The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Reginald Dwayne Betts about his new book Bastards of the Reagan Era, how attitudes toward drug usage are changing, canzones and elegies and other forms, and making time for writing while being both a parent and a law student.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So here’s my first question—and everyone else jump in as you like—Dwayne, you’re a writer and a dad and a student in law school. When do you sleep?
Dwayne Betts: Not enough, apparently. But I try to get four hours in a day.
Ellen: I’m curious what your plans for the future are? As a lawyer myself, I love the idea of you doing both!
Dwayne Betts: The bigger question, frequently, is when do I work. And how do I decide what doesn’t get done. I’ve learned to multitask, which probably means I’ve learned to accept being inefficient.
I want to be an employment discrimination attorney and do post-conviction work for people. I just decided against being a public defender—because it feels like being Charon, ushering people to the underworld. Though that’s dark, it just seems that I would want to weep often and not be able to.
Brian S: I’ve seen you talk about that on Facebook, about the public defender who gets the names of his defendants whose cases he loses tattooed on his back. That’s some serious stuff going on there.
Dwayne Betts: Brian, you have to watch the documentary Gideon’s Promise. It tells the story, but it’s a wretched story.
Ellen: Do you envision still publishing poetry on a regular basis? Do you write while during the school semesters?
Norman: With the strong prominence of Public Enemy track titles and other cultural references to the ’80s and ’90s, did you have a recommended cultural playlist for the readers of this poetry collection? Movies, songs, or artists that weren’t referenced or alluded to in the poems?
Dwayne Betts: I write, not as often as I might—but it’s because learning takes more time. Once I’m less in student mode I believe I’ll write more. And C. Dale Young is a oncologist, so I believe I’ll make the time. Given he is my model.
A cultural playlist—interesting question because I’m doing an interview this week with a Canadian station and we created one for the interview. I can’t tell you that one yet—but will make up one right now.
One album: Ready to Die.
But also, and this is the thing, the book tries to get at both the ’80s and the aftermath, in fact it’s mostly the aftermath of the ’80s. And so you have to listen to ’90s hip hop. You have to listen to Illmatic, Outkast, Geto Boys.
Norman: And the aftermath has and still is transforming Washington, DC. I currently live in the DMV area and am amazed at how quickly the city is changing, the cultural appropriation, and the taming of African American culture and history in the city.
Dwayne Betts: There are probably books and things too—but from my standpoint, much of the literature that shaped me as a kid wasn’t from the ’80s. And the movies—it’s a good question but it has me returning to how personal any of this is. Because my soundtrack uniquely created me. Not everyone would have heard the Geto Boys and then become lost in his head thinking about the impact of J. Edgar Hoover. Or gravitated to Pac sounds about children in prison and life in prison.
Norman: Have you been back to the DC area? What are your thoughts of where you grew up is nowadays?
Dwayne Betts: Yes, DC has changed a lot. I don’t live there now but return and see how different things are. And many of the poems are from that time—well 2005-2010. Poems that are really about my students and their lives. What struck me then, which probably isn’t richly explored in the book, is that there are two cities, at least, in DC. And it’s clear that Anacostia doesn’t get to frequent Busboys as much as we might think.
Brian S: When I was rereading some of the poems late last night, I was (re)struck by the way the book ends, with “What We Know of Horses,” in large part because of that New York Times article from earlier this week about how now that heroin addiction is spiking in the white community, pressure is mounting on authorities to fund rehab programs. Did you see that story?
Dwayne Betts: Yes, I saw that. Though every few years there is a drug spiking. Back in 2005 it was meth; now it’s heroin. I have a hard time grasping the fact from the fiction in these pieces—though what’s clear is the tragedy of addiction is being responded to differently.
Sarah: Yes, I loved the father who said he was no longer using the word “junkies.”
Brian S: I hadn’t considered the meth spike, though I should have since I lived in the middle of meth country for a long while. Maybe this is one of those places where race and class intersect. It’s easy to dismiss meth addicts as rednecks, but when New Hampshire is one of the major centers of heroin addiction, you’re getting into a different level of whiteness.
Dwayne Betts: Language is real. I don’t know though. We have a generation of policy founded on the word crackhead—that’s why my poem, “a toothless crackhead was the mascot,” really tries to talk about how stereotypes shape our image. You have now, that father rejecting stereotypes that he probably accepted before.
Sarah: Do you think that correctional facilities are changing the way they deal with addicts coming into the system?
Dwayne Betts: Definitely easy to dismiss the meth addicts, but Montana had a huge problem. So intense that they had public campaigns to inform people about the harsh reality of meth addiction.
