In the spring of 2017 I met Reginald Dwayne Betts. I began to read his poetry, his memoir of how he became a poet in prison, and his essays about what it meant for a felon to become a lawyer, legal scholar, and activist bringing literature to the incarcerated.
Some two years later, when the Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan (the author of The Orphanage, Voroshilovgrad, and What We Live For, What We Die For) wrote to me about his plan to visit New York, I had the spontaneous idea of bringing Serhiy and Dwayne together in a public dialogue. While they had no direct experience of each other’s worlds and no common language, I felt a strikingly shared sensibility between them, some ineffable affinity. Both are extraordinary lyrical poets of the tough places they come from, both write of those places with a love absent of illusions, and both have thought deeply about masculinity and its relationship to violence.
When in 2019 I proposed the idea of a conversation to Dwayne and Serhiy, they were receptive. Then Covid descended, borders closed, Serhiy remained in Kharkiv, and the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Dear Europeans,” he wrote in March 2022, “have no illusions: this is not a local conflict that will end tomorrow. This is the third world war.”
As Kharkiv was being shelled, Dwayne wrote to me and asked about Serhiy. He was thinking about Ukraine and reading Serhiy’s poems in English translation. I asked Dwayne whether he would consider writing to Serhiy himself, although they had never met.
Dwayne took this idea very seriously. When his letter was ready, Yevhenii Monastyrskyi translated it into Ukrainian, Serhiy responded in Ukrainian, and Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler translated his letter into English. PEN America and PEN Ukraine, in which both poets are active, has helped facilitate publication of this correspondence across borders.
September 17, 2022
I fired a gun for the first time years after my hair began to gray; decades after I’d first been incarcerated; decades after I’d left prison. After both of my sons were born. After I’d moved a dozen times, each a bit farther away from prison, each far enough to remember there is no far enough. But what do I know of war? Even these days when I understand what it means to obsess over memories my mind invents and a history my sanity won’t let go.
I paid good money to walk into a facility in the only state in this country that will allow me to hold a gun. For an hour shooting at paper targets. And it was so loud around me. What am I doing writing this particular letter to you? Once I wrote the word bullet but intended to write the word believe. Some unintended slip of thought, a way to say bullets always threaten belief, a way to admit the ways that bullets have always threatened to give us space to ruin all we might love? Bullets weigh little, even the slugs that made the shotgun jump out of my hands. I went to prison for more than eight years and had never fired a weapon. I write this as if it is an important detail about what we deserve. But what does any of us deserve? When I finally held a bullet, it was in the shadow of the Fourth of July, and I’d already failed to write this letter a dozen times.
The gun range was quotidian, a word that I have legit never used in a sentence. It feels obnoxious and reaching. Unless it’s true. In prison, suffering was quotidian. People telling of how they’d been sentenced to thirty and forty years was quotidian. And we didn’t much talk about justice. At the gun range, the testosterone was the quotidian thing. The loud bang of gunfire. And I did not feel dangerous. Even with the stock of an assault rifle tucked into the crevice of an arm. And I do not need to say that a gun range is no war zone, no matter what I heard the men around me shout to themselves.
This letter is supposed to be too many things for one letter. I write to you as my family wrote to me in prison. How to figure out what to say that acknowledges the elephant in the room and grapples with it. On this other side we wait for news from Ukraine. And we argue over everything. Over who has a right to care, over what caring looks like. Over how race in Ukraine works. This, particularly, I find absurd, because many of us cannot place Ukraine on the map any more than someone from Ukraine can place Suitland, where I’m from, on the map, and the most important thing is supposed to be how we respond to one another’s skin complexion.
I want to say: Did I tell you about this one story—but I know I have not. We are friends in the way that all strangers are friends, waiting for an opportunity where some shared happenstance becomes a memory we both hold. But what I mean to say is that I once read your poems to friends of mine and they thought the poems were mine. I corrected them, immediately—not that I’m not one to hold on to the beauty of another as if it were my own. But I told them the words were yours because I wanted them to know you. Such a wild world we live in, to believe that words we lift off a page might reveal ourselves to others. And I thought, Damn, they could hear me in these songs of possibility that you’re writing.
