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Reginald Dwayne Betts interviewed
Q. You changed your name to Shahid while you were in prison, to reflect your position as “witness” (the Arabic meaning of the name), a writer, the one observes how people can destroy themselves. And the title of your collection of poetry is Shahid Reads His Own Palm. While it was a homage to the poet Agha Shahid Ali, it also references that aspect of you as witness. If, as you have said, your non-fiction is about you or “Dwayne’s view of eight and a half years in prison,” while your poetry is about what you observe of the world, why did you choose to include the name you took on in prison in the title of your collection of poetry? What part of what Dwayne sees about Dwayne in non-fiction is left behind when Dwayne talks about the world in poetry?
I have had many changes in my life. Many paths to who I am now. “Shahid” is an identity that served me when I didn’t have a full understanding of my ability to witness, to write and to be me with my father’s name. There is always more wrapped up into any decision than what serves any particular question. I can’t really make people understand the reasoning behind the name change unless they are willing to understand how invested you can become in what your name means – in what you imagine it represents. At sixteen, Reginald Dwayne Betts represented so much of the ways in which I had become my father. But the thing is I’ve grown a bit since being the sixteen-year-old kid who needed a new name to imagine a different life. And this doesn’t reduce the affinity I have for the name, or for the poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose work I encountered years after I began carrying the name.
Roger Bonair Agard says of his father in a poem “forgive me, for I have become you, inadequately” and I often feel that way – feel that, once I was released from prison and began to speak with my dad more and see him in a more complete light, I started to understand all the ways in which I’d reduced him to a stereotype and in turn reduced my own possibilities into a similar box. So when I turned to embrace that name, my name, Reginald Dwayne Betts, it is owning who I am.
“Shahid Reads His Own Palm” is the title of the poems because frankly I am that too. But I hope that I’m moving to the point where what Dwayne sees and what the boy who became a man in prison saw are more closely aligned. I’d like to imagine not having to give up what that boy learned as I embrace fatherhood and manhood and freedom and being a husband and all those different understandings of who I am that would benefit from the naiveté of a kid who did understand how much is in a name.
And if you’re in Chicago this Friday, you can stop by the Poetry Foundation to hear Betts read at the launch for the June issue Poetry magazine.