Prose from Poetry Magazine

What It Is

by Reginald Dwayne Betts

This ain’t about risk. Risk is living below the poverty line in the worst part of town; risk is raising a black boy in a town with laws like Stand Your Ground; risk is being a single parent without family or community support; risk is what soldiers, police officers, firefighters encounter. Poetry is about language, words, about being as honest as you can on the page.

There are things you say in a room with friends. Things you hear others say and can’t forget, ’cos you spent an hour arguing with them, or laughing. The poem should be that, something worth screaming about.

Don’t forget Yeats. Respond to the political in all its ambiguity because you know the people who died, not because you caught the highlights on the news.

Don’t write about being white.

Don’t be afraid to hate poems. Don’t be afraid to hate your own.

There are no large issues in America outside of race. Derek Walcott said this. If you’re writing and not thinking of race, you’re still thinking of race by avoiding it.

Don’t be the person who only notices the elephant in the room.

Don’t believe them when they say a poem has room for everything. Only the grave does.

Stop with the allusions to dead poets. You do something other than read poetry.

Don’t be the poet who, ensconced in your 401(k) and tenure track, dismisses the man on the corner selling his work, fresh from Kinkos — he could be Whitman.

I keep arguing about vernacular. What it is, what it means. Who has a right to it. For real I’m confronting the fact that I lost all the slang of my youth in my youth. The poem is the only way I have of getting it back.

Don’t betray the people you right about.

Don’t believe the reviewer who wrote: “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if  being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.”

Don’t strip your poem of identity. Don’t make your identity the 
poems.

Pay homage, but if the illest thing about your poem is your litany of influences, you wrote a bibliography. Call it that.

Don’t feel too bad about that last line.

Right now there is someone lying to a child, praising the work of some thirteen-year-old kid as if it were the sign of latent genius. Don’t be that person. Teaching poetry to children isn’t about discovering genius. It’s about discovering language, and discovering the difficulties inherent in manipulating it.

Don’t walk into an underserved classroom imagining that the poems the kids write will replace all that they aren’t learning. Don’t front like poems are born out of experiences and not the reckless wrestling with nouns and verbs and all the other engines of  language.

Work in a place where no one knows what an iamb is.

Don’t condescend. There is prejudice in calling something beautiful for the act and not the fact.

The colloquial is always musical. “You lucky I can’t breathe or I’d walk all up and down your ass.”

Originally Published: March 1, 2013

COMMENTS (19)

On March 1, 2013 at 5:08pm Kurious Oranj wrote:
Don't write about being [black].

On March 3, 2013 at 9:12am Tim McGrath wrote:
"Don't write about being white."

And don't make being black your religion.

On March 5, 2013 at 7:42pm Tim McGrath wrote:
While some may think this manifesto reeks of arrogance
and ignorance, we should in fact be grateful to its
author. Not only is he a self-appointed spokesman for
his race, but he's been to Parnassus and come back down
to teach us all the essence of true poetry. We mortals
should lap up these lessons, which until now were
probably wasted on a group of teenagers. We should also
thank Poetry magazine for having the courage to publish
something that many may think trivial, but that, on
closer inspection, reveals such novel insights as
"Poetry is about language, words."

On March 9, 2013 at 10:40am Jake wrote:
The purveyors of bulshit will always praise bulshit, it
makes them feel at ease.

On March 11, 2013 at 7:52am Oana Uiorean wrote:
He likely means don't bother with safe, first-world issues, look where the trouble/risk is. In America, it may be true that race is risk/trouble. Reading this from Europe, and as a writer, it resonates tremendously. I think way too many writers waste their talents writing about the same safe subjects in the same safe way. Being white, I also always say to them "Don't write about being white." There's more to life than that. Explore what's under all that whiteness.

On March 13, 2013 at 12:03am Tim McGrath wrote:
Shakespeare transcended race by writing such
transcendent lines as these:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.

The only goal of any poet is to say something better
than it's ever been said before.

On March 13, 2013 at 11:10am Tim McGrath wrote:
Correction: The only goal of any poet is to say something
better than it's capable of being said.

On March 17, 2013 at 4:06pm Phil Adelphia wrote:
Great article about being white, and why it's more
important than ever to write about it-
http://www.phillymag.com/articles/white-philly/

On March 19, 2013 at 11:54am Joe wrote:
I write for people ...i don't give a fug...my art is me and if you can't
handle it that is your problem..if you feel it ..so will they ala Ellington

On March 19, 2013 at 2:13pm Celeste wrote:
Not sure what being white has to do with it. In today's economy, speaking as a woman (also disenfranchised) the single parent of a special needs child living below the poverty level and being of mixed ancestory, I can safely say the white black line is blurred and we have to stop singing(and writing) about the spectre of racism in places where it no longer always truly exists. It DOES exist, but not in all people, evrywhere, always. That is a stereotype.

