Poet and author Reginald Dwayne Betts chose Warren Wilson College for his Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for a number of reasons, including the low-residency format. “I was about to have a kid and I was working full time,” he says. He also admired the work of fellow African-American poets A. Van Jordan and Gary Lilley, who also received their degrees from Warren Wilson’s program. Betts, who completed his MFA in 2010, will return to Warren Wilson on Saturday, May 19, to give the commencement address to the school’s undergraduate class.
The college, located in Swannanoa, has a history of varied and surprising commencement speakers — last year, it was actor and director Bill Pullman (his sons Jack and Lewis are Warren Wilson grads); Kim Jordan, the CEO of New Belgium, spoke in 2015; Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” spoke in 2014. But Betts’ pedigree is not one of celebrity or business acumen, and it’s probably not a story similar to that of many in the Warren Wilson community, though it’s a story worth hearing.
At 16 — an honors student at the time — Betts was arrested for a carjacking and spent eight years in prison, including a year in solitary confinement. There, “you couldn’t have books and you couldn’t request books and you couldn’t go to the library, but people would somehow find ways to get books into their cells,” he said in a 2015 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” One afternoon, someone slid a book under Betts’ door: “It was an anthology by Dudley Randall, it was called The Black Poets, and that’s the book that changed my life.”
Spoiler alert: Not only did he succeed as a writer, publishing the poetry collections Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm as well as A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison and The Circumference of a Prison: Youth, Race, and the Failures of the American Justice System; Betts also went on to earn his law degree.
Though he was released more than a decade ago, prison makes its way into Betts’ poetry, both as a place and a metaphor for a mental state. In his poem “What We Know of Horses,” incarceration recurs throughout the six-part study of the ravages of heroin on bodies, minds and communities. “Sometimes his cuffs / are on my wrists & I embrace / the way they cut, as if I am the one / domesticated, a broken horse,” he writes.
But Betts maintains that he doesn’t really know what it means to be an at-risk youth. “We look at what’s going on in the news, we look at what’s going on with DACA, when you think about mass incarceration, when you think about the failing infrastructure of the United States, when you think about the struggle in public schools, in very real ways, we’re all at risk,” he says.
The writer is hesitant to give away many hints about what his commencement address will touch on. He does point to some critical life lessons. “When I’ve been able to be satisfied with my journey and the things I’ve been able to do, has really been when I’ve been able to recognize that Yale Law School is no more significant in my life than Warren Wilson College, and Warren Wilson College is no more significant than Prince George’s Community College [which he attended in Largo, Md.],” Betts says.
That’s not to downplay his educational trajectory. From completing high school while in prison to earning a law degree, Betts has crushed expectations and goals, including his own. But he’s also paid attention to synchronicities, such as that the late Reuben Holden, a former president of Warren Wilson, was also Yale University’s third-ranking executive for nearly 20 years — the school Betts ultimately attended. “It hit me that the ways I might have imagined my life progressing in some linear [motion], it’s not doing that. It’s circling,” he says. “And I’m finding ways to be become [more deeply] connected to things that I value.”
Though law school was not Betts’ original plan, a degree from Yale in 2016 links him to the time he served. While incarcerated, he took a paralegal course to be better understand the system. “My concern with the law started with me being arrested, but it didn’t necessarily put me in law school,” he said in an interview with the Hartford Courant. To Xpress, he adds, “There are all kind of ways to make an impact on the world. My life has been really focused on what it means to be incarcerated. … The law is a crucial [means] to addressing all those concerns.”
Betts continues, “Law is parallel to poetry. It’s an occupation with words. Lawyers are really good with words and, at its best, law is about some kind of sense of justice, some kind of sense of truth.
“And I think that is what poetry is about, too, at its best.”
WHO: Reginald Dwayne Betts giving a commencement address
WHERE: Warren Wilson College, 701 Warren Wilson Road, Swannanoa, warren-wilson.edu
WHEN: Saturday, May 19, 10 a.m.