When he was just 16-years old, Betts was jailed for a gun crime.
Inside, he found freedom from an unexpected source.
“I was in solitary confinement,” Betts recalls, speaking at the recent NGC Bocas Lit Fest. “You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you.
Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet.” The poet – who read at the festival alongside fellow American poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips – also conducted a poetry workshop at the Port-of-Spain prison on April 29. The experience changed everything.
“The first thing that hit me was that there was just a bunch of people in jail on remand who had not had an opportunity to see a judge; to have a trial,” Betts tells the literary audience gathered at the Old Fire Station on Abercromby Street, a few blocks away from the penal facility at the heart of the capital. “I went into the jail and I was struggling to reconcile the profound injustice and the profound pain that happens, that permeates an entire community that does not get acknowledged at all.” In his workshop, prisoners were asked to write.
“The poems these guys wrote had this same pain and frustration,” Betts says. “In the US, most of the prisons are built way out where you can’t see. One of the things that also struck me is they are right here and still seemingly invisible.” Betts, whose poetry chronicles some of his own experiences with the US justice system, says the workshop changed him. “What does it mean for me to be in that space and talk to them? I hope that something I said made some sense,” Betts says. “You kind of forget what it means to have certain kinds of privilege, some kind of access to justice.
If you come from the States and you are interested in criminal justice reform issues you get this very narrow view of what justice should look like and you take for granted that the system works extremely well – both to lock you up and to give you some semblance of opportunity for justice formally.” He adds, “What I walk away with in terms of what they gave me is a challenge, both in terms of my writing and in my living.” Betts is the author of the poetry books Bastards of the Reagan Era (described by the New York Times as “fierce, lyrical and unsparing”) and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is also the author of an excellent memoir, A Question of Freedom, which chronicles his experience of the US justice system. In prison, he was re-Christened Shahid.
“It means witness,” Betts says.