The Power of Poetry to Change a Life

Social Justice

Award-winning poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts on the intersection of politics and prose.

Reginald Dwayne Betts found poetry while in prison.

At 16, Betts was sentenced as an adult to nine years in prison for carjacking. Early into his sentence, a book appeared under his cell door: The Black Poets, an anthology of African American poetry. "That book just opened my whole world to black poetry,” Betts says. He read Sonia Sanchez, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka. And while he never found out who slid the book under his cell door, he understood almost instantly that it was a life-changing moment; that he was destined to become a poet himself.

Today, Betts is the author of two remarkable collections, Shahid Reads His Own Palm and Bastards of the Reagan Era, as well as an award-winning memoir, A Question of Freedom. His poetry explores his experiences in prison, the broader issue of mass incarceration in America, and the tolls that our criminal justice system takes on the souls of black men in this country. Later this year, he will publish a new collection of poetry, Felon, which will examine the ways prison shapes the identities of all who have been incarcerated long after they are released.

Currently an Emerson Fellow through New America, Betts spoke to Patrick D'Arcy, Emerson Collective’s Director of Fellowships and Portfolio Communications, about the role that poetry has played in his own life and its power to effect change off the page.

Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Patrick D'Arcy: You’ve been writing poetry for more than a decade. What was your first exposure to it?

Reginald Dwayne Betts: It wasn't until prison that I really started taking poetry seriously. I had already decided to be a writer, but I sort of decided to be a writer in a way that young people decide to be anything: I didn’t have a real notion of what that was yet, I just knew I had a desire to do it. But in prison, that's when I decided I'm going to be a poet, and started actively chasing poetry and just writing.

Who were the poets you read while in prison that made the biggest impression on you?

Lucille Clifton had a huge impact on me. Her work is amazing and it's been something that I've gone back to for years. Etheridge Knight, in particular, because he had spent time in prison. I didn't know that until I started reading his work, but he sort of became a poet in prison, and the fact that I was reading his work in a book in prison made me think that like, "OK, I'm going to be a poet."

To me, law and poetry connect because I'm always grappling with how to reconcile the pain and harm that humans do to each other.

Reginald Dwayne Betts

How do you reconcile being both a lawyer and a poet?

I had been doing criminal justice work for a very long time and I felt like having a law degree would allow me to participate in the conversation in a different way. And if I was going to be somebody doing this kind of work and unemployed, I thought I'd rather be an unemployed attorney than an unemployed poet. But to me, law and poetry connect because I'm always grappling with how to reconcile the pain and harm that humans do to each other. That's what a lot of my writing is about: how to be in the world.

What do you see as the role of poetry in America today?

That's a hard question. It's not like in some other countries, where poetry is a far more vibrant part of the culture—where poets even get murdered and locked up for their words. But in the United States, I still think poetry is an integral part of our national discussion, from music to the best passages in any article you read; it’s commonly understood that they rise to the level of poetry. So we recognize the importance and significance of poetry, but we just might not recognize the importance and significance of poets in the same way. Maybe poets aren’t as willing to get into the center of national discussions.

Why do you think poetry is such a special and important art form?

Part of what you can do in poetry that you can't do in nonfiction is lie. When I'm writing nonfiction, I only give you my life. I can only tell you what happened. I can't make things up. But when I'm writing poetry, I can. I can become vulnerable in different ways. I'm able to say that, "I am not one or 100 things" in the same way that Elizabeth Alexander says, "Black people are not one or ten or ten thousand things." That's what Felon really is. The “I” in this book is the accumulation of the narratives of hundreds of people. It’s the accumulation of narratives of different men who have struggled post-incarceration in different ways. It's about what many of us go through when we get out.

Do you see your poetry as a vehicle for driving conversation around incarceration?

I think poetry is something that's needed and valuable to push this conversation about criminal justice reform, and about how we treat other, and about what it means to be alive in America today. But it’s also beautiful. And that’s how the poem is different from the polemic. The poem can add something valuable to the conversation about what justice should and might look like, while also just moving you in an ineffable way. I didn’t become a poet to change the world, but to try to do what those poets—Clifton, Hayden, Agha Shahid, and others—did for me: Bring me closer to myself.

Learn more about Betts’ work in this New York Times Magazine essay.