“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.”
To learn more about the Million Book Project, check out Yale Law School’s page or the Mellon Foundation’s page.
Marlowe Brown was born in Asheville, North Carolina but moved coast to coast and back again before he was old enough to go to school. He describes having had “a typical childhood of a young person of color”: he went to school, joined the track and field team, and participated in other school-related activities. But things changed, and ‘typical became atypical’ when Marlowe’s classmates noticed he had blue eyes. The girls seemed to like it, but the boys didn’t, resulting in a couple of fights a week. Although the fighting came naturally to him, talking to girls did not. Girls liked him but conversing did not come easily: “I would often get tongue-tied.”
Marlowe Brown first became ‘O.G. Blue’ when a particularly pretty girl passed him a note in class. He wrote back and was able to say exactly what he felt on paper. She shared the note with her friends, and after that, every girl in the class wanted a note from him. He wouldn’t label himself as the smartest kid in school, but his favorite class was English, where, he says, “I did learn one thing, which was that pen and paper are a powerful communication tool.”
Blue’s creative process is simple. “I think of exactly what I want to say, sort of like putting a puzzle together in my head, and when it’s done, I lay down the completed puzzle.” These days he finds inspiration in a lot more things than he was able to when he was younger. When he first started writing poetry, it was only about a particular idea or person, but later in life, he discovered he could turn anything into verse. “Real people inspire me, smart people. A happy situation inspires me; a special lady inspires me, one that you think of even when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else.”
Writing has helped him throughout his years of incarceration because, through his text, he can paint a picture with words, whether he’s writing to family, friends, or for business purposes. “When I was in high school, I could actually relate to people and situations better through pen and paper rather than in person, but as I grew, attended a few civic organizations, I can speak and express myself in person, even public speaking now.”
Writing has also helped him in processing his experiences and emotions. He says that a lot of his writing is inspired by real-life: “[Everyone knows that] the sun doesn’t shine every day, and I bring that to a point.”
“Poetry and writing awaken my mind to things that I could only dream of and I wanted to hold onto that thought for as long as I possibly could; therefore, I put it to pen and paper for a lasting reminder.”
Although O.G. Blue’s primary focus is poetry, he is currently expanding his portfolio and writing three thriller novels: High Anxiety, Why Are We Here?, and Never Die Alone. Writing comes to him more naturally now, whether in verse, letters, or novels. The real challenge he faces with writing is when it comes to legal matters, and he says his difficulties in that area exist for a reason. “Most people of color are laymen with the judicial system. After all, it was meant to be that way”. The COVID-19 crisis has made Marlowe feel more aware of life because, for now, the world is in a vulnerable position like never before. He reflects on his personal losses and shares: “An old associate of mine just recently passed due to the COVID virus, everyone that knew him would acknowledge him as Old Joe, he will be remembered”. Things have never been this different. He misses the idea of the ‘old world’ — a world older than COVID, a time with fewer technologies. A simpler time, “when you could tell the make of a car just from its sight, a handshake was prevalent, and when you were invited into your neighbor’s house, you could take your shoes off and sit a spell.”
“The mental picture on the poem, ‘Old Friends’, was how life was in what I consider now, ‘the old world’, when you could leave your windows up on a hot summer’s nite, a handshake between men sealed a deal. When a man’s word represented him even bad things had a reason, not accepted but they were less complicated and demented. When our kids went to school and returned safe and sound.”
“The poem ‘Between Us’ was based on the fact of something all humans long for. In other human-beings which is trust, compassion, understanding and respect. Once these emotions are acquired and acknowledged; it’s like magic. Then you have a relationship as strong as King Kong.”
You can view more of O.G. Blue’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like O.G. Blue, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
“I want to show the world that in imperfection there is beauty.”
For David Green, every day is a struggle to express his creativity. Hindered by his institution, it would be easy for David to give up and stop making art. Still, he is determined to keep creating, saying, “I will continue to try and reach and hopefully help others in the world know that no matter what we go through in life, be it poverty, death, or losing someone or something, something beautiful is there in the end and we can overcome.”
Though David never received a formal education in art or poetry, he has always been able to discover new ways to improve his drawing and writing. Every time he closes his eyes — since the day he started creating at a very young age — he is flooded with ideas: poems to write or ways to better his art. He laughs, saying, “I have suffered from a long life of insomnia since I was six.”
It’s not always simple or possible for David to create. He describes how the people he is incarcerated with, the staff, and the lack of funds for art supplies all pose challenges. He adds with a laugh that the lack of tables and chairs also hinder his art making. But David views these difficulties as minor problems. The greater obstacle is that “there is a time when people’s ungratefulness makes one discouraged from wanting to draw.” Yet, despite these challenges, David finds ways to continue making art and writing poems.