On March 19, 2013 at 7:27pm Dave Morrison wrote:
First, I want to thank Mr. Betts for sharing his frank thoughts,
although I don't know who he's talking to. While he is entitled to look
at the world through the pipe of his personal experience, I don't feel
obliged to. "There are no large issues in America outside of race?" I'm
not sure that women, or the elderly, or disabled, or a person who is
gay or an immigrant, or poor or disenfranchised in any other way
would necessarily agree. "Don't write white poems"? I'm white. Race
has a profound effect, but I don't think it's that simple. I think power
or the lack thereof is a large issue, in whatever form we experience it.
Why put poetry in such a small box? Finally, I want to thank Mr. Betts
for offering me an important reminder; don't use your poems to
lecture people whose lives you don't know. Don't condescend - good
advice. Keep it coming, I'll listen.

On March 20, 2013 at 11:41am Dave Morrison wrote:
First, I want to thank Mr. Betts for sharing his frank thoughts, although I don't know who he's talking to. While he is entitled to look at the world through the pipe of his personal experience, I don't feel obliged to. "There are no large issues in America outside of race?" I'm not sure that women, or the elderly, or disabled, or a person who is gay or an immigrant, or poor or disenfranchised in any other way would necessarily agree. "Don't write white poems"? I'm white; my father was born in Canada and my mother grew up on a farm in Vermont, what do you suggest? Race has a profound effect of course, but I don't think it's that simple. I think power or the lack thereof is a large issue, in whatever form we experience it. Why put poetry in such a small box? Finally, I want to thank Mr. Betts for offering me an important reminder; don't use your poems to lecture people whose lives you don't know. "Don't condescend" - good advice. Keep it coming - I'll listen.

On March 22, 2013 at 1:44am Saroj Kumar Dash wrote:
Inspired a lot by reading the poem & also enjoyed it !

On March 28, 2013 at 11:05am Baltimore Poet wrote:
I like the essay's comment praising the vernacular. Of course, using conversational diction by itself is not poetry, though it can be as Whitman, Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Allen Ginsberg, Major Jackson & countless others have shown. I am note sure "Poetry is about language, words." Certainly poetry uses words. However, that definition fails to separate poetry from prose. Further language itself is not always about words. We use language to communicate. Words comprise a language. And so poetry is. . . . LOL.

On March 29, 2013 at 12:55am David J. Bauman wrote:
I think we are missing the subtle ironies here, and
therefore missing the point. While David Morrison and a
few others make some very good and important arguments,
it seems we've done what we always do and allowed the
hot button words to distract us from some very
thoughtful don'ts by Mr. Betts. Yes, power is a big
issue, especially in an age where there is such a wide
disparity between rich and poor, or even between middle
class and the very rich. And maybe when Walcott wrote
those words about race, they were true. There are more
variables now. But when Betts said not to write about
being white (and maybe I picked this up more from the
interview on the podcast than from what's in print), he
was making a response to having been told not to write
about being black, or not to write about race. His point
is exactly what many of the dissenters here in the
comments believe, which is that such advice is
impossible. We write from who we are and the situations
we are in. Saying to not write about being white is only
a way to highlight the absurdity of telling a black man
not to write about race, or telling a poor man not to
write about poverty, a gay mom not to write about
parenthood and gender. It's interesting to listen to
people who are arguing against someone who agrees with
them. Sometimes this happens because we latch on to one
or two words and don't pay close enough attention to the
rest.

On March 29, 2013 at 10:55am Kwame Dawes wrote:
Fascinating how pontificating folks get jittery when they think someone
else is pontificating. Dwayne makes sense. Where, by the way, is
Parnassus, Tim? Been there? I hear the salmon is great there. I
need an invite. You know anyone who has connections? Dwayne
says he's never been.

On April 1, 2013 at 7:12am Bilaal Muhammad wrote:
Don't write about being black. Yeah we sometimes get
caught up in our own plight that we forget about global
issues, rather what your nationality is. There are issues
all over the world. POETRY IS!

On April 2, 2013 at 11:46am Tiffany wrote:
I concur with David Bauman.

On July 29, 2013 at 12:44am Dan Helm wrote:
This is a lot of controversy over
nothing, in my opinion.

He said don't write about being white.--
so what? Why does everyone feel the need
to defend their right to be white? Does
no one have a sense of humor? Obviously
he made his point. Race apparently is a
sensitive issue.

If you're too sensitive to write about
it objectively, then maybe you shouldn't
write about, anyway.

I enjoyed the take on 'vernacular', as I
am a collector of language, and I feel
that patois can add to a poem, and the
readers experience.

Other then that, I don't think anything
knew or interesting was said. That's
fine -- he says it in his poems.

I really enjoyed the "MODERN TWO-STEP".

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This prose originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2013

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 Reginald Dwayne Betts

Biography

Reginald Dwayne Betts is author of the memoir A Question of Freedom (Avery, 2009) and the poetry collection Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010). He is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow and 2011 Radcliffe Fellow.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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