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Prose from Poetry Magazine

What It Is

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.”

More from this issue

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

Related

  • Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of a memoir and two books of poetry. His memior, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin, 2009), was awarded the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. His books of poetry are Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James, 2010)...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

What It Is

Related

  • Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of a memoir and two books of poetry. His memior, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin, 2009), was awarded the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. His books of poetry are Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James, 2010)...

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