2017 poetry alum Amanda Newell recently interviewed Reginald Dwayne Betts (Poetry ’10) for Plume Poetry. An excerpt of the interivew with Betts, who just wrote for the New York Times, can be found below:
AN: Since you mention the “tension between what we intend work to do and what it actually does,” I wonder if you might comment on the idea that writers shouldn’t veer from the lane or lanes of their own experience. I’m talking specifically about persona poems which attempt to embody the voice of the/an other, but in so doing, draw widespread criticism for appropriating that voice rather than speaking from it.
Does it ultimately depend on the dynamics of who is writing from what voice—and whether the assumed persona is working to destabilize traditional power structures as opposed to reinforcing them? Is the answer not to try because failing means further marginalizing that voice? And where does that, then, leave the imagination? How can we have meaningful conversation around this issue, especially when it involves matters of race?
RDB: A few minutes ago I finished reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. A novel, the book does a lot of important historical and emotional work around how Black folks in America have historically confronted racism. It’s a good book. Kind of science fiction, but running right alongside this country’s history, using art to dramatize the lasting effects — and getting a good number of things in there, from lynching to redlining to the economic legacy of slavery. And it’s all done quite seamlessly. Oh yeah, Ruff is white.
When people do it right, we have no need to answer questions about what lanes folks should be in. The question, the way we deal with it, is always about how we castigate people for getting it wrong. Maybe that’s legit. But that doesn’t change the reality: get it right and you got it right.
The novelist has more practice with this. More experience believing the job is about seeing others. Maybe the poet, the contemporary poet, in a world of narrative first-person poems and lyric “I”s, believes that the voice always has to be them. But if that’s the case, the poet is robbed over their superpower: their ability to notice and distill a world — not their ability to notice and distill their world. Such a selfish move, I think, it would be if poets believed that every “I” needed to be them. And frankly, I don’t even think of it as persona. For me, persona is when you are naming and acknowledging and making it clear that the voice is specific, locatable, as opposed to just a speaker that isn’t named, one that becomes, if the writer does it right, the reader, every reader, each time they utter the word, “I.” while they read your work.
So I guess I’m saying write what you want, all of it, and be whoever you want to be on the page, because otherwise what art might do is constrained. And that would be sad.
You can read the interview in its entirety here: https://plumepoetry.com/reginald-dwayne-betts-on-art-poetry-the-particular-fucked-up-parts-of-incarceration-and-the-multitudes-of-i/