These Truths: A World Voices Podcast

These Truths is a new, limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.

Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.

In this conversation, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts and folks from PEN America’s Prison & Justice Writing Program talk about the writer’s role in deepening the American public’s understanding of mass incarceration at a pivotal moment in time.

CHIP ROLLEY: Welcome back to These Truths, a World Voices Podcast exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. I’m Chip Rolley, Director of PEN World Voices Festival. Today we will explore how literature can bring us to a greater understanding of those most marginalized by society. 

Caits Meissner and Robbie Pollock run PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, which amplifies the work of writers who are currently and formerly incarcerated. They’ll introduce us to two writers who will feature in an upcoming event presented with Haymarket Books, and then Caits will talk to poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts.

First, here are Caits and Robbie in conversation.

ROBBIE POLLOCK: I’m Robbie Pollock. I’m the Prison Writing Program Manager at PEN America. I run the prison writing mentorships and a lot of the contests and the daily correspondence we get from writers all over the country who are incarcerated.

“Our philosophy, I’ll put up right up front, is that our work is connective, not charitable. We are looking at writers in prison as being people with full holistic talents and contributions.”
—Caits Meissner

CAITS MEISSNER: I’m Caits Meissner. I am the Director of the Prison and Justice Writing Program at PEN America, and also a writer and artist.

The Prison Writing Program at PEN America has a 40-plus-year legacy starting in the early 1970s after the Attica uprising, really looking at the written word as a form of power—legitimate power. And that program has revolved around three main pillars that I’ll ask Robbie to share in a moment in a little more in depth, but that looks like our Handbook for Writers in Prison resource, which is a book we send to about 200 people a month who are incarcerated. That book is now being re-visioned and re-edited.

We have a mentor program and a prison writing contest that elevates the voices of writers on the inside. And then we have a more recent Writing for Justice Fellowship. That’s completed two cycles of cohorts. Reginald Dwayne Betts, who is on the call with us and who you’ll hear from shortly, was within that first cohort of fellows. That program awards writers—really, an ecosystem of writers—with both lived justice experience and without, and other connections to the justice space, to confront critical issues connected to mass incarceration through writing projects.

Our philosophy, I’ll put up right up front, is that our work is connective, not charitable. We are looking at writers in prison as being people with full holistic talents and contributions. And we are looking to be in partnership with people in the way that we presence them, both as contributors to the conversation on justice and beyond. Much more to say about that, but I want it to pause to invite Robbie to talk just a little bit more about our mentor program and our contest.

POLLOCK: Yeah. I think it’s really cool. We accept over a thousand entries every year in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama from writers all over the country. They pour their hearts out, talking about all kinds of interesting themes. Some are set in prison; some are about love, loss, family, memories—you know, all kinds of topics that we don’t often consider as being “prison writing.” And our panel of judges, which Caits and I’ve worked very hard in the last two years to bolster—both having judges who have 30 years experience working, advocating in the justice space and its intersection with literature, but also filling it with fresh voices who are more diverse and increasingly in-the-know about issues dealing with mass incarceration—so that we have a very broad spectrum and results from the contest.

When we get the winners of the contest, we assign them writing mentors from all over the country. They exchange three letters about the work and often make very deep connections and can choose to continue. For the most part, all of the mentorships are life-giving.

This year we have a new award: the Madeleine L’Engle/Ahmad Rahman Award for Mentorship. It celebrates the sort of peer relationship that we’re describing as being connective and not charitable, that everyone has a lot to learn when we cross divides, walls, institutions, and barriers, and use art and writing as the vehicle to bridge that gap. Does that work, Caits?

MEISSNER: I would add that part of our journey is also really shifting this powerful and long-standing program to also be a little more flexible. So I’ll just share briefly that last year, we engaged a National Novel Writing Month pilot as a way to think about how we also engage mentorship with people on the inside as mentors, not just mentees. So we had four peer facilitators, in their facilities, working with groups they gathered to write a novel in a month with our support. And we did a lot of posting and sharing of their journey and inviting comments back that we shared from the public.

So, that was one step of more that we’re considering to make mentorship truly multidirectional—not just in philosophy, but in action. So that’s what we’re looking towards this year.

POLLOCK: Actually, it’s really weird, ‘cause when we pivoted to remote work, I think all of us were afraid about the future of our work—about how it makes sense with a pandemic raging through prisons and people being put at serious risk, and what we could do responsibly. And Caits came back to me with the idea of Temperature Check, using our existing Works of Justice blog, but specifically creating a rapid-response series.