Norman: To tag along with Sarah’s question, do you think the conversation is changing with policies like marijuana legalization in a number of states?
Dwayne Betts: I don’t know how facilities are dealing with people coming into the system with drug addiction. I’d argue that they probably haven’t changed. Correctional facilities don’t manage or try to manage social problems, as far as I can tell.
Brian S: The way we use language to identify groups of people is especially powerful. The biggest thing any slur does is reduce the members of those groups to subhuman status, which makes them easier to dismiss and dump on.
Norman: I remember growing up in Arizona and there being anti-meth documentaries that would replace all public programming on select days during the summer.
Sarah: Yeah, that is my brother’s perspective. He’s in a men’s colony in SLO, California.
Dwayne Betts: And again, even with marijuana legalization, I think, at best, what you see is some movement on drug issues. Connecticut just passed a law making possession of narcotics a misdemeanor. Don’t quote me though because I may have the language wrong. But there are these kinds of subtle reforms happening. Mind you, while this reform happened in Connecticut, it happened just after the legislature couldn’t reduce the drug free school zone, which at 1500 feet is all of New Haven.
Norman: In terms of language, one thing that I really appreciated throughout Bastards is the use of names. There were continual reminders that these aren’t mythical felons incarcerated, but human beings with names, stories, and families.
Dwayne Betts: I did that on purpose, so I’m glad that you noticed. The names are all real people, though placed in wildly different situations and narratives. The streets are real too. The places real. I wanted it to be a local book as much as a book book, whatever that is.
Norman: I loved that you never refer to Washington, DC. You make allusions based on the street names or neighborhood names.
Rachel: I loved this book Dwayne. I was wondering how the second poem in the volume—“Elegy With a City in It”—came about, what it looked like in earlier drafts. It almost seems like it began in form, a sestina maybe, but ends up sprung from any formal parameters. How did you write this?
Dwayne Betts: It’s a form, “Elegy with a City in It.” It’s a canzone. Sort of an amped up sestina that I amped up more by repeating the words more frequently and at different places. The book has three canzones in it, though only that one remains true. The final poem is also a canzone that I pull out of its form and the poem about the Cooler Bandits is one as well. I’m interested in repetition as a way to think, if that makes sense.
Brian S: The title poem (and man, what a title that is, by the way) does so much work, but I found myself going back to section 4, “Night of the Living Baseheads,” again and again, in part for lines like these:
Still if you listened back when someone said
To let a hundred flowers bloom, and you
Were watching when the martyrs, the Malcolms,
And Kings and Fred Hamptons fell, you might think of
How democracy, like communism, ends
In a body bag for the freedom fighters.
That’s a side of revolution—a word that gets thrown around a little too lightly for my taste—that hardly gets talked about. I’m glad you went there.
Dwayne Betts: Honestly, I wanted the title poem to just be big and ambitious and maybe even wrong. It’s like, infrequently have I found myself tangling with a poem and trying to get at things that people could push at and disagree with—but remember the Biggie line in Ready to Die—”I wouldn’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant. Give me the baby rings and the number 1 mom pendant.” Now Biggie captures something with that album, and it’s both dark and honest and brutal. And it raises a question; what do you think about the person that has gone there.
Ellen: Are there other examples of forms you’ve used in the book?
Dwayne Betts: I wanted my book to go there—and challenge myself and readers in a a way that the conversations around drugs, revolution, choices—really hadn’t been doing for me. Though that isn’t fair to others—and probably shows how myopic my own reading has at times been. But that is what pushed me.
Ellen, the title poem is in blank verse. And “The Legacy” is a sonnet patterned after Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.”
Ellen: Speaking of the bastards, I had originally thought you the title was referring to government leaders. Then I heard an interview where you mentioned that you were losing the word literally as fatherless children. Such an interesting play on the word.
Brian S: I don’t think it’s myopic. I think in any history, romanticizing the past is a real danger, and it’s a good thing to point out where that happens lest it turn into nostalgia for a past that never was.
Norman: Thinking about the idea of challenging the readers, is one of the reasons you began a prologue with a two-part poem about your sons to challenge the future conversations on the topic?
Dwayne Betts: Yes, I think, never did I really think I was writing about government officials. I don’t want, right now, for government officials to be my topic. This book doesn’t even dig into the weeds of policy, as another book might. But that is probably because I wanted to write about people. We frequently talk policy, I have people I admire who talk about mass incarceration and drug policy and addiction and have never wept for a person’s whose life has been destroyed by the combination of prison, drugs, violence, and prosecution. Or has never thought that weeping significant enough to be at the center of the conversation. But that weeping, I think, like to think, is at the center of my book.
