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Felon: Poems

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Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration in fierce, dazzling poems—canvassing a wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and grace—and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of postincarceration existence and examines Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration in fierce, dazzling poems—canvassing a wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and grace—and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of postincarceration existence and examines prison not as a static space, but as a force that enacts pressure throughout a person’s life. The poems move between traditional and newfound forms with power and agility—from revolutionary found poems created by redacting court documents to the astonishing crown of sonnets that serves as the volume’s radiant conclusion. Drawing inspiration from lawsuits filed on behalf of the incarcerated, the redaction poems focus on the ways we exploit and erase the poor and imprisoned from public consciousness. Traditionally, redaction erases what is top secret; in Felon, Betts redacts what is superfluous, bringing into focus the profound failures of the criminal justice system and the inadequacy of the labels it generates. Challenging the complexities of language, Betts animates what it means to be a "felon."


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Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration in fierce, dazzling poems—canvassing a wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and grace—and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of postincarceration existence and examines Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration in fierce, dazzling poems—canvassing a wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and grace—and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of postincarceration existence and examines prison not as a static space, but as a force that enacts pressure throughout a person’s life. The poems move between traditional and newfound forms with power and agility—from revolutionary found poems created by redacting court documents to the astonishing crown of sonnets that serves as the volume’s radiant conclusion. Drawing inspiration from lawsuits filed on behalf of the incarcerated, the redaction poems focus on the ways we exploit and erase the poor and imprisoned from public consciousness. Traditionally, redaction erases what is top secret; in Felon, Betts redacts what is superfluous, bringing into focus the profound failures of the criminal justice system and the inadequacy of the labels it generates. Challenging the complexities of language, Betts animates what it means to be a "felon."

30 review for Felon: Poems

  1. 4 out of 5

    Roxane

    Outstanding poems about incarceration and how a man can still feel like he is in a cage as he walks free. The range here is impressive. There is a real honesty here of a man who is looking into himself without blinking. At times, it is uncomfortable, but in a good way. The redacted poems about bail injustice are particularly powerful but really, the collection as individual poems and as a whole, is incredibly moving, nuanced, and compelling.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    These poems tell the truth about how prison changes you, how it never leaves you, and what relationships are like afterward, particularly if you are also black and recently incarcerated. It is its own form of PTSD. This collection came out from W.W. Norton on October 15th.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    This will almost certainly be my choice for best poetry volume for 2019. Betts has written powerfully of his experience in and after prison--he wound up incarcerated as a result of a dumb youthful mistake that probably wouldn't have landed an affluent and/or white kid in jail. After his release, he pursued a law degree and has now established himself as both a writer and a lawyer. Which, as Felon makes crystal clear, doesn't mean his life is anything resembling easy. The shadows of his actions This will almost certainly be my choice for best poetry volume for 2019. Betts has written powerfully of his experience in and after prison--he wound up incarcerated as a result of a dumb youthful mistake that probably wouldn't have landed an affluent and/or white kid in jail. After his release, he pursued a law degree and has now established himself as both a writer and a lawyer. Which, as Felon makes crystal clear, doesn't mean his life is anything resembling easy. The shadows of his actions and his incarceration loom over every one of these poems. He's both honest and lyrical in confronting the inside of his head and the effects his thoughts have on marriage and family. It's hard, hard, the deepest kind of blues. He's aware of the relationship between the personal swamp and structures of power that don't play out into justice or equal treatment before the law: the series of "found poems" based on redacted court briefs is searing. But he's not running away from his own complicity either. Some lines: "We live somewhere between almost there/ & not enough" "I know hurt like a wandering song." And from the brilliant "I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving:" & this is why I hate it all, the protests & their counters, the Civil Rights attorneys that stalk the bodies of the murdered, this dance of ours that reduces humanity to the dichotomy of the veil. We are not permitted to articulate the reasons we might yearn to see a man die. A mind may abandon sanity. What if all I had stomach for was blood? But history is no sieve & sanity is no elixir & I am bound to be haunted by the strength that let's Tamir's father, mother & kinfolk resist the temptation to turn everything they see into a grave & make home the series of cells that so many brothers already call their tomb.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jeimy

    These poems are raw and best appreciated listening to the audiobook which is read by the author.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emmkay