With limited access to art supplies, David has found he can use any media he lays his hands on. When he begins a piece, David simply envisions the art or what is in his mind on the paper and draws it into existence: “I pick up, I look at my paper and just do.”
People often ask David what inspires him, but the question is harder to answer than it may seem. “I’ve lost so much inspiration in my life that I honestly do not know what inspires me.” Still, David is confident that this will not always be the case, saying, “I do know that one day inspiration will enter my life and when that happens, I will know.”
As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, David reflects that though at first he felt unaffected, he has grown increasingly concerned for his loved ones. “I do have many people out there in the world that I love no matter if they love me back or even remember me.” Feeling disconnected, David explains how, “It scares me not knowing if they are okay or not, I just hope they are okay.”
David is grateful that he can share his art with the world and hopes he can inspire others. He wants to share the following words:
“I love and count you all as equals in my life. Just pass what I give you to the next you see. Because we need that more than anything in this world.”
You can view more of David’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like David, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
At 10 years old, Gary Farlow was given his first set of pencils, markers, and pens. Growing up, he was never very athletic or outdoorsy, but while he couldn’t play sports, what he could do was draw. The son of an accomplished home designer and builder, Gary would “borrow” his father’s supplies so he could make art. When his father eventually realized the depth of his son’s creative passion, he purchased the boy his own art set, and as Gary describes, “there was no looking back!”
For as long as he can remember, art has been Gary’s refuge — helping him through his most difficult times. During his incarceration, art has become all the more meaningful, providing a much needed escape (“a bad word in prison!” Gary jokes). “When I am drawing, I think of only what I am drawing. I turn on a local classical music radio station and I’m no longer in prison – I am in my studio.” For Gary, art is a way of reducing stress, of feeling the satisfaction of creating something for others to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, of affirming his self-worth. He reflects that this is especially true in carceral settings, as incarcerated populations are typically “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for most of society:
We have little value, no voice, no rights. So art is a creative process by which I say I am here. I am a human being. I exist.
Gary often waits until the evenings, when the daily sounds of the cell block finally settle down. As the melodies of his music replace the noise, he enters his creative world and gets to work. “It quickly becomes the favorite part of any day!”
Gary’s creative process is simple: he needs only to see a photo that interests him, and from there he can begin to sketch in his mind. Before touching pencil to paper, Gary allows the image to take on new life in his head, often mentally altering the picture so much that it barely resembles the original. He finally brings his mental drawing into reality with a 2H pencil. Once the image has taken shape, he uses color pencils to develop the minute details that are a hallmark of his art. “Whether it’s items in a store window or detail you must look closely to see, I believe it is these which bring life to my work and set it apart.”
Landscapes, and more specifically cityscapes, are Gary’s specialty. Occasionally, he ventures out of his comfort zone and creates wildlife pictures or other material that moves him, but he is most inspired by buildings. From Art deco to Victorian, and the “ruffles and flourishes of architecture,” Gary supposes his fascination with buildings is one legacy of his father’s work. “The Chrysler Building, The Smithsonian ‘Castle,’ N.C.’s own Biltmore House, the canals of Venice, colonial charm of Williamsburg, the majesty of London, and the romance of Paris – all inspire me.”
One of the challenges Gary faces as an incarcerated artist is the difficulty of accessing adequate art supplies. “This was not a challenge in the ‘real world’ but behind these walls it is often difficult to acquire materials to work with.” Gary explains that in North Carolina, families are not permitted to order supplies for artists inside, so the artists are responsible for obtaining their own art supplies. In addition, they are only allowed to order from approved vendors, so it can get quite costly. Gary goes on to describe that there are often art supplies for sale “on the yard” but one has to be cautious and know who you’re buying from: “I’ve seen far too many purchase stolen art materials.”
This past year, Gary faced an even bigger challenge where he worried that his art days might be over for good. He needed to have surgery to reattach the retinas in both eyes and feared he would lose his vision and be unable to continue making art. Thankfully, the Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C. successfully completed the surgery and saved Gary’s eyesight. “They are truly amazing,” he reflects gratefully. Gary has gone on to create dozens of pieces since his surgery, including submitting 36 pieces to his recent prison art show.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for Gary’s art. While thankfully Gary’s area has not been hit with a Coronavirus outbreak, the prison is still under restriction, which means no visitors, volunteers, religious services, classes or programs. As everyone finds themselves with an abundance of time, Gary is filling it with art. He comments, “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “new normal” that Covid-19 has ushered in. Yet, it has provided ample time to focus on my art.”
Gary wishes more people could see the remarkable impacts of art, stating, “you seldom hear of the positive effects of art on inmates and the trickle-down benefits for society.” He emphasizes the transformative power of art in penal facilities, explaining that a dollar spent on art in prison actually saves thousands of taxpayer dollars. “The arts are humanity’s greatest achievement and our most civilizing influence.” As he writes at the end of his poem titled “Revelation”:
A poem is a way to strap on your own armor – even if only for a moment.