Maybe I should tell you one other thing about my day with those weapons, the shotgun and the AR-15. A child who’d murdered other children in a school shooting was being sentenced for what he did with an AR-15 the afternoon I picked one up for the first time. Far too many times I’ve found myself in a place where history says I shouldn’t be, is what I mean.
Have you listened to or read Frederick Douglass and his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass asks:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
I digress. I’m writing a poet on the other side of the world in the middle of a war for your country. What am I to say? There are few things that slow down the pen more than war. And maybe few things that more inspire people to chronicle. Sometimes the machinations of the day change everything, you know.
When people thought your words belonged to me, even as I corrected them, I was pleased. And I listened and thought of you. Is this how we become history? How our words or lives end up taking meaning many kilometers away from any land we’ve graced?
People will say, Dwayne, if only I had your story, I’d be a real poet. And having these folks confuse your lines for mine, I thought, What would I do if under siege?
You don’t write letters to people and question why the world looks as it is. This is what I’m learning writing this letter. My habit of turning things back toward me makes me wonder what my family wanted to say in those moments when all they could conjure of prison was doom. I have this garden and I know gardens are meaningless and yet I want to ask one of those irrational questions about flowers and wine and a woman whom you notice on a street at night, who is pregnant, surprisingly so, as if she more than anyone else recognizes that no matter how bad it gets, folks have a right to do more than survive.
That’s the tension there, though. My war is a prison cell in some American city. And yours. Well, you know more than I. And yet there seems to be this thing that people believe we share. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and went to an elementary school called William Beanes, named after a doctor who was imprisoned on a British ship after being falsely accused of spying on the Royal Navy. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet, boarded the ship to negotiate for his release. A short while later, Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is best listened to, and then only if it is Marvin Gaye singing or Whitney Houston singing or Jimi Hendrix wailing on his guitar. But the point is the poet became the center of the naming of survival.
I’m writing this letter as if I have something to say to you, when the truth is that I’m asking what you might say to me. There was a time when I thought all of my days were some kind of violence. History makes me rethink the hardships I imagined I know. That’s what history does, though, challenge us to remember how much better all the things might have been with a better-placed verb. Maybe not. I just know this letter is a different kind of riff on what’s possible. Not simply survival, though we have to believe that’s also possible. But that words matter and are the stitching of any community, more than bullets or ideology. And words are always better over bourbon. One of these days, I’ll share a bottle with you.
Reginald Dwayne Betts
October 7, 2022
Thank you for your letter. As I read it, I noted how you spoke about weapons, about something that is remarkably simple, considering the history of our civilization, yet is still a boundary experience—when you pick up an instrument of murder, which, like it or not, is an instrument of defense, a mechanism to save yourself. Armed people have a completely different perspective; they’re endowed with additional opportunities (as well as power). Acquiring this experience is easy in our world today, but ridding yourself of it afterward is hard.
I also recalled when I first picked up a gun. It was the second day of Russia’s full-scale offensive. My friends and I had arrived at the headquarters of a volunteer unit that we have helped a lot, where a lot of our friends were serving. February 25, low-hanging gray sky, the end of winter, the beginning of an immense bloody fissure. The headquarters was in the center of Kharkiv, in a former library. Bundles of books tied together with rope were heaped together along the walls in the hallways. Classical literature hadn’t impeded the war; reading would have to wait until later. Young men who had come to join the unit wandered through the rooms. Most of them were not professional servicemen and had never held a gun before. But then they received their assault rifles, touched them somewhat gingerly, seemingly making a transition from the past to a different space, the space of war, a space at the very edge of death.
There were a lot of weapons; they lay there on the floor in a separate room, next to stacks of books.
“Grab a gun,” the commander said after a moment’s thought. “I hope you won’t have to use it, but it won’t hurt to have one.”