    Betts was incarcerated for years after participating in a carjacking as a teen. He is now a Yale law graduate and an accomplished poet, whose work speaks to the complex realities of race, gender, and mass incarceration. His work feels very masculine in tone, the relationship to self and others infused with the effects of (state and personal) violence, the relationship with an absent father, and frequent mention of whiskey. These were powerful poems, and varied in form. Among them were Ghazal (a Betts was incarcerated for years after participating in a carjacking as a teen. He is now a Yale law graduate and an accomplished poet, whose work speaks to the complex realities of race, gender, and mass incarceration. His work feels very masculine in tone, the relationship to self and others infused with the effects of (state and personal) violence, the relationship with an absent father, and frequent mention of whiskey. These were powerful poems, and varied in form. Among them were Ghazal (a ghazal is a form of Arabic poetry consisting of rhyming couplets, but here, each couplet ends the same way, with the phrase ‘after prison’), and a series of brilliant and poignant found ‘redaction poems’ in which Betts has redacted pleadings filed by a civil rights organization challenging the incarceration of people unable to pay bail. Really good.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    “This is the brick & mortar of the America that murdered Tamir & may stalk the laughter in my backseat. I am a father driving his Black sons to school & the death of a Black boy rides shotgun & this could be a funeral procession. The Death a silent thing in the air, unmentioned- because mentioning death invites taboo...” “Lost in what's gone. Reinventing myself with lies: I walk these streets, ruined by what I hide. Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine. Did a stretch in prison to be “This is the brick & mortar of the America that murdered Tamir & may stalk the laughter in my backseat. I am a father driving his Black sons to school & the death of a Black boy rides shotgun & this could be a funeral procession. The Death a silent thing in the air, unmentioned- because mentioning death invites taboo...” “Lost in what's gone. Reinventing myself with lies: I walk these streets, ruined by what I hide. Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine. Did a stretch in prison to be released to a cell. Returned to freedom penned by Orwell. My noon temptation is now the Metro's third rail. In my wallet, I carry around a daguerrotype, A mugshot, no smiles, my name a tithe. What must I pay for being this stereotype?” ^These 2 excerpts, are from Felon: Poems. It is a beautiful but also hard-hitting collection, directing an insightful spotlight on the Black experience in America today. It may end up being the best collection I have read this year. Warbling loud and clear...

  7. 4 out of 5

    chantel nouseforaname

    You can feel the suffocation.. the ways that America, it's systemic injustice coupled with one's own personal mistakes can create a lack of space around a black man. I loved these poems. Traumatic. Eye-opening. We're fortunate that in his personal space, Reginald has found words. He is a master wordsmith. You can feel his truths liberating himself and others through each page. He takes you through a range of his thoughts and emotions yet stokes the fires inside you allowing you to locate, You can feel the suffocation.. the ways that America, it's systemic injustice coupled with one's own personal mistakes can create a lack of space around a black man. I loved these poems. Traumatic. Eye-opening. We're fortunate that in his personal space, Reginald has found words. He is a master wordsmith. You can feel his truths liberating himself and others through each page. He takes you through a range of his thoughts and emotions yet stokes the fires inside you allowing you to locate, wrestle with and sit inside of your own. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. NPR's best of 2019 brought me to Mr. Betts.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ace Boggess

    This collection is as close to perfect as any on this subject that I can imagine. The themes are personal to me. The writing is beautiful and disturbing. Many of the poems take on subjects (namely prison and life after prison) that I've been trying to write about for years, but they do it so much better. Some of these are poems I wish I had written. Throughout the book, both the language and insight shared are moving, like in this opening of the poem "Confession": "If I told her how often I This collection is as close to perfect as any on this subject that I can imagine. The themes are personal to me. The writing is beautiful and disturbing. Many of the poems take on subjects (namely prison and life after prison) that I've been trying to write about for years, but they do it so much better. Some of these are poems I wish I had written. Throughout the book, both the language and insight shared are moving, like in this opening of the poem "Confession": "If I told her how often I thought Of prison she would walk out Of the door that's led just as much To madness as any home we Desired, she would walk our & never Return; my employers would call Me a liar & fire me. My dreams are Not all nightmares, but this history Has turned my mind's landscape into A gadroon. I do not sing...." The entire collection is filled with writing like that, except for a few long erasure poems made from legal documents. It's just so compelling. Even if you haven't been locked up, you will feel these poems: the anger, the sadness, the love of life, and also its dread. If there's one book I've read this year that I wish everyone would pick up, it's this one. Honestly, if the poems weren't as good as they are, the book would still be worth it just to read this one line from "Whisky for Breakfast": " even G-d has no alibi." Read this book. Read it twice.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Glennys Egan

    I read this slowly, a poem or two each evening over a few weeks. It was needed to absorb the stories, confessions, tributes contained in these. A deeply moving collection. The redaction pieces are especially powerful.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sandee

    The Redaction Poems are an absolute highlight in this collection. So powerful and an inspiring project that sheds light on how our current bail system unfairly impacts the poor. But holy hell, the writing style offers a few gut punches. Loved this collection. " Holding on, ensuring that nothing survives, Not even regret. That's the thing that gets you, Holding on to memories like they're your archives, Like they're there to tell you something true About what happened. My past put a skew On how I The Redaction Poems are an absolute highlight in this collection. So powerful and an inspiring project that sheds light on how our current bail system unfairly impacts the poor. But holy hell, the writing style offers a few gut punches. Loved this collection. " Holding on, ensuring that nothing survives, Not even regret. That's the thing that gets you, Holding on to memories like they're your archives, Like they're there to tell you something true About what happened. My past put a skew On how I held her. Unaccustomed to touch, I knew only dream & fantasy. Try to see through That mire & find intimacy. It was just so much. & then, the yesterdays just become yesterday, A story that you tell yourself about not dying, Another thing, when it's mentioned, to downplay. That's what me & that woman did, trying To love each other. What kind of fool am I, Lost in what's gone, reinventing myself with lies."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Chanice HG

