.” Why do you think that it’s raced in that way? Then he was like, “Well, that’s different. Turn to something else.” I was like, “Alright, ‘Losing Her.’ When I was sweating, telling that woman my bad, sorry, please don’t go, I drank a world of whiskey. I couldn’t sing if I wanted. God was throwing dice against my skull. I had lied to her for more days than Jesus spent in the wilderness. They say he was in a desert, but I know the wilderness is worse. Ain’t no mirages in the wild. Whiskey flowing like gospel in my veins. I could hear her sit a shotgun by the door I once carried her through, singing real love. Before I started banging on her door, I called her house phone, dialed numbers from a decade before things went digital. I’ve been loving her so long, but she ain’t answer that number from back when our love was three-way phone calls and laughter and hands that then treat her body like a threat. Back then she loved me in a way she don’t now, and so I banged on that door as if I was the police, and I started weeping, and my body slumped, trying and failing to call her name.” I was like, “Dude ain’t black. It ain’t even a dude. It’s a woman writing about a woman.” Like, why the assumption? I get that the cover is four black men with their faces redacted, but that does not mean the composition of the book just reflects those lives, because the way that the criminal justice system seeks to erase us also seeks to erase people in its bowels besides black men. The book is trying to get at all of these narratives. They get at what it means to live in this world of suffering and love and the ways in which the system complicates all of that. Getting into all of that was challenging, in the sense that all of those stories don’t belong to me. And that is the very point of the project, to admit that I could care about something in this world that’s not just me. And I could write about pain in this world. It goes beyond what I’ve experienced, or what the people that I love have experienced, and I guess all of this to say that one struggle in writing a book was to figure out when I was doing that effectively. That person might not necessarily be a black person, although in some ways [it’s] very much the story of a black man. But it could be really so much more. 

Amanda Knox 

I’m wondering if you can talk to me about your thoughts on what kinds of narratives have been lost to mass incarceration. Do you see them finding voice now more than ever, or is there still a problem of narratives being lost to mass incarceration?

Dwayne Betts

I mean, it’s always a problem with narratives. I mean, shit. [When was] the last time you read a story about a miscarriage? The last time you read a story about domestic violence that really made you think about the lives of the people that was involved in it? There’s always a danger in a story to be lost, but that’s the world. I mean, there’s a million stories in the city, and although we might say that they all deserve to be heard, the reality is that it’s never gonna be room to hear all of them.

Amanda Knox 

Crime and punishment is largely a man’s game. I do think that there is something about a young man’s experience that maybe is not fully understood or valued. I’m thinking about previous interviews that you gave. I was really struck by a response that you gave to a very difficult question that someone gave you, which was, “Why did you commit this crime when you didn’t need to do it?” You said, “It was just in the realm of possibility.” What are your thoughts on how young men perceive the value of their lives and the consequences of their actions and what is within the realm of possibility for them?

Dwayne Betts

I was young at a different time period. I don’t know if I know what it means to be young today. So much more [is] available to young people now, more awareness of how the world just ain’t fair. I just didn’t have after school programs, writing programs when I was a kid. But no, I don’t think you could foreclose the proximity on the worst decisions that can be made. You could talk to young people more about the existence of it. The other point I probably didn’t make when the person asked me that question is, it’s not like poverty motivates crime. It’s not a one-to-one relationship between crime and poverty. And that’s why the realm of possibility actually matters more to me. Because absent motivations like food, clothing, and shelter, what leads people to crime is probably just as much a product of proximity as any other kind of delinquency. I don’t know. All of these things are challenging. What I would do is think about what exposure looks like and how do you expand opportunity for exposure. It’s not always worked. People just make bad decisions. I had a student once that murdered somebody and cut the body up and put it in a trash bag. It was crazy. It was a young woman. Her folks were taking her out of the program, and that was rough. I’m not saying that she did that shit because she was no longer in our program, but I feel like damn, I could have did something, except you don’t know. It was over some small amount of money, [but] the response was so outlandishly and criminally and repugnantly outsized that you can’t say that it was about money. You don’t know what it’s about. What would you do? You try to create more opportunities and spaces for young people, because we were all living in a world in which it was just a possibility. Maybe that’s why I get frustrated about some of the criminal justice reform conversations. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the norm, but it’s amongst the things that happen.

Amanda Knox 

Going back to your New Age ideas, how much does visualization and imagination impact whether or not someone chooses to make a very, very bad decision, like your student?