MEISSNER: Well, obviously, you’re deeply involved in this! The Works of Justice blog was, in fact, your idea to uplift the content that we were already doing. The live events would then be on a podcast stream, and we were pretty amazed after you launched about the organic engagement we were getting with zero promotion. In many ways, the space you set up opened the door to this. It just is leaning on our pillars of the program, right? Part of our work is in amplifying and centering the voices of directly impacted people. So, Temperature Check consists of what we call a “dispatch,” or original creative reporting from people on the inside.

We’ve had short prose; we’ve had poems; we’ve had graphic narratives. We called on them, and invited them, and paid them to talk about their experience. And the podcast is often with somebody who’s working in the field—in policy, in grassroots organizing who directly support people coming home from prison during COVID. And then, we were getting emails from people in our community, saying, “What can I do? I’m seeing this!” And so, we took it upon ourselves as a call to action to start rounding up other advocacy efforts people could be involved in. So, thank you for giving me a chance to share a little bit about that.

So, Robbie, I’m really, really, really excited to share with the world this podcast experience that we’ve put together. The podcast is works read by people, standing in for writers in prison, pulled from our Prison Writing Archives over the years, and they’re really exceptional works. And you have taken all of these contributions and expertly woven them together into a complete and holistic listening experience that is quite moving. And we’re launching that on June 11th at 5:00 PM with a live listening session in partnership with Haymarket Books. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about some of your creative choices in putting that work together. 

POLLOCK: Well, we do a lot of live events of incarcerated people’s writing. And the events all have a certain shape. So, like, usually very little music—you know, sit down, and people read. Producing live events in the digital space, I think we’re aware of creating as rich a tapestry of art from directly impacted people as possible. And I can’t overstate the value of our curators who found amazing work that’s in conversation with each other. And also, my dear friend Kenyatta Hughes, who provided music for the episode—some songs that have never been heard by the world and recorded in a pandemic environment, in his apartment, in the largest projects in New York City. While the world melts down around him, he’s recording these songs of love, and we’re weaving it into narratives of pain and loss and life behind the walls.

Caits, do you have thoughts about the specific pieces, and how they were chosen, and what they add?

MEISSNER: We have pieces that talk about people giving birth in prison, a diary written from a mother to their baby. We have a piece about loss, which feels incredibly relevant in this moment. A piece that Nicole Shawan Junior reads with such a profound power and necessary anger.

NICOLE SHAWAN JUNIOR: Hello, my name is Nicole Shawan Junior. I am grateful to give voice to the literary art created by another woman writer who happens to be incarcerated. I am honored to read this poem about women, like the ones who raised me—women like the ones I love most. 

Prison Eulogies
By Yvette M. Louisell

The ones who died
never mattered much
except in here
where the stories never end
because they’re too real

who beat her girl
until she got out
and got her own self

who laughed & laughed
until that last hit
hit her vein

Whoda thought
a pulled tooth
would make Kim
bleed to death
or that Pat’s heart
was really that bad

They don’t make announcements here
but we always know
And every time,
I can’t kneel down
for months after
My mouth won’t move
the way it should

It’s not me
It’s never me
It’s always me

“The people we hear on these recordings are, like, real people with real problems. It’s a gift to the listener—the sacrifice made for people to presence other people’s voices, but also to share their own pain through the work.”
—Robbie Pollock

MEISSNER: We have poems that talk about relationships with mothers, with friends, with the world, with finding peace and grace among horror and terror and madness. We have a play that talks about racial dynamics in prison. The pieces are not a monolith by any means and show the range of storytelling that happens behind the walls.

I think you touched on it, Robbie. There was a kind of a false idea that either everybody in prison is only writing about prison, which is not true, and/or there’s a feeling of surprise when people hear the work, and it’s often from people who are even maybe a little politicized to say: “I can’t believe that came out of prison.” I think that’s part of why we do this work is to show these ingrained biases and stereotypes. And it exposes the way that our biases are really present, and they get pulled out in that moment, and we’re able to look at them.

POLLOCK: The people we hear on these recordings are, like, real people with real problems. It’s a gift to the listener—the sacrifice made for people to presence other people’s voices, but also to share their own pain through the work.

