A Poet’s Apprenticeship Behind Bars

Posted: March 22, 2017 in Reading, Writing
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Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

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