So slide a pen from your holster,
unsheath a pencil from your scabbard,
lock and load the words you choose and
use them to cry, shout, whisper but
Just step up, come forward and let your revelation speak.
Loud. Proud. Strong.
You can view more of Gary’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Gary, please sign up for our pARTner Project!
Gary K. Farlow attended Guilford Technical Community College, majoring in Administration of Justice. He completed undergraduate studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, and earned a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas Jefferson College of Law at Head University in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He also holds degrees from Western Illinois University, South Piedmont Community College, Montgomery Community College, and Southeastern Theological Seminary. He is past chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission; represented North Carolina Governor James G. Martin on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators; represented North Carolina at the 1984 national Conference of the Aged; was a Reagan and Bush Administration nominee for the African Development Foundation; served on the United Arts Council of Greensboro, Greensboro Historical Museum and Society, and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice president of the Gate City Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Founder of the Senior Theatre Consortium. Mr. Farlow’s previous writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, the Volunteer’s Soul, and The African American Soul, as well as Serving Time, Serving Others, Serving Productive Time, the Journal of the American Health Care Association, and two poetic anthologies of the National Library of Poetry, Essence of A Dream and Visions. He is the author of both Prison-ese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang, first edition published by Loompanics Unlimited, and The Cellblock Gourmet: Inmate Recipes From The Big House and Doin’ Time: How to Survive and Thrive in Prison, both published by the Graduate Group. Mr. Farlow is a Former Associate Editor of the East Triad Press and The Greensboro Sun; sports reporter for The High Point Enterprise, and has written various features for The Greensboro News and Record. He is a recipient of the PEN Award for Prison Writers and has written several play scripts including Sticks, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s prison system; Beyond Bars, dealing with the difficulties faced by those transitioning back into society after incarceration; A Homeless History Lesson, which explores the plight of the homeless and substance abuse in America. His poetry has been released on audio-cassette by the National Library of Poetry entitled Visions: The Poetry of Gary Farlow. Mr. Farlow has travelled extensively and has been a guest lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria. He has appeared on Eye on Washington and Good Morning South Africa. His poetry has also been released in two additional anthologies, Collections, by Iliad Press and The Best Poetry of America, by the National Library of Poetry.
An accomplished artist, specializing in urban landscapes utilizing colored pencil, Mr. Farlow’s works have been on display at Art With Conviction in Tucson, Arizona, the Prisons Foundation and Safer Streets Art Foundation in Washington D.C., and at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
We are also delighted to announce that Miller and Dupcak are generously donating 20% of the book’s proceeds to the Justice Arts Coalition! The anthology is available in paperback for $12 on Amazon.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda Miller to learn more about her work and the creation of Lyrics, Lit, & Liquor and Words After Dark.
JAC: Please describe a bit about your background as it relates to the work you are doing today. How did you become involved in this work?
AM: I am a writer, performer, event producer, yoga instructor, massage therapist, Jewish educator, and activist. To me, these roles are all interconnected and overlapping, falling under the umbrella of arts and healing. Theater and writing came first and organically sprouted into the rest.
I became involved in JAC through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program where I have served as a Prison Writing Awards Committee member, event co-curator, book reviewer and performer. I co-curated and performed in the program’s virtual event A Stronger Desire To Live as part of PEN’s World Voices Festival in June 2020 featuring visual art from JAC’s roster of artists, which is how I first connected with JAC. I got involved with the Prison Writing Program when the director was reaching out to NYC Reading Series to feature work by incarcerated writers as part of PEN’s first ever BREAK OUT series, a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into the literary community.
JAC: What inspired you to start Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how has it evolved over the years, culminating in the release of this anthology?
AM: Inspiration for the series came when my writing group member, Scott Hess, launched his novel back in 2012 with a variety show. At the time of Scott’s launch I’d been hosting a comedy variety show, but I’d never attended one in which literature was featured let alone the centerpiece of the evening. I found that breaking up the readings with other forms of art helped audiences listen more deeply.
For a while I’d been straddling the performance and literary worlds, but Scott helped me see a way to bridge the two. A chapter from my memoir One Breath, Then Another was due out in an anthology that August. I decided to celebrate with an event in the dive bar where I hosted the comedy show with a reading of my chapter sandwiched between various acts. It was a memorable night, moving from the hilarious to the heartbreaking with lush tunes interspersed throughout. Afterward, the venue invited me to host an ongoing show in this format and, with that, Lyrics, Lit & Liquor was born.