Dwayne Betts

One of the great things about literature is you’re constantly reading and getting to make a choice about who you want to be in that moment. I think the more you read, the more opportunities you have [to] go to the page and say, “This is who I’m going to be in a world.” I think one of the things I believe is that the more opportunities that a person has to go to the page and make those decisions about themselves, about who they want to be, they’re more likely to turn out in whatever way we believe people should turn out.

Amanda Knox  

You’ve teamed up with the Mellon Foundation and Elizabeth Alexander. Can you tell me more about that project, how you developed it, and what the current status of it is?

Dwayne Betts 

We put 2.3 million people in prison and jails and I was just thinking, “What would it be like to do something different?” Being a literary citizen in the world, I think it requires that you do a bit more. So this was my bit more. I met Elizabeth Alexander when I was 25. Young poet. She became a mentor, friend. And somebody asked me, “If I could be ambitious, what kind of thing would I do?” A lot of us write, a lot of us read, and if you’ve been in prison, you know [it] is really difficult to get reading materials, contemporary books. It’s really difficult to get just a lot of stuff. And people in the public, there’s no reason for us to be aware of how hard this shit is, right? And so much of criminal justice reform work is not about doing something substantive for the material experience of people in prison right now. To say that you’re doing something for them, it really does mean figuring out how to do something in the immediate. And at first it started with me just thinking about how to get people my book. If you wanted my book and you were locked up, you got to work a month in most prisons I’ve been in. So I was like, “Well, how do I get people my book? Can I make sure that somebody can get my book and not have to pay for it?” And then it just expanded. Just thinking about how do you create a blueprint for somebody to educate themselves? I didn’t read Foucault in prison. I was reading Camus and I was pronouncing it “Kay-muss,” ‘cause I never heard of that shit before. I didn’t know any of those things, right? And so we were thinking about what would it be to give somebody a sense of how to engage with the world through literature? And what would it be to give a template of a series of worlds that they might engage in? If you’re in prison, you could read 200 books a year. So I just came up with this idea of a million book project. If you put 2.3 million people in prison, how come you can’t put a million books in it? You’re not acting like this is the fucking elixir that solves everything, but people do time and they need to have something and somebody that says, “Your experience is valuable.” A book like mine is coming out with a print run of 2000, it ain’t making its way into a prison. I’m looking at a book right now, The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, ain’t nobody putting out this in the library. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Come on, that’s not gonna be in the prison library. Alice Goffman. I don’t even like that book, On the Run. Wrote a negative review of the book. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it should exist in a library. Tim Winton, The Shepherds Hut, I know that that’s not in the library. Flyboy in the Buttermilk by Greg Tate, ain’t no way in the world that’s in a prison library. That’s an amazing book. 

Amanda Knox 

The books that I saw were either self-help books or romance novels.

Dwayne Betts  

You could get the classics maybe. You could get some Morrison, but you ain’t gonna have all 10 volumes of August Wilson. You won’t have Agha Shahid Ali’s Call Me Ishmael Tonight. What would it mean to do something like this? And to be able to make a real honest argument that this will create mechanisms for people? I think it’s eminently possible, and that’s a part of the challenge that I’m doing right now. Let me ask you a question.

Amanda Knox

Go ahead. 

Dwayne Betts 

One, do you feel like you’re always talking about your incarceration, whether you’re saying it out loud or in your own head? And then two, if you are, I just wonder how you reckon with it?

Amanda Knox

Part of the reason why I talk about prison a lot is due to the fact that my work is examining the criminal justice system. As a consequence, I’m always bringing my own personal experience into it. But I also wouldn’t be doing this work if I wasn’t thinking about prison. When I came home, I didn’t want to think about prison. I went back to school, and when I was in poetry class, I consistently found myself writing in one way or another about prison, in spite of myself. I wasn’t there that long. I was in prison for four years.

Dwayne Betts 

Only somebody who’s been in prison would ever say something like that.

Amanda Knox

But it’s true! I was a baby prisoner. And just this surge of needing to process the imprisonment, because I didn’t understand how it had become a part of me. And that, for me, is why I keep thinking about prison. I’m still processing what it means to me to have lived through that experience. And particularly because it was so foreign to me. I never imagined that I would develop as a human being in that kind of environment. I was going to school to be a translator. That’s why I was in Italy in the first place.

Dwayne Betts 

But see, that’s the interesting thing about proximity. Because you were like, 20?

Amanda Knox

I was 20. 

