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Poetry, Prison, and the Pandemic

R. Dwyane Betts, program director of the DC creative writing workshop, speaks during a forum.
Poet, memoirist, and legal scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts joins us on the podcast this week to talk about his work, and life after prison — before and during a pandemic.
R. Dwyane Betts, program director of the DC creative writing workshop, speaks during a forum.
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May 8, 2020

In his third book of poetry, “Felon,” Reginald Dwayne Betts contemplates life after prison: “The rooms in my head keep secrets that indict / Me still; my chorus of unspoken larcenies. / You carry that knowledge into your twilight, / & live without regret for your guilty pleas.” The sense that prison sticks with you, haunts you even after you are released — as he was in 2005 — permeates the book.

Betts joined us for a second conversation on At Liberty this week. We discussed his life as an artist — the poems of “Felon,” along with a recent exhibit at MoMA PS1 he collaborated on with painter Titus Kaphar — as well as how the current moment changes the artist’s role and work. As a legal scholar who “lost a third of his life to maximum security [prison],” incarceration and its lingering after-effects are woven throughout Betts’ art and scholarship. He speaks candidly with our host, Emerson Sykes, about the challenges of reentering society after being behind bars, and how those challenges are amplified for people who are released during a pandemic.

In spite of the adversity those who are released in the coming months will inevitably face, Betts doesn’t waver on what must be done to protect vulnerable people from COVID-19: “Most everybody should be released … Now you have people being released who just wouldn’t have been released three, four months ago. But I’m saying that we need to push it even harder. And I think people inside recognize that even more.”

Listen to the episode here.

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