I thanked him, somewhat awkwardly picked up a Soviet pistol that had just been unpacked—it was still all greasy—and put it in my backpack. As I was leaving, I scooped up several old literary magazines—couldn’t help myself. A month later the commander was killed when they were liberating the outskirts of Kharkiv. He charged into battle, leading the attack. He was wounded, but the fighters from his unit couldn’t drag him out because they were under fire at the time. Later on we all went to a church to bid farewell to him. I hadn’t seen many of them since day one of the war. They had changed. Their eyes had changed; their faces had changed. And they held their weapons in a completely different way. Like they were fused together. I haven’t used my gun at all, though.
But I don’t want to tell you about armed people. I’d like to tell you about those who do not bear arms but are nonetheless navigating a warzone. Civilians, noncombatants, those who live in cities along the front lines, those who are hiding from shelling, those who are trying to survive, preserve their lives and those of their loved ones—they, in fact, are the most vulnerable and least secure targets in any war. At any rate, people who consciously take up arms have reached a completely different agreement with life and death than civilians. Unarmed people see war in a completely different way and experience it in a completely different way. We in Ukraine all support our troops because we realize that they are the shield separating cities in the rear from the enemy, from those who have come to murder us, in the most literal sense: to murder, annihilate, take our lives.
Yet identifying the voices of people incapable of protecting themselves has always been important to me. Clearly, without these voices, without the “voices of poor people,” as Miłosz once put it, we are not able to hear and interpret the sound of war, its bloody yet tremendously truthful polyphony. Since late February of this year, we, those living in a city under bombardment, have learned to be more attentive and trusting of others. I mean the residents of this city, people without arms, yet vested with the right to take action and speak with their own voice. We have learned to support one another and to treat the people bearing arms, protecting the perimeter of the city, the perimeter of the country, with respect. After all, it turns out that this division into armed and unarmed people may be significant, fundamental even, but it isn’t complete. Nonetheless something bigger than bullets brings us together. It may be our common faith. And common values.
What’s brimming inside us when we’re getting bombed? What guides us besides hatred for the enemy? And is hatred alone enough to make it through this bloody time and not lose ourselves? I don’t think so. People in cities along the front lines keep balancing between wartime reality and their pre-war perceptions. This is extremely painful, constantly bumping into sharp corners and falling into traps full of illusions. The worst thing, though, is when you don’t even have the opportunity to voice this.
I completely agree with you—words matter and are the stitching of any community. What is more—this war, a war that has been tearing my country apart for over seven months, has shown in a very clear and compelling manner that, despite all the evil and violence one person is capable of inflicting upon another, despite the desperation and darkness that obstructs our vision at times, we still have the opportunity to speak: speak among ourselves, speak to the world, articulate ourselves, voice our pain and our hope. This is a right generously given to us at birth. There is this entirely separate voice inside each of us; language is like a complex secret talisman that saves us, even under the most bitter and trying circumstances.
As a writer, I’m used to trusting language. I trust it even as I realize just how limited its capabilities are. Language, like poetry, is incapable of stopping wars; however, it defines evil and injustice, and its resources help us, time and time again, to overcome our weaknesses and hopelessness, to extricate ourselves and offer our testaments and refutations. For me, it truly is a great honor and joy to have this opportunity—engaging with you, trying to explain, at least partially, what is transpiring in the skies of Ukraine, a country where you’ve never been but you may think of. It seems like this is a way to express one’s respect for language and literature—continuing to use this chimerical chance to write to each other, this chance to support, express gratitude, and ask questions, this chance to call each other by name, thereby breaking out of silence and oblivion.
During these bloody, joyless months, I haven’t learned to write about the war in a detached manner, from a reporter’s perspective, just documenting what I’ve seen and providing an account of what I’ve heard. Sometimes my tone betrays me, or emotions overwhelm me. I’m not certain this letter is all that logical or comprehensible. Nevertheless it meant a lot to me to read your words—they were like a testament to a particular connection, a testament to the fact that the world of literature, the realm of poetry, is still capable of building corridors of communication and understanding. Even if these corridors are cramped and stuffy, they give us hope that we will eventually reach somewhere more serene. A place where we can read each other’s poems, for instance. In good company and soft lighting. And over some bourbon, too.
Thank you very much,