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Dec 11, 2015

A broken epic for the black community: Interview with Dwayne Betts

by Elizabeth Hoover | Photo by University Marketing

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era “fierce, lyrical, and unsparing.” Catching the eye of this famous critic is an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s even more impressive given that just over ten years ago Betts was sitting in a prison cell.

Reginald Dwayne Betts reading at JMU in 2015

In 1997 Betts, a 16-year-old honors student, was tried and sentenced as an adult for carjacking. He was in solitary confinement when another prisoner passed along a book: Dudley Randall’s seminal anthology The Black Poets.

“I read all these black poets and saw they were engaged in the world,” Betts told the Chicago Tribune. “I liked the immediacy of it, the urgency of the language. At that point, I said that’s what I want to do.”

After his release he attended Prince George’s Community College and the University of Maryland. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson College and is now pursuing a law degree at Yale University.

His first book of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, received the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books. He has also published a memoir, A Question of Freedom.

Released in 2015, Bastards of the Reagan Era takes on some of the same issues as his first two books: the effect of incarceration on the psyche and the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. However, Bastards of the Reagan Era is larger in its historical sweep. It encompasses three generations—Betts’ father’s, his own, and the generation born in the decade after him—and explores how their lives and their communities have been shaped by the war on drugs. It is not only about the ruin visited on these communities, but also about survival and resilience.

In this three-part interview with The Fight & the Fiddle’s editor Elizabeth Hoover, Betts discusses his education as a poet, his stance on form, and the differences between writing nonfiction and poetry.

Inspiration vs. Desperation | Betts describes how he came to write Bastards of the Reagan Era, its relationship to form, and how this book is a broken epic about the black community.

The Problem with Redemption Stories  | Betts talks about his work in nonfiction including his current project called Circumference of a Prison, which examines the effects of incarceration on individuals after they leave prison.

All Lies Are True | Betts discusses his ethical considerations when writing memoir, his literary education in prison, and love of Robert Hayden.