MEISSNER: I think we’re also uplifting and showing excellence, which just gives a sense of the holistic humanity that we’re not privy to or is not invited into our worlds hardly ever. 

The poem you’re about to hear is written by inaugural Writing for Justice Fellow Justin Rovillos Monson, a favorite poet of mine, sharing a coming of age story of “two boys, different shades of Brown” and the tenderness between them before the world became complex.

CASEY GERALD: This is Casey Gerald reading “Notes for if I Fade Away: Brownout ’03” by Justin Rovillos Monson.

This is to remind you that I loved you 
way back. You, with your sleepless 
rivers & strings of power lines—titans 
gathered into formations of tender 
flesh & luminous pleasures. You 
are always moving. Longing, we say,
because desire is full of endless distances.
An apartment building. Two boys, different 
shades of brown. Sun above, acting 
as father. Prayer as two fists arcing—brown
boy with good hair choked by the parentheses 
of his shoulders—broken horse. Please don’t 
mistake these notes for elegies. These are the breaks 

the summer where I learned of hunger & the absence 
of pain. Bridgewater, that slagheap 
hooptee moored in our oak-ridden suburbs. Glimmers 
of future lives. Sashabaw, Dixie 
Maybee. Loose change for 75 cent coneys. The big homies 
pushing bags behind the skatepark—all the white 
paint peeling off the divider wall. The chain-link 
fence we tore back between our cracked pavement 
& the fairway. The brownout that melted five 
days—how I dipped my feather-light body 
in the tub to keep cool. The water 
searching me like so many soft lights. The general
mind was hollow back then & I did as I do now 
sketched your patterns into the margins 
of my ribs. This was before Meet me 
at the corner wash or your turn to go 
to the Marathon became slang for the lies 
we believed. Before the 3AM streetlights 
the palms crowded with earth-tones. Before I learned 
logic & before we should’ve read Hamlet: Lord, 
we know who we are yet we know not what 
we may be. Where I learned to be in the middle 
of bright islands & dimebags. Those whisper-filled trees 
the pavement begging to kiss my knees.

ROLLEY: Next, Caits Meissner will speak with Reginald Dwayne Betts. He is the author of four books, his latest a poetry collection called Felon. Betts recently received his J.D. from the Yale Law School.

MEISSNER: Welcome, Dwayne. You are a poet. You’re a lawyer. You were a 2018-2019 Writing for Justice Fellow—of course, I have to shout that out. And you also have lived experience in the system. So, before we go into the moment of time we’re in right now, and some of the questions that I have for you around that, I want to talk a little bit about your own journey. You have a memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, And people should certainly read that to hear your full story. But I was wondering if you could contextualize where you come to this conversation at the intersection of literature and justice.
REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, right? Because I was educated in a way that was fundamentally different from how most people get their education. Some type of understanding about the world comes from, you know, going to K through 12. And then going to undergrad, then maybe going to grad school. 

But getting locked up so early meant that first I finished high school in a jail cell, having to direct my own education, and then going to prison in a place where there was no programming. I constantly had to make decisions about what I wanted to read, and a lot of it was sort of haphazard and whimsical. But what I naturally gravitated towards was really this idea that most stories are in some way about trying to understand the human condition.

And many of the stories were about trying to understand it through a lens of justice. And so, I remember reading The Jungle for the first time. I remember reading Of Mice and Men for the first time. I remember reading A Lesson Before Dying for the first time, and getting all of this knowledge about the world and knowledge about what justice might look like and what the failure to achieve justice looks like, you know, through books.

And so, how I came to this moment, thinking about this intersection between literature and justice, is just that my diet of literature has always been sort of consumed with the backdrop of prison. And that meant that my understanding of what the written word can do, and maybe even what the written word should do, has always been somehow viscerally related to pursuing justice.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Earlier in the podcast, we talked about the work of our program and why it’s important to really center the voices of justice-involved writers. We work primarily with currently incarcerated writers. I wanted to hear if you think that’s important, and also why that might be necessary at this moment in time.
BETTS: Oh man, I don’t even know what a justice-involved writer it is. You know, we draw lines, and we think that the lines are convenient, because they help us understand where people are situated better. But I think, like, far too often—man, when we start drawing lines that become generalizations, those lines are used just as much to oppress us. I mean, I struggle with it, you know. 