    A very powerful, lyrical look at incarceration—the poems tackle the subject from many angles, through many forms. The redacted poems, made from real lawsuits, were among some of the strongest, adding to the weight these poems carry. Betts uses beautiful language & lines to describe something that can’t be called such.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Benja

    one of my favorite poets collections ever

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    A confession begins when I walked Black out of that parking lot. A confession began when I, without combing my hair, dressed For a day that would find me walking out of that parking lot.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

    I urge you to hear Betts read if you can. The poems in Felon do many things, including linger in loss and sadness. With our justice system, I'm not sure it could be any other way. A strong review: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Elliot

    Amazing.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Iva Velickovic

    thought-provoking, sometimes jarring, often melodic. some of the most effective poems for me, post- law school, were those that redacted cases--an important reminder that, under all the legalese, there are real, devastating, human lives.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Elle

    This book should be required reading for us all. I started the book and had to stop reflect. I wanted to savory every word of the book, and now that I have finished a part of me is looking forward to engaging it again. There is a heaviness to the book and makes reading it require that the reader bring something to the reading. The words and images linger in a way that makes one wonder what kind of country are we living in. Thank you, Mr. Betts, for your thoughtfulness, willingness to be This book should be required reading for us all. I started the book and had to stop reflect. I wanted to savory every word of the book, and now that I have finished a part of me is looking forward to engaging it again. There is a heaviness to the book and makes reading it require that the reader bring something to the reading. The words and images linger in a way that makes one wonder what kind of country are we living in. Thank you, Mr. Betts, for your thoughtfulness, willingness to be vulnerable, and the challenge that you give the reader to see what society hides from our view. If you cannot tell, I loved this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nadia

    All in all this was a solid collection, although as with all poetry collections there were one or two which simply missed the mark for me, and one or two I'll want to revisit later. The most powerful poems in this collection for me were the ones which were constructed from redacted court files, and were the literal representation of being dipped in tar that is mentioned in the beginning on the book, and featured on the cover. What a beautiful way to tie these ideas together. Reading this All in all this was a solid collection, although as with all poetry collections there were one or two which simply missed the mark for me, and one or two I'll want to revisit later. The most powerful poems in this collection for me were the ones which were constructed from redacted court files, and were the literal representation of being dipped in tar that is mentioned in the beginning on the book, and featured on the cover. What a beautiful way to tie these ideas together. Reading this immediately after reading Solitary by Albert Woodfox gave some of the names and experience more context for me, which I was glad for.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Siobhain

    Wow. Wow. Wow. This is by far the best poetry collection I have ever read, EVER. I love Betts’s poetry in general, but damn this collection is phenomenal. I had my reading students read, “Ghazal,” “Parking Lot,” “Parking Lot, too,” and “Essay on Reentry” all three poems, and almost all of my students cried or teared up, and I did, as well. An incisive, moving, and thoughtful poetry collection on incarceration, being black in America, loss, choices, and fatherhood, which are particularly Wow. Wow. Wow. This is by far the best poetry collection I have ever read, EVER. I love Betts’s poetry in general, but damn this collection is phenomenal. I had my reading students read, “Ghazal,” “Parking Lot,” “Parking Lot, too,” and “Essay on Reentry” all three poems, and almost all of my students cried or teared up, and I did, as well. An incisive, moving, and thoughtful poetry collection on incarceration, being black in America, loss, choices, and fatherhood, which are particularly affecting. I’m going to write more as I fully digest this poetry collection, but damn.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Shelby S

    A raw and real view of life before, during and after incarceration. This would serve as a great companion text to Orange is the New Black, either the show or the book. I enjoyed several of the men’s style of writing. Though I do like blackout poetry, I didn’t really like the way they did their “redaction” poems. Otherwise a pretty good read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Robin McCarthy

    What a gut punch. If the job of the poem is to summon something internal that can’t be articulated, this book’s knocking it out of the park in its ability to live inside contradiction. And the poems are just really captivating. The redactions, in particular, stopped me in my tracks. I’ll come back to this collection again, and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dana Amico

    Poetry at its finest. The blackout poems were especially fantastic - there were too many favorites to name. A lot of “wow”s while reading this. PS this is maybe the best bound book I’ve ever opened (the pages are just really nice and open so well.)

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jack Jones Literary Arts

    Phenomenal!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jan Ayers

    Now I have to read everything he has written....this collection is that good.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    An incredibly moving series of poems about incarceration and what comes after. Would pair well with Just Mercy, The Sun Does Shine, and other books about our deeply flawed criminal justice system.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Aaron S

    For some these poems will be too raw. For some too painful. Some too intellectual. Some will call them life. Some might say they’re beautiful. For me they are the real deal.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I've read some incredible poetry this year but Felon has to be my favorite. Especially the redaction poems - brilliant.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jene

    If I could give 5 stars to some I would - the redacted poems about bail injustice are exceptionally powerful.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Leonard

    Collection of original poems, many about being incarcerated. Looks as if some of these are found poems also that were altered by blacking out many of the words. Interesting.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anastacia

    Can't relate to the way it's written

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