Before he won a 2021 MacArthur “genius” grant and spearheaded Freedom Reads, an initiative to bring books to incarcerated people, Reginald Dwayne Betts was a poet. Before that, he was in prison, himself, for 9 years. This fearless book of poetry depicts the aftermath of incarceration – the regrets and the reverberations – as well as the injustices of the bail system. The poet takes an unflinching look at himself, his flaws, and the flawed system that afflicted him.
Winner of the NAACP Image Award and finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
“A powerful work of lyric art.” —New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice
In fierce, agile poems, Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration—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 post-incarceration existence in traditional and newfound forms, from revolutionary found poems created by redacting court documents to the astonishing crown of sonnets that serves as the volume’s radiant conclusion.
About the Author
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and essayist. He is the author of three volumes of poetry and one memoir. A graduate of Yale Law School, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family.
[Felon] pushes Betts's story forward, in verse that is nimble in its diction, tone and focus. The poems are about returning to everyday American life, but in an estranged and often painful way, as if blood were rushing into a long-pinned limb.
— Dwight Garner - New York Times
[Felon] shows how poems can be enlisted to radically disrupt narrative.… Betts’s poems about fatherhood [are] some of the most powerful I’ve read.
— Dan Chiasson - The New Yorker
[Betts] writes masterfully, in various forms. He also illustrates the transformative power of love. — Elizabeth Lund - Washington Post
Searing.… This is a powerful work of lyric art. It is also a tour de force indictment of the carceral industrial state. — Carolyn Forché - New York Times Book Review
[Reginald Dwayne] Betts is a hero to men on the inside.… He’s a hero to anyone who believes redemption can be had and is not some abstract idea. Felon is a testament to Betts’s talent and success, but when you read it deeply and feel it and celebrate its ideas, the layers peel back. I imagine it will leave you not only informed, but saddened, as it did me.
— John J. Lennon - Poetry Foundation
[A] lyric account of the butterfly effects of incarceration.… Felon is a magnum opus of what it means to live in American society.… This sort of collection enumerates the best that poetry can be: a tool, a song, a gesture towards empathy, an enactment of living a life that continues to baffle.
— Kassy Lee - Michigan Quarterly Review
Whether delivering a one-two punch reminiscent of rap or the quiet revelations of a man brimming with wisdom, the poems in Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Felon traverse the realities of re-entering society post-incarceration.
— Lauren LaRocca - Baltimore magazine
On every page of Felon, a book unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, there’s something far more playful, resonant, and ruggedly revealing happening. Reginald Dwayne Betts animates and really embodies the minutiae of revision in this once-in-a-lifetime art object.… Betts’s artistry shows and proves a necessary breaking and blurring of the lines between wandering into yesterday, wondering into tomorrow, and wrestling with the funk of today. Betts has written the twenty-first-century book that will dictate how freedom, power, and consequence are written about until the sun says enough. It is that good.
— Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir
Felon is the keenest of testaments to what it’s like to have lived behind the walls, to the crucible of having one’s humanity challenged, changed, erased, to how—for the anointed—prisons persist beyond the walls. While there are poems aplenty on the mental and physical violence of prison and our unjustice system, the collection is also a moving exploration of love?romantic and familial?and how one nurtures that love against odds that at times seem impossible. Felon is bracing, revelatory work. Read it and be transformed.
— Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math
Felon is a stunningly crafted indictment of prison’s dehumanization of Black men and their loved ones. Through his unvarnished descriptions of the path to prison and its aftermath from myriad vantage points—son, husband, father, cellmate, Yale-educated public defender—Betts does nothing to protect himself, or us, from what he has done and suffered and witnessed. His compassion and breathtaking literary gifts make it impossible for us to look away or remain complicit in mass criminalization’s status quo.
— sujatha baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project