by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern
“I started reading poetry in a cell in solitary confinement,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts to the Justice Arts Coalition. Now an award-winning poet and Ph.D candidate in Law at Yale Law School, Betts began his poetic practice in prison.
As a sixteen-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking – and it was there, “steeped in despair,” that he began “finding a language, varied and complicated and rich” to carry his imagination to his future. Betts is hesitant to slap a label on art, to glorify it as a unique form of salvation for all. Instead, he points to the individuality of art, the way poetry took him as a teenager outside of the four walls of his cell and allowed him to build possibility. “I don’t want to lift up poetry,” he says, “but rather I want to remember poetry.” Truthfully, as much as art can be a community process, it is also deeply personal.
“Art ends up being about what the writing or reading or witnessing does to you internally.”
Art is consummation between each individual viewer and creator, and Betts highlights the role of the witness – or the reader – in realizing the significance of a work of art. In his 2019 anthology, Felon, he marries his professions as lawyer and as poet to create redaction poems from legal documents. Rather than the poem itself doing the work of blurring boundaries, however, he writes that “readers deserve far more credit than they get. They make the work matter, and they deepen the work by their engagement.” If the reader is willing to explore Betts’s legal background and the meaning of the redaction poems, they add to the value of the work. Comparatively, the isolation of prison creates a dearth of feedback and readership for incarcerated artists – just one reason why incarcerated artists must have their work shared and responded to.
These days, Betts enjoys Basquiat’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as the work of Titus Kaphar, with who he is collaborating for theMillion Book Project. The project is producing a curated 500-book capsule collection that will be placed in 1000 prisons in 50 states, sponsored by Yale Law School and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. All his inspiration for the project, says Betts, “comes from being a sixteen-year-old in prison,” along with countless moments over time with various books and writers. For him, words become “a kind of codex and map for life,” and these 500 books are meant to represent the idiosyncrasies of human life and all the diversity that entails. Consequently, the curation of these books is an ongoing and evolving process.
Kaphar, one of Betts’s friends, will be constructing a bookshelf for the project. Kaphar’s art, says Betts, reminds him to be capacious in artmaking and communicating the world. The ways in which they influence each other, however, aren’t just derivative of their artistry, but rather the same way friends influence one another. The conversations between their work evoke their connection as individuals, as ordinary people who hang out and chat and spend time together. Although the arguments of their artwork take different forms, Betts praises Kaphar’s body of work as “brilliantly inventive” and “visually hypnotic.” Thinking back to the Basquiat exhibition, Betts says that while Basquiat introduces him to a world he “didn’t know existed,” Kaphar makes him “reconsider a world” he knows well. These are just a couple of ways engaging with art, whether through creation or witness, serves to alter one’s world.
Art is worldbuilding in a place that fights to limits your world to four walls – the stretch of creative expression can not only help name current realities but also take you to a place away from harm.
“I want to believe that art gives a person understanding, and imagination gives us a vehicle to witness something other than ourselves.”