Dwayne Betts

Where I grew up, I didn’t know anybody who’s like, “I wanted to be a translator.” The realm of possibility ― I do think this notion about proximity is really significant, because you find it in the small decisions that people make. You went to school to be a poet I think out of the same impetus for survival that I became a poet in prison. But a lot of people imagine being writers because of the proximity to writers that they had as children. So like my kid, his dad is a lawyer, a writer, his mom is an occupational therapist, his uncles are writers and business people. It is much easier for him to imagine himself with those clothes on. Whereas so many others came up in a quite different way. And I don’t know. I do appreciate the cauldron that formed me, because I made these decisions. And yet, I also don’t want to fetishize suffering, that the lack of comfort is what gave me dimension.

Amanda Knox 

I agree you don’t want to fetishize suffering. People ask me, “If you could have done something different and not gone through it, would you do it?” That’s a silly question, because I can’t. It just happened. And I went through it. And here I am. And it is a part of me now. I also wouldn’t wish it on someone else.

Dwayne Betts

Right? It’s like people want you to say, “If I could do it again, I’d definitely do it again.” No, no. Who’s your favorite rapper?

Amanda Knox

I’ve been on a J. Cole kick for a long time.

Dwayne Betts

He’s alright.

Amanda Knox

He’s alright?!

Dwayne Betts

He’s kind of shallow. A lot of these dudes are young conservatives and they preach a lot of bootstrap rhetoric. Like, “Get the fuck out of here.” On an intelligence front, I think that this is where most of these young emcees get exposed. We think about intelligence as a product of literature, and I don’t even believe that. I believe in the book because I believe in the book, but I also think that the book is a way in which we give ourselves fuel to push conversations. And sometimes, wise people are just wise. They tell stories. They didn’t need stories to come out of books or whatever, and Cole is a storyteller who I think is really skilled, but I think the new Run the Jewels album is an example of like two emcees that figured out how to really say something righteous and powerful in a moment. This story of a cat named Terence Johnson. He went to prison when he was a teen. Killed this cop. The story was that they had beat him up and then he took the cop’s gun and shot him. And then I think another cop came in, and he shot that cop, too, but he didn’t remember shooting the second cop, so it’s not clear what happened. But his point was that he was brutalized and him grabbing a gun was a response to that. He does like 15 years and comes home. A university wouldn’t let him in. Run the Jewels has this line that I think is really, really, really dope. He’s telling the story, he’s squaring off with the police, and he got a gun. He was like, “I got one bullet left, put it right to my head, and put the bullet in between the eyes. And don’t let them say it was a suicide. Because it would be a goddamn lie.” The song ends up imaginatively articulating this point about you could be in a situation in which police brutality and violence and everything you’ve suffered is so intense that even the act of taking your own life is not taking your own life. I don’t know if I agreed to the point, but when I heard him say it, I started thinking about Terrence Johnson in a way that I just hadn’t thought about him before. Terrance Johnson had robbed the bank with his brother. And then as they got squared off, he shot himself. I’m not condoning bank robbing, but I’m thinking about how much was lost in that moment. How the police treated him, what his time in prison meant. He came home and couldn’t get working, couldn’t build a life the way you want it. All of that was to say that I don’t think Cole ever has had that in him. A lot of the emcees that anybody might name, they’re superficial. But we could argue about rap forever, because I’m way too opinionated.

Amanda Knox

I often feel drawn to J. Cole because I’m also coming to rap as a woman, and I think he has some interesting things to say about his relationships with women. Women are not erased from his storytelling.

Dwayne Betts

That’s true. And there’s some stuff from him that I like. It’s like poetry. Emcees give you a chance to think through issues. Run the Jewels, that’s where their failure is, actually. I’m going to be straight up. They don’t actually have a space in their music that is tender or violent or loving or just acknowledging the presence of women, and actually, with Felon, that was what I was trying to do. I think that’s one of my struggles as a writer. I think I could probably get better, and I get it right more quickly as a nonfiction writer than as a poet. The urgency that drives me to write a poem is not as intellectual as the urgency that drives me to write an essay. When I’m writing the essays, it’s much easier to do that kind of contemplation and revision and thought, whereas a poem, that urgency just comes from an accumulation of moments that kind of box women out in a way that I found troubling, reviewing my first two books of poetry, but I think I do a better job in Felon.

Amanda Knox

I mean, it’s also admirable considering that, for a long time, you were denied relationships with women. I do not envy that. I think it’s probably harder. I mean, maybe it’s easier to be a woman isolated with other women than a man isolated with other men.

Dwayne Betts

I do feel like it’s something about the kind of violence that happens in male prison. I’ve met guys that got locked up who just have never had intimacy. I don’t know how you live with it. How do you navigate a world in which you never had intimacy? It’s one of those things, though, when we talk about incarceration, we don’t talk about nearly enough. And the ramifications for society. I think that’s real.