Sunday, January 10, 2010

R. Dwayne Betts

R. Dwayne Betts' poetry has been widely published and he is the winner of the 2009 Beatrice Hawley Award. His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was published by Penguin last year.

From his 2008 interview with Laura van den Berg on the pshares blog:

In addition to writing poems, you also just finished a memoir. How has it been to move between genres?

It’s interesting. There are things that I couldn’t do in the memoir that I can attempt in poetry and vice verse. My poems are about me and they aren’t about me. When I think of poetry I think of talking to the world about what I see in the world. My memoir was really me talking to the world about what I saw in my life. There is a filter in it that doesn’t exist as much in my poems. I don’t try to write every poem from my perspective. Poetry wouldn’t be as fun for me if I did. Even the poem published by Ploughshares has several strands of experience that aren’t in any way mine. My memoir is different. It’s about me. No matter how much I tried to write a world into the book, it’s unabashedly a world through Dwayne’s eyes. It’s about the eight and a half years I spent in prison and what it meant to be a juvenile in an adult prison. Sitting down and writing about the phase gave me the opportunity to do much more explaining than a poem gives room for, and it also just gave me time to say something about the hard accumulation of moments in prison. My poems go for an expression of a moment, a few moments at most. But the memoir is an attempt to let the reader stand at the bottom of the hill and feel what the snow ball feels like as it’s rolled down the slope and gathered more snow; to see that snow as it gathers and decide what to make of it.

At sixteen, I carjacked someone. And honestly, there is no real way to deal with that part of my life with this one question, but I can say prison is where I began writing poetry and where I began to shape myself into who I am today. The book is an attempt at writing about what I to be guilty and have to live with that. To write about what it means to be in prison knowing that I wasn’t in any physical way prepared for it. The night of the crime was the first and only time I’d held a gun. After it happened and I was arrested, I closed my eyes hoping it would go away. The memoir is about what happened when I opened my eyes.

* * *
Who are your some of your favorite writers? Do you consider them influences as well?

Favorite writers. That’s a hard question. I’ve spent weeks with R. A. Salvatore. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I’ve gotten genuine pleasure from reading those four in one Reader’s Digest abridged edition. Then too, I’ve learned something about the music in a sentence from John Edgar Wideman. I spent a few years wanting to write something that in any way came close to the Walcott lines, “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” So I have to say that my influences are really all that I’ve read that comes back in my mind in the moments when I’m searching for a reason to give a care about the world.

But that’s an incredibly evasive answer. And if you pinned me down to a few favorites, I’d say Wideman, Baldwin, and Komunyakaa. If you give me one more name I’ll say Philip Levine, and if you give me any more room I’ll just start pulling books off my shelf.
Read the complete interview.

Visit R. Dwayne Betts's website.

--Marshal Zeringue