I don’t have any unique desire to hear from justice-involved writers. Matt Ruff is white and he wrote Lovecraft Country. He wrote a book that centers Black characters, that centers a struggle against white supremacy, and he white. I’m not certain that there’s any demand for justice-involved writers as much as it’s a demand for excellent writers who care about these issues, who are willing to explore these issues, and are willing to do it in a way that is not that didactic. 

You know, I’m just dope. I mean, I like to think I’m dope, but I like to think that I’m not dope because I’m a justice-involved writer. And in fact, sometimes I feel like if I push a term like that, I’m doing the same thing that the person did when they told a friend of mine that I only get the accolades I get because I’ve been in prison. So, I just think it’s a real danger. And all of these ways in which we imagine that proximity necessitates a value that is beyond proximity. You know, if you’re proximate to the fire, it just means that you’re being burned. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your proximity makes you understand that water is a better decision than oil. 

And I should say that when I speak about “proximity,” I’m thinking really specifically about a lot of contemporary thinkers around incarceration. Maybe most specifically Glenn Martin and Bryan Stevenson is saying, and I’m not suggesting that I disagree with them. I’m suggesting that, sometimes, we turn the truth in their statements into something that maybe becomes reductive. Definitely Martin, as somebody who did time and trained and worked with others to train themselves to be thoughtful and a leader and able to negotiate with stakeholders and lead initiatives. And Bryan Stevenson, as somebody who has been trained to be an attorney, and has done this work for decades. It is not just their proximity to the problem that is what makes them who they are. And I feel like, sometimes, when we say things like, “Is it important to hear from justice-involved writers?,” we are suggesting that it’s just the proximity that makes their voices valuable when in fact, those who do have voices that are valuable—like Randall Horton, like Vivian Nixon, like Mitchell Jackson—it is a product of the same kind of thing to make Jesmyn Ward’s voice valuable.

You know? And what that is is a combination of intellect and insight, and a willingness to go to there. I guess I’m kind of on a tangent, but I’m on a tangent because I’m a damn contrarian. 

MEISSNER: Well, I’ll bring it back, ’cause I actually think it’s incredibly relevant, what you say. We are always attempting to walk towards a world where that label becomes eradicated, because there really is no such thing as “prison writing” as a genre. But we’re not there yet in the world. It’s hard to escape the need to still frame it. 

So, with that said, this also speaks to the experience of people who are coming home, and the way that these labels tag and follow you, and your collection of poetry, Felon, which our fellowship gave you just a little funding to work on. It’s an unbelievable book, and it really talks about the aftermath of incarceration. So, I would love to ask you about your intentions and your hopes in writing this book, and also to hear a piece from it before we move into a question.
BETTS: The way I think about Felon. . . I think I’m trying to raise some of the questions I find important and necessary, and I’m trying to deal more in story and deal in the ways in which we could all imagine ourselves occupying some of these spaces. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve sort of pushed back against the justice-involved piece is because, you know, if I want you to be able to embody somebody’s characters that come up in these poems—if I want you to be able to embody these experiences—then I’ve got to believe that is something porous about them, and that they’ll have these strict lines of demarcation. I don’t want people to come to the work and feel like they are witnessing the other. I want them to be able to dig into the work and see reflections of themselves, you know?

BETTS: But anyway, I’ll read one of these. I’ll read “Going Back.”

If I return, it’ll start with a pistol
& what happened
last night, the dark a mask that
never hides
enough. I’ll pour the last of my
drink down so fast,
I’ll choke & cough & then
think about a half dozen 
Black boys sitting on crates in
what passed as woods
around the way, just behind the
landscape of apartments
where Slim told us he had
HIV. If I go back, I’ll 
be thinking of him, and how he
shot the clerk in the
7-Eleven during that robbery, killing
a man because
he was dying. When Fat Boy
learned Slim had that shit,
as we called it back then,
knowing no better than us,
he wrapped
Slim up in a brother’s 
embrace. It changed how I saw the
world. If I return,
the past that I pretend defines me
will not explain the old
feeling of cuffs that capture
my hand’s ambition. A sheriff’s 
car will take me down I-95, &
I’ll tell myself the first time
I went down south was to go to
prison. All of my legacy
will be in my head, rattling
around in that four-door sedan
with the fucked-up suspension. I’ll
ride through my memories, 
will feel time constraining my
dreams. Returning will
take me through what’ll feel like an
entire state filled with cities
named after prisons. My
birthdays of yesterday will
become the water that my head
struggles to break
through. & if I dared mourn &
say a prayer, but
nah, I wouldn’t mourn or say any