While other performances would be sprinkled in, readings and music would form the show’s backbone.The most important thing was to have a fun, welcoming, unpretentious, DIY feel open to a wide array of writers, musicians, and performers, with no fancy credits or a book deal required. A discussion about the series with dear friend, fellow writing group member and Jeopardy! fan Amy Dupcak led to the idea to include original themed trivia at every show, a question between each performance.
While we have changed venues four times in our nearly eight-year lifespan, we’ve remained in the East Village. And while the overall vibe of that neighborhood has dramatically changed over the past decade, it’s still hallowed ground for DIY alternative art and culture. We’ve always aimed to contribute to the spirit of a neighborhood that keeps that torch lit.
Words After Dark is a natural outgrowth of our series and the brainchild of myself and Amy. We wanted to feature some of the talented readers and musicians who have graced our stage over the years, and to share their work with an even wider audience. Editing this anthology has been a labor of love nourished by a deep commitment to maintaining a space for open artistic expression and community.
JAC: What is unique about Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how have you maintained/translated this into the anthology? What makes Words After Dark different from other collections of poems, stories, lyrics, etc?
AM: Lyrics, Lit & Liquor’s eclectic nature makes the series unique: at any given event you may experience an old lady character stripping down to her leopard print drawers, satirical political country songs, an operatic magician, a topless woman with a political message scrawled across her chest rocking out on her electric guitar, confessional poetry, quirky fiction, gripping memoir, and audience members shouting bizarre noises to answer a trivia question for a candy bar.
Organized into sections that pair beverages with writing and trivia (answers in the back—no peeking!), Words After Dark recreates the Lyrics, Lit & Liquor experienceon the page. Sip a Dirty Martini while snickering at the lyrics to “A Sweet Fucking Word” by award-winning comedian and musician,Jessica Delfino. Indulge in a Bloody Mary while absorbing the gut-punching novel excerpt from critically-acclaimed authorScott Alexander Hess’ The Root of Everything. Toss back a tequila shot while taking in the heart-stomping prose poem “My Past and Future in Present Tense” by PEN America Prison Writing award winner Sean Dunne. Drinks are hand drawn by New York graffiti artistMatthew Litwack. All these elements make Words After Dark different from other collections.
JAC: What inspired Words After Dark?
AM: As we were rounding the corner to the eight year mark, Amy and I came up with the idea for the anthology together. We wanted to celebrate our tenacity in keeping the series going this long and the awesome community we’ve built along the way. We originally intended to publish this anthology in May 2020 in tandem with a celebratory bash at the bar where we’ve been stationed for the last couple of years. Alas, Covid-19 shuttered venues, eliminated in-person gatherings and relegated us to the walls of our apartments for the indefinite future. And so we postponed our publication date, waiting until we could hold a proper release party in our proper venue. But as the pandemic has persisted with no clear indication as to when “normal life” will resume, we decided to publish now.
The title Words After Dark comes from the fact that the words in the book were literally performed when it was dark outside. But it turns out that the title works on a more metaphorical level that speaks to our current times. Venues may be dark, but artists are still here, and the world needs art and connection more than ever.
JAC: Why are you choosing to generously donate 20% of the book’s proceeds to JAC?
AM: In the time I’ve been a part of the JAC community, I’ve been so inspired by the work this passionate, open-hearted network of human beings is doing. This is a group of people harnessing the power of art for its highest purposes: healing, liberation, education, community, and justice. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds to JAC to support this work and also increase awareness of JAC as an entity.
JAC: What are you hoping your readers will get from Words After Dark?
AM: I hope readers will enjoy a fun, moving, enlightening journey through the drawings, trivia, comedy, short stories, song lyrics, essays, poetry, and novel excerpts on these pages. I hope they will be inspired by the unbound, uncensored creative expression.
I hope that in this time of physical distancing, the collection will provide a feeling of connection and remind readers of the power of words to lift us up.
Words After Dark is a great gift for aspiring literary writers, songwriters and comedians hankering for unbound, uncensored creative inspiration. It’s essential for anyone with an interest in NYC’s independent arts scene and for all who believe in the power of words to lift us up.
Featuring Sheila-Joon Azim, Mac Barrett, Brian Birnbaum, Adam Blotner, Emily Brout, Britt Canty, Jessica Delfino, Sean Dunne, Amy Dupcak, Rachel Evans, Juliet Fletcher, Jordana Frankel, Christie Grotheim, Jared Harel, Scott Hess, Helen Howard, Nancy Hightower, Meher Manda, Valdaniel Martins, Amanda Miller, Noam Osband, Zachary Parkman, Kyle Pritz, Joel Remland, Waylan Roche, Megan Sass, Christopher X. Shade, Shawn Shafner, Melissa Shaw, Simi Toledano, and Jenny Williamson.
Miller and Dupcak invite you to raise your glass, silence your phone and enjoy!