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A DECADE AFTER PRISON, A POET STUDIES FOR THE BAR EXAM

By Elisa Gonzalez The New Yorker

Reginald Dwayne Betts has wanted to be a lawyer for almost as long as he has wanted to be a poet. “Poetry and law have always been intertwined in my mind,” he said recently, “in part because poetry gives me the language to pretend that I can answer questions, even if I can’t.” We were in New Haven, Connecticut, and Betts was three days from his Yale Law School graduation. The bar exam was two months away. He was focussed on his final paper for an empirical-research class: twenty pages on critiques, in the media, of “broken windows” policing. He’d just begun examining about a hundred articles on the death of Eric Garner. As we searched for a parking space amid the commencement-weekend snarl, Betts described his growing interest in getting outside his own head and testing his ideas about the world—an interest that is changing his poetry as well. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of horrific experiences that have given me something to say,” he told me later. “I want to say other things, though.”

Betts, who is thirty-five, is the author of two acclaimed books of poetry, “Shahid Reads His Own Palm” and “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” and a memoir, “A Question of Freedom,” about his arrest, at age sixteen, for carjacking, and the eight years and three months he spent in prison. He was, in a way, lucky: he faced a possible life sentence for the crime. During one of Betts’s stints in solitary confinement, someone—he never learned who—slipped the 1971 anthology “The Black Poets” under his cell door. The book turned him on to Nikki Giovanni, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and others. Soon, he was surreptitiously typing up poems in the prison’s law library, while also teaching himself the basics of the law. He learned to type fast, because library rules forbade personal use of the typewriters; being discovered would have landed him back in the hole.

Since his release, in 2005, he has graduated from the University of Maryland and Warren Wilson College’s low-residency M.F.A. program, been a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard, received an N.A.A.C.P. Image Award, got married, and had two sons.

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Date of Publication: 
6/30/16