“Maybe we do get a grasp on people’s intellect, humanity, and vision through the words that they write, but I don’t think that we get a grasp on who they are to their mothers and fathers and children, who they are to their lovers, who they are to the people who they engage with in a grocery store.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts

MEISSNER: Thank you. The entire book and collection are just as powerful as that piece. Just to transition from your commentary on the world—to stay, just for a moment, on you as an artist. You touched on it a little bit earlier—about who’s writing and their proximity—and there’s a lot of dialogue in the world about who gets to write what. And of course, that’s hooked to a history and whose voices are elevated and who has ownership over their own story. So, it’s not a simple question or answer. But I’m thinking a lot about one of my guiding poets is the poet Ai, who wrote in persona a great deal.

And it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that your poems—there may be an assumption on the behalf of the reader when they read a poem that the “I” is always the author. So, I’m curious, in these moments when there’s a boiling point with issues that have been issues for years—but now we’re really in a groundswell moment—writers are asking these kinds of questions, particularly poets. How and when do I get to enter a voice, and what does it look like to write about issues of the day, if my proximity is not, as you say, right next to the fire? I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
BETTS: Yeah, Ai is a favorite, actually. Her poem, “Riot Act,” is amazing. And it’s a good thing for us to be reading and thinking about right now. But I would say first that I’m not sure if that’s even true. First of all, it’s art, right? And so, the idea that even if the poem I write is me, the idea that that tells you anything about me is a kind of absurdity. Because the poem is just a moment, and I am always going to be more than what’s in that moment. And so, even if that moment is absolutely true, that doesn’t mean that there are other things that are true that precede or follow that moment that would change the way you think about me as a person.

So, I think the poem should be evaluated based on how it functions as art, not how it functions as identity. And I think that’s true of memoir too. Just because you’re Mother Teresa doesn’t mean a memoir you write will be quality art. It doesn’t mean that it’ll be meaningful art. And there are some ways in which the way you behave in a world might so exceed the bounds of morals and norms that what you produce, no matter how artful, is irrelevant—is worthy of being dismissed and not engaged with. But that’s a different standard that frequently we don’t reach when we think about people’s work, right?

And in terms of my own thing—you know, people thinking that I’m the “I” in the poems—it’s because, if you focus in on imagining that you read my bio when you hear me read a poem, or when you read a poem that I wrote, it’s just because you’re missing something. 

And frankly, I lie all the time in poetry, because there are things that I need to say that are true about the world that aren’t true about my life. And I’m trying to start conversations, and I’m trying to grapple with the rippling effects of incarceration in a way that it follows you, and it plagues you in ways that come out in my work before they come out. Honestly, it cannot match the actual details of my life.

I just think it’s sort of trite to imagine that because you read a poem, you read my biography. I ain’t even gonna engage with it because that shit is just lame as fuck to me. So, if you think that that’s the measure of a poem, you gotta be a fool. You don’t have to be a fool. But I think it’s foolish, because when I die, if my poetry lasts. . . Like do we actually read Robert Hayden and say, “Man. I’m wondering what this tells us about Robert Hayden.” Or do we read Shakespeare and all of those sonnets where he’s writing in the first person—do we actually think that that reveals something about the man that is valued and discussed and engaged with? 

I don’t know. It’s just, like, the price of being alive is that we want to understand people better. We want to understand strangers, better. We want to turn them into—not just into a celebrity, but something tangible that we imagine that we have some type of grasp on. Maybe we do get a grasp on people’s intellect, humanity, and vision through the words that they write, but I don’t think that we get a grasp on who they are to their mothers and fathers and children, who they are to their lovers, who they are to the people who they engage with in a grocery store.

And, you know, with our friends and people we care about, that’s what matters most, right? It’s, like, who they are on that level. And I don’t think that’s what art gives us. Art gives us something else that we don’t necessarily require from our friends, right? We don’t go to them to be the oracle for helping us understand what’s going on from day to day. That’s the role and the function of the artist. And I think the artist is trying to do a little bit of all of those things that the teacher, the therapist, the priest, the wino on a corner, you know, trying to do a little bit of what all of those folks do for us.

