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Writing About Mass IncarcerationAcross Genres

Poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts and novelist Zachary Lazar join V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell for the first of two special episodes on the effects of mass incarceration on American communities and democracy. Betts, a poet, memoirist and lawyer who was incarcerated as a young man, talks about writing in different genres, as well as the experience of having friends and colleagues write about his character to support his application to the bar and our collective impulse to be punitive. Lazar discusses his recent novel, Vengeance, which is set at Angola, the maximum-security Louisiana state penitentiary where inmates work on a farm that used to be a plantation.


Bastards of the Reagan Era, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and A Question of Freedom by Reginald Dwayne Betts · Prison” and “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” by Reginald Dwayne Betts · Feeling Fucked Up: The Architecture of Anger” by Reginald Dwayne Betts · Vengeance by Zachary Lazar · Crush by Richard Sitken · The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander · For Freckle-Faced Gerald” by Etheridge Knight

From the Episode, Part 1 Reginald Dwayne Betts on Writing About Prison, in Poetry and Nonfiction

Whitney Terrell: It’s an amazing and very powerful, mechanical image of the system at the end of [“For the City that Nearly Broke Me”]. You’ve written about going back into prisons, how you feel both familiarity and strangeness. How has this conversation between you and people currently incarcerated affected your writing?

Reginald Dwayne Betts: Going in as a public defender is different because people don’t give a fuck if you’ve been locked up, and they shouldn’t. They are concerned with their incarceration, and that’s real. That’s understandable. So, I get that. But what it’s done for me, this sort of idea of grappling with going in when I was working in the public defender’s office, is realizing the ways in which my rhetoric about criminal justice reform, whatever it might be, this underlying current, the thing that was really real was that people are locked up and they want to go home. And the stuff that I was saying could really only matter but a bit. So, that’s one thing and in terms of reflecting on friends that I know, for me, my work is invested in their lives. A law degree was an opportunity for me to force my way into a conversation. And then I get a law degree, and it’s like yeah, but my friends ain’t going up for parole every year. Or what do you do for somebody that has 50 years? You try to find a way to get them a lawyer, and then what if somebody has 50 years and they’re guilty? Then you help them write a clemency petition, and so I found myself doing these other things that keep me connected to incarceration.

My work has grown, and it has changed. People say, “Dwayne, are you always going to write about prison?” And I’m like, let’s be honest: writing about incarceration is an expansive thing. And it’s more than just one or two or a thousand things. I’m arrogant as anybody else, but I’m not so arrogant as to believe that I’ve even adequately covered what it meant to serve a day in prison let alone to serve decades and decades. So, what has happened is that what I do is completely tied to that. And does that mean that you won’t get an epic poem about trees from me? Yeah. That’s not what I’m going to write. I’m not going to write the 500-word poem about garbage. Literally, that’s not going to be the thing I’m writing. But I’m going to try my best to write about the thing that’s in the center, for me, of what it means to be an American today. Immigration and incarceration—this is the center of what it means to be an American.

WT: I wanted to mention this essay of yours that I really think is great. It comes from American Poetry Review, and it’s called “Feeling Fucked Up.” It’s about the poetry of Etheridge Knight. In it you address some of the ideas that you’re addressing now, which is that prison is an individual tragedy, but there’s also a collective narrative and architecture to this. You see him as somebody who’s beginning to articulate that, and we see that more directly in a book like

The New Jim Crow. I wonder if you could talk about that essay and how you discovered Etheridge Knight’s poetry a little bit.

RDB: I would probably think about that in reverse. I think if you look at the work of Etheridge Knight you see what it means to be incarcerated and the impact, not just on the individual, but the family far more acutely than by reading a book like The New Jim Crow. One of the things that those texts written about incarceration fundamentally can’t grapple with, that poets have to grapple with is what it means to be guilty, what it means to be violent, what it means to know violent people. You take a poem like “For Freckle-Faced Gerald,” which is about a 16-year-old who gets incarcerated and then gets raped. That poem is obviously about the violence that men inflict on each other in prison. But it’s also about the structural violence of the state, and the poem names itself as such. The poem names itself as Gerald not knowing the older and wiser buzzards that plotted for the loss of his balls decades in advance.

Etheridge Knight names that thing, and if you take a poem like “The Idea of Ancestry,” where he’s talking about looking at 47 photos on the wall. And those are pictures of his family members, and he starts recounting how he almost kicked this habit. And the poem doesn’t tell you, but the habit is the heroin habit he picked up while being a soldier in the Korean War. The poem didn’t go into that, which invites a discussion of the structural issues of the ways in which society brings us to this point. And yes, society isn’t responsible for our incarceration, but there can be all kinds of responses to criminal behavior besides putting people in cages. But anyway, in that poem it’s Etheridge Knight grappling with his complicity and what happened that took him away from his family.

