I’m so excited to introduce Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has joined PhillisRemastered as a regular guest blogger!
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.
“Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting”
The fourth of July weekend, 1997, found me bracing myself for cuffs once again. Already in prison I was headed for a cell all my own, a little spot in C Building to celebrate my lack of freedom. The reason I was going to the hole isn’t as important now as it was then, the invented assault on an officer charge then a way to demonstrate how little control I had over my own life and now a point of humor.
The only relevant part is that I ended up in that single cell on the bottom floor, in the summer time when the heat was so oppressive that men would strip naked and lay on the small plastic covered mattress with a cup or two of water poured over them. A makeshift cold bath. Nothing of the situation had me expecting my life would change, nothing of the situation expected me to find the one thing I’d get from prison and hold on to forever, as if it were some life line.
This was my second time in the hole, and I’d already learned that with a book I could deal with my cell door never opening. Quickly I learned that despite the library cart not coming to the hole there were hundreds of books back there. Books that were read and passed on, having either been brought back there by people who had time to think before they were hauled off to solitary, or snuck back there by guards and the housemen who worked those hallways, passing out our meals, cleaning showers and sweeping the hallways under the not so careful watch of the C/Os.
One day I stood at the steel grill of my cell door, and shouted down the hallway for a book, any book, to read. Moments later Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” was tossed under my cell. Up until this point I’d never heard of Robert Hayden, of Lucille Clifton, of Sonia Sanchez. I’d never heard of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and so many others. You were expected to read the books and pass them on–so I began copying poems long hand in a little blue folder. And this is how I became a poet.
This is also why when I think about poetry, when I hear people saying that poetry saved their lives, I imagine it to be true. What I learned when I came home is writing can exist in a superficial way in the lives of those who claim to love it, that it could be reduced to arguments that did little to advance the art, little to interrogate the art, but much to lift the intellectual status of the arguer. I found myself in those same conversations, sometimes leading them.
It has all been a manner of forgetting what it was like when the stakes were so high that the frivolities of my own criticism were lost in my pursuit of the poem that didn’t need me to criticize it. Back then I knew two poets, and didn’t talk about poetry much to anyone, and it was enough. Now I know scores of poets, and talk about poetry often, and it is often not nearly the bread it was before.
A few days ago, maybe a little longer, a friend of mine told me that I was a poet in the MFA generation. I had no real idea what “the MFA generation” was, but in retrospect understood some of what he was saying. We, a generation of writers who became writers under the academia sponsored tutelage of other writers, our readings directed and in some ways predicated on the institutions we went to, are susceptible to having gaps in our hearings. Which is to say gaps in the writers who we have been encouraged to take as literary mentors.
The argument is that for the black writer, this is more troubling, because if one is to accept the authority of the institutions that degree us, one must, almost, also accept that barring any reclamation projects (i.e. Zora Neale Hurston) that the writers of color who were not acknowledged as writers by this hugely generalized beast called academia are not writers of quality.
He misses the point though, because even where he is correct, it isn’t the fault of the institution that we forget writers. Writers have and always will be forgotten. Alan Dugan won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poems and I can’t recall any poet ever mentioning him to me. I went through undergrad at a fine institution without once reading Steinbeck or Faulkner, while majoring in English. I also didn’t read many writers of color outside of classes that fell under the rubric of African American studies. But this is besides the point. My friend, fine writer that he is, has chosen (in this brief conversation) to advocate agitation over the work.
I am not a poet of the “MFA generation,” if there is any such thing. I understand that it is a clever way of framing a conversation about all that literature in America lacks, but in the end it fails to discuss what is vibrant, or even what one can do about the missing pieces, or why the missing pieces are important.
Regardless, I am a poet of prison, which is to say that if you have been to prison you might understand fully how almost every conversation for me appears a sort of circling the wagon, of returning to some point where the nights were bleak and what I saw out of my window was barbed wire. I blame those nights for making me a poet, and blame those nights for introducing to Neruda and Knight, to Brooks, Alexander, Baraka and Hemingway.
All of which is to say that I was introduced to authors by my own whim, and am a bit disappointed in what I’ve forgotten, disappointed in how some of what drove me to want to write has been dismissed by writers and writing programs I have been a part of without me acknowledging that those poems carried something that drove me. We should be disappointed in what we forget and what others fail to acknowledge, but the idea that it is not totally our duty to do the remembering (in ways that move beyond critique and complaint) strikes me as naive.
In 1997, the second collection of poems I purchased was Michael Harper’s anthology Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. I remember reading a poet in there, Sherley Anne Williams. She first gave me the idea to write poem as epistle. Just a few days ago I was searching for her name, and couldn’t find a trace of those poems anywhere on line. I did find a Sherley Anne Williams who wrote “The Peacock Poems,” but wasn’t sure if that was her. A friend pointed me to the journal Callaloo, where her series of poems (the series I remembered) “Letters From A New England Negro” were published.
Williams’s first collection The Peacock Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published. Yet, her name too, I have not heard mentioned, have not mentioned myself. So now, as a free man, with a wealth of friends who are writers, I find it harder to discover and rediscover poetry that I should love than I did when I was in prison. And I ask myself why, and I’m convinced that the problem, if there is a problem, is that black poets have been tricked into believing that there is this homogenous thing called the “black community.”
And so we imagine that we get what we need, we must get what we need, because we are in this community. But we lack—and we bicker, and we complain. And while those these are great, and are indeed vital, we (this fictitious, homogenous whole) seem not to remember with the same ferociousness that we bemoan the forgetting. And then we fail to discover why we do this. Or to remember.
None of this is to argue I’m innocent in any of this. I think it’s to say that in prison I hoped to find a community where I could raise my children, and they would say with pride that, “Such and such used to come by my dad’s house, it would be him, him, her and her and they would be talking about poems and drinking and cursing and laughing.”
That my children would say this and be amazed each time that they thought about it how vibrant the arts community I was apart of was/is—and my biggest failure as a poet is that I have not worked to create that kind of community around myself, being far too concerned with the trappings of national recognition than the happiness of true community.