Arts & Life Editor
The Barney-Davis board room wasn’t big enough to hold everyone who came out for the final Beck Lecture of 2016.
Wearing a Superman t-shirt and an army green jacket, Reginald Dwayne Betts had the entire audience focused when he started talking. His poetry touched on many poignant themes, including the death of young black men and the confinement of prisoners in supermax facilities.
The first set of poems Betts read included multiple poems with the same title: “The City That Nearly Broke Me.” In introducing the poems Betts said, “I had this thing I wanted to say, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it.”
The poems, a part of the book Bastards of the Reagan Era, varied in style and length but all touched on the theme of city life. The poems were emotional and evocative, describing graphic scenes of tragedy and heartache.
One of them contained a hidden reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Betts challenged the audience to see if they could find it.
In another introduction to a poem, Betts paused his reading to talk about a specific review of the poem in which the author had taken the line “I peddled crack to pregnant women” literally and talked about how blatantly honest Betts was in his poetry. No, Betts did not actually sell crack to pregnant ladies.
This led to a discussion of the merits of writing poetry in the first person.
“If you say ‘you’ or ‘he’ or ‘she,’” Betts said, “it almost seems like you’re pointing fingers at people. Poetry runs the risk of misinterpretations. If the poem says, ‘I did whatever,’ I can’t put a note saying that it wasn’t me.”
The final poem Betts read was about the “journey through the system,” passing through an execution building, a mental facility, and finally to the Red Onion supermax facility, carved into the side of a Virginia mountain.
“[It’s] where black men go to die slow,” Betts said.
On a biographical note, Betts talked about his experiences through the prison system and then going to college, using his experiences in prison to shape his life as a writer. He told a personal story about a professor who insisted that employers should be allowed to discriminate against those convicted of a felony.
Betts’ own conviction was auto theft, which carried a felony sentence.
“I assume everyone knows who I am when I walk into a room,” Betts said. “I’m glad sometimes when people don’t know I went to prison. I felt better knowing that she wasn’t aware and that it wasn’t something specific against me.”
Betts concluded the reading by reading two pages of his memoir A Question of Freedom, which talked about how he felt about his arrest. He also answered audience questions and explained that his experiences in prison changed and shaped his experiences as a writer. He wanted to be an engineer or computer scientist before prison and only chose poetry afterward.
Judging from the packed Board Room, Betts’ reading was much anticipated by students, and he definitely lived up to his reputation.