So, I actually think that the poetry does a far better job than a book, any book that’s non-fiction, that’s agenda-driven could ever do. Bastards of the Reagan Era is not driven by an agenda. I think that the honesty and truth carries its own agenda and demands that we respond to each other and to society in a different way. And I don’t need to tell you that I’m flawless to invite you to respond to me in a better way when I’m writing poetry. When I’m writing memoir it’s the same thing, but when I’m writing academic articles, when I’m writing op-eds, that shit is driven by ideology. That shit is driven by me being convinced that I need a cudgel to make you see things my way. So, I am adamantly against this notion that no matter how impactful any of these texts have been that have made it into the mainstream consciousness that they ever do a better job than literature or music or poetry, because they don’t. Because if they did, then the first act of the federal legislation right now, criminal justice reform, prison reform—it would be far more robust. It wouldn’t be what it is right now.

From the Episode, Part 2 Zachary Lazar on the Angola Prison in Louisiana

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Zach, maybe you can talk to us about what day-to-day life is really like in Angola? Or at least what your experience of daily life was as an outsider. I don’t know anything about Angola.

Zachary Lazar: Yeah, well, the first impression one would make of Angola is of a Southern prison farm. It’s very large. It’s bigger than Manhattan. It has—

Whitney Terrell: What?! Wait a second.


VVG: Yeah, hold the phone—can we go back to that?

ZL: It’s bigger than Manhattan, and so there are many different camps and many different prisons within this giant space that is bordered by rivers and mountains, such that there doesn’t even need to be a perimeter fence around this place. It’s very hard to escape from it. And, you know, it would not be unlikely that you would form a picture of modern-day slavery, because you have inmates working in the farm fields—most of whom are black, being overseen by white men on horseback with guns.

WT: God.

ZL: That’s a very vivid first impression one often makes at Angola. Having said that, there is some nuance to work into this, because it is . . .

Whitney: Can we just go back a little bit? They’re working fields that are—for what reason? Whose fields are they? What are they doing? I mean what is the actual purpose of the work, other than just to waste time?

Zach: No, they’re literally growing vegetables for food, for the prison there and for the prison system in general.

Whitney: Okay.

Zach: They’re raising cattle. I don’t think the cattle are slaughtered on the premises, but there are a lot of cattle there. There’s a license plate factory there. There are poultry farms, and there’s a poultry plant I believe. There’s a lot of, you know, labor that goes on at Angola. It also has this flavor of a military encampment. It’s all men, of course. They sleep mostly in dormitories—about 60 guys per dorm.

WT: Does the movie Hud take place there?

ZL: [laughs] It doesn’t, but it’s very reminiscent, yeah.

WT: Okay. I mean, ’cause everything you’re describing sounds like that film.

ZT: Yeah, no, it’s very—exactly. It very much reminds one of that. The thing that should be said about Angola is that it was once the bloodiest prison in America. It is not the most bloody prison in America now, but what it is instead is this place where people are serving these extraordinarily long sentences—usually after having had very inadequate trials. And so there’s also this odd monastic quality to it, because people are locked up for their lives. And they are thinking about that a lot. And there are all these clubs and organizations within the prison: anything from a chess club to various religious groups, singing groups, musical groups, sports . . . there is a rodeo that happens two times a year. And part of the rodeo also includes a huge craft fair where guys who make anything from jewelry to elaborate lawn furniture out of wood—they can sell that stuff during the rodeo.

It’s hard to describe the strangeness of Angola, and I still go there a lot. I’m going there tomorrow, actually, to visit a friend. And what always strikes me is how I’ve forgotten how bizarre it is and how chilling it is, even though I’ve been there a lot of times. So I know that when I arrive there tomorrow at the gate I will again be stunned by the place itself. Everybody who is able-bodied works in those fields. They start working for, I think, five cents an hour. The maximum—you get a series of raises—the maximum raise takes you to 20 cents an hour.

WT: Oh my God.

VVG: Oh my God.

ZL: Yeah . . .

VVG: Can we go back for a second? You said that Angola was the bloodiest prison and isn’t now. Where does that statistic come from, and how is that measured?

ZL: [chuckles]

VVG: Is that from in-prison violence statistics?

ZL: Yes. I’m not a good statistics person, so I couldn’t really tell you that. But this is just the general story, and it’s told to me over and over again by incarcerated people. The battle days are sort of over, and it’s attributed to a couple of different wardens, most notably though a guy who was there for over 20 years—no longer there, but he Christianized the prison. And that had a large effect on the violence. It had other effects that I would not be so approving of, but again, there is this . . .

So I have a friend now for five years who’s written his own novel about Angola. He’s serving a life sentence there. And I was just rereading a passage of it, and he talks about this too in his novel. It’s a scene in which this young man is just arriving there, and he’s getting his feet—figuring out what’s going on. And he realizes, “Eh, this is not the wild, dangerous place that I thought it was going to be”—that those days are sort of in the past, and that what you have now is people just trying to make the best of what’s here, either so that they can try to get out some day or keep their level of privilege within this sort of hierarchy of privileges that exist.

Within the space of Angola, there are different layers of freedom—levels of freedom one can have. And so if you have the highest level of privilege, you can . . . For example, a man who works for the prison magazine, he has a key to that office and he can go in there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even at night, he can leave his dorm and go in there. He has an extraordinarily high level of freedom within that institution. It’s very unusual. It’s its own world is what I think I’m trying to convey. It really is its own world.

VVG: It sounds like its own country.

ZL: Yes. Yes it is.


This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcriptions by Erin Saxon and Kevin Kotur.

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