NAACP Image Award winner Reginald Dwayne Betts has returned to bookshelves with a powerful collection of poems in his latest work Shahid Reads His Own Palm.
Through his poetry, the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice recounts his personal experiences and those of other inmates he encountered during a nine-year stint in some of Virginia’s most dangerous adult prisons.
Betts was sentenced to jail after carjacking a man in December 1996 at the age of 16. He kept his sanity in prison by devouring one book at a time, and eventually uncovered his gift for writing poetry.
In Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts allows his readers to become engulfed in the minds and experiences of different men that have been imprisoned and their perceptions of judgments imposed upon them from the outside world. The poems, in often graphic detail, explain the chilling truths of prison lives weighed by lost dreams and regret.
“Each poem is just there to present the humanity of the people that live there , the humanity and the brutality… All of the poems try to get at what I experienced as witness and prisoner,” Betts told the AFRO.
In thought-provoking poems such as “What your Mother Asks, and What I Never Say,” Betts sheds light on controversial subjects such as homosexual experiences in prison.
Although Betts said he does not favor any of his poems over another, he is currently contemplating, “Ode to a Kite,” which illustrates the stunting of one’s dreams while he or she is imprisoned. Betts said he has grown fond of “the way that it captures the importance of the written word and what words can do.”
Since prison, Betts has revitalized his life. As a May 2009 graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, Betts gave the student commencement speech as his graduation. He has been awarded the Holden Fellowship from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for writers, the Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, a Cave Canem Fellowship and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf’s Writer’s Conference.