Reginald Dwayne Betts was first introduced to poetry when an unknown person slid a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his prison cell door.
Betts had just landed himself in prison at age 16 after a night filled with bad decisions. He joined a friend and a bunch of guys he hardly knew and went looking for trouble. By the end of the night, he had robbed a man at gunpoint at a mall in northern Virginia, taking his wallet and his car.
The Maryland honor student, who was always a prolific writer, was arrested a day later. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to a nine-year prison term, which included time spent in solitary confinement.
“When I first got into prison, I had spent much of my time writing essays, really consuming myself with writing but with no direction or purpose, just writing in my journal. When I get this book slid to me, that moment became really significant,” said Betts in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Betts said The Black Poets, and the poetry that poured out of him after this exposure, began his path not just to redemption, but also to his current sense of purpose. Today, he works to help other young people attempting to recover from their own poor choices.
Betts explains he didn’t really understand what he was capable of. He was frightened, having never been away from home or his family in his entire life before prison.
“I’m trying to process the world around me, but it’s just jarring,” he said. “So I get this collection of poems, and it introduces me to poetry and what a poem might do, and I just decided to be a poet.”