Rachel: Yes, the way the book thinks itself through repetition comes across, it’s brilliant and it’s relentless.
Ellen: I was a public policy major during the height of the drug war and am so struck by the truth of this—the weeping was never a consideration.
Dwayne Betts: I should say, I’m saying all of this on the fly. But I believe all of it. And have thought to—in my work and hopefully in my lawyering, place people at the center. It’s alarmingly easy to forget that there are lives behind so much of this.
Sarah: This line drives that message home, “& I know, / he is lost to the world.” Heartbreaking and powerful.
Dwayne Betts: Norman, I did begin with the poem to my sons as a way to contrast and suggest that the narrative, even when it’s dark, is not just that. It’s the one poem that is obviously about me now—and so I think, at least there, it reinforces hope and explains why what follows is so urgent.
Ellen: Can you comment on the form of “For The City That Never Broke Me.” Are these separate poems or parts of one unified poem? Not sure it matters but always curious about structure and how collections are assembled…
Brian S: (I actually know the answer to this because I published one of that series which, alas, didn’t make this book, but I’ll stay quiet.)
Dwayne Betts: Ah. So much didn’t get in that I wanted to keep. But the poems are all separate poems, sort of like my idea of a broken epic. One that never gets off the ground because you can’t get the first story right.
Brian S: ”It’s alarmingly easy to forget that there are lives behind so much of this.”
This is at the heart of so much of politics, which I am getting three ears full of right now because I live in Iowa. No one forgets about the lives behind policy like politicians, even when they’re co-opting their narratives for their stump speeches.
Do you have a favorite or two from the book? One that you read regularly?
Dwayne Betts: My favorite is probably the last poem. But that’s at the moment. I really like the last one though, reading it. And the poem on page 33 seeks to speak to my feelings about today.
Norman: There have also been some other great collections of poetry that do an amazing job of building empathy and highlighting people (I’m thinking primarily of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen right now). Have you read any of those collections? What are your thoughts about how Bastards fit into the current political conversations and contemporary African American poetry?
Ellen: What inspired you to write poetry? Was it a particular experience or a favorite writer?
Dwayne Betts: There have been some great collections of late. There are always great poems being written and published. I think Citizen is good. There are others too. And the thing that distinguishes Citizen is that it grapples with big public issues.
Norman: I also like how Citizen has a lot of poems in second person
Dwayne Betts: Also, I just wanted to highlight some great poems in Terrance Hayes’s new book. He has one that I think is really impressive that talks about domestic violence in a way more complicated than most. It’s “How to Be Drawn to Trouble.”
Brian S: Who are you reading right now, outside of texts for your law classes?
Dwayne Betts: I’m reading the legal stuff—but I’m also taking a qualitative methods class that has me reading a range of things. I read a great article on why deterrence isn’t the reason that we don’t have more nuclear bombings but it is in fact about norms forming that involve public shame. It’s “The Nuclear Taboo” by Nina Tannenwald.
Brian S: I think I want to read that article, because I’ve heard the deterrence argument for so long that I just accepted it as gospel.
Dwayne Betts: And I’m reading, when I can, Gravity’s Rainbow.
Brian S: We’ve talked about squeezing in time to work already (as well as multi-tasking) but I still want to ask if you’re working on any new projects right now, or do you just write poems and see what they grow into over time?
Dwayne Betts: I write a poem at a time really and then at some poem I imagine I have a project. But I want to be like Jack Gilbert and not feel pressured to put out books frequently. Also, I have a non-fiction project I’m trying to finish and I have an essay I must finish tonight about solitary confinement. So there is always something. And always something getting in the way.
Brian S: Will you be squeezing in some readings for this book? I saw on Facebook that you’re selling copies by hand (which I relate to so hard).
Dwayne Betts: I’ve been traveling a lot lately. I’ve been to Texas, Virginia, Oregon. I’ll be in Chicago this month. It’s been good reading from the book, both because I like reading and you can actually see how people respond when you get out in the world.
Brian S: I’ll have to see if I can get you to Des Moines at some point.
Thanks for this incredible book and for taking the time out of your Sunday to talk with us. Best of luck, Dwayne.
Ellen: Thanks for your time and good luck with all your projects!
Dwayne Betts: Also, thanks to everyone for reading the book. It’s an important one for me and am glad to have had some of your time.