“For me, art makes me step back in and not necessarily imagine that any one moment is even pretending to be about everything. You know, I do fundamentally believe that the protest that’s going on right now are about far more than just the murder of George Floyd. You got to get that. But I also believe that it’s actually just about that.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts

MEISSNER:  Yeah. I think that’s such an important distinction, and it’s really profound framing. And we won’t go down this rabbit hole, but I always wonder the role social media has played in also casting and characterizing the artist as also a brand of sorts. It’s just a confusing time. So, to hear your thoughts is quite clear, and I appreciate that. 

Normally, this podcast closes with a prompt from filmmaker Werner Hertzog. The quote is, “The deeper truth is an invented one.” But our team provided me with an alternative quote today from Ida B. Wells, considering the moment in time we’re in. She said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

There’s a million routes into that from the work that we do in the prison and justice writing department. But in thinking about “turning the light of truth onto wrongs,” to right them—that huge, big statement—how might we apply that in this current moment? And to be explicit, I’m talking about the uprisings and response to the systemic and systematic murder of Black people in America. And I’m also talking about that in relationship to the police, as one of many entry points to a much larger system of racial injustice that is much more expansive than also this current moment. That’s a big question.
BETTS: I think I struggled with it in a sense that it’s always piecemeal, you know—in the sense that the poems and the stories and the art are always trying to address moments that we could stitch into a way to address everything.

For me, art makes me step back in and not necessarily imagine that any one moment is even pretending to be about everything. You know, I do fundamentally believe that the protests going on right now are about far more than just the murder of George Floyd. You got to get that. But I also believe that it’s actually just about that.

It’s about, you know, “Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: / The million other straws underneath it,” to quote Mos Def. 

If I just stop and focus a little bit, and I’m forced to think about this, this is the strange, strange, reality that mass incarceration, the coronavirus, and this murder gives us. Police were engaging with somebody breaking the rules of social distancing for allegedly the passing of a fake $20 bill.

I mean, people die from the coronavirus, and that’s the first thing. I just want to stop and just think about this: that we live in a society in which they would risk getting the coronavirus for something that is that insignificant, and then they would risk handcuffing, arresting him, and putting him in contact with more people as they processed him through the system. They would risk taking him into a jail where he might be exposed to something. They’ve risked already exposing him by their contact with him. All for, like, nothing, right? And I’m struck by the fact that if he had just gotten arrested, and then, say, he had two strikes, and it was a city, state, locale that was enforcing a third, three strikes law, and he gets life in prison for this fake $20 bill.

Like, nobody at all cares. We’re not marching, right? And so, it was a way in which if I, as an artist, hold on to just George Floyd, and think seriously about everything that’s implicated and all that happened, I think, you know, a lot of stuff gets revealed. Like why Breonna Taylor doesn’t come up in a way that she should. You think about, like, why we were having a lot of these same conversations when Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… It’s like, why are we having the same conversations?

And the truth is, like, you could run the names down, and the names, for me, are markers for the weight that a kind of state violence carries. You know, they aren’t markers for like, “Dwayne, do you fear for the life of your son?” No, that’s not what’s happening. I fear for the sanctity of this democracy. You know what I mean? I fear for the ability for us to go on as a nation, because we haven’t been able to figure out some fundamental thing that should be true—which is, you should not be murdered during an arrest. Period. You should definitely not be murdered during an arrest for some shit you should never be locked up for in the first place. 

It’s interesting, cause I don’t really know how art speaks to any of that, except, I think, for me, art is the thing that, like, really, really, really forces me to slow it all down. And you know, to try to peel back the layers, to try to get at something that frankly ain’t going to be revelatory at all. But it’s going to be the kind of thing that somebody’s grandmother’s saying in the house after something like this happened. And sometimes, the goal of art is to get out of the way so that it’s able to reveal something that everybody knows.

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These Truths is a production of PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Nicole Gervasio and Jared Jackson provided editorial assistance. Special thanks to Emily Folan and Kenyatta Emmanuel, whose music you heard throughout this episode.

Next time on the podcast, Sierra Leonean-American author Ishmael Beah and New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo discuss how fiction can help us navigate some of the most unrelenting humanitarian crises of our age.

Follow the PEN World Voices Festival on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay up-to-date on our digital Festival.

About Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of four books. His latest is the poetry collection Felon (W.W. Norton, 2019). Betts received his J.D. from Yale Law School.

Order his most recent poetry collection, Felons, on Bookshop or Amazon