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Spoken word album from Connecticut poet embraces spontaneity

Gioncarlo Valentine

“Hold on, this is gonna be funky, because I’m gonna answer the phone,” said celebrated poet Reginald Dwayne Betts at the beginning of his new album, "House of Unending."

Interruptions are pretty much a given when you’re trying to record, but the phone call Betts took as he sat in New Haven’s Firehouse 12 studio turned out to be a collect call from prison.

On the other end of the line, the man who just happened to contact him from the Augusta Correctional Center in Virginia was his friend Rojai Fentress, known as Fats.

Gioncarlo Valentine

“So that’s a real moment — we’re talking about something that’ll never happen again,” Betts said later in an interview. “And the thing is, when it happened you could hear the joy in his voice, just from being a part of this thing that I was creating.”

That’s why that unscripted moment didn’t get lost to the cutting room floor when the album was produced. Betts and his musical collaborator, guitarist Reed Turchi, simply pivot, performing a poem written especially for Fats as he listens on the other end of the phone line.

“Truly, right before we started the first song, to have this phone call come in and then to have a very live listener, it’s like, ‘we're performing now,’ The option of, ‘oh, let's stop and try again’ is kind of gone,” Turchi said.

The album, set to be released later this summer as a limited-edition 12-inch vinyl, was a long time in the planning, but it embraces that spirit of spontaneity throughout, with many of the tracks recorded in one take. It combines spoken word from Betts, who served a nine-year prison sentence himself and is now an award-winning poet and prison reform advocate, with the thoughtful guitar licks of musician Turchi.

Betts and Turchi first met while Betts was working on an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. There the two teamed up by chance on the basketball court for a pickup game, beating fellow poets Rob Cohen and Alan Shapiro.

“I think of that as the moment that we became friends,” smiled Betts. “That sounds about right – it was a good moment,” responded Turchi.

But their eventual artistic collaboration was a slow burn. They kept in touch as Betts went from Warren Wilson to founding Freedom Reads, an organization that provides access to literature in prison, then to advising the Obama administration on juvenile justice, earning a J.D. at Yale Law School, and winning a MacArthur Genius grant. Turchi meanwhile was touring as a musician and producer, scoring films, creating sound installations, and forging other artistic collaborations.

“It was close to happening in a few different ways, at different times,” Turchi said.

Gioncarlo Valentine

The moment finally came in 2019. Betts had studio time to record the audiobook of his new poetry collection Felon. Turchi was invited to play some incidental music for that project. But then they stayed in the studio for two additional days, recording the takes that would become "House of Unending."

Betts said he views this project as a truly equal blend of poetry and music that elevates both.

“I wouldn't say that either art form followed or led the other one,” he said. “It was a dance that shifted and changed.”

Turchi agrees.

“I don't think of it as a poet with a backing track, I think of it as having very much an improvised jazz mentality,” he said. “That kind of mind space is a really interesting way to perform.”

Some of that give and take is about whether and how to establish a beat to a track.

“It is a weird way in which it invites you to bring the body into it more,” Betts said. “The poems are already striving towards music, and I think it allows you to bring your body into it, remind yourself that this is a whole experience and not just this intellectual thing.”

While the tracks were recorded in 2019, it wasn’t until now that the two found time to produce the album. That has to do with the interruptions of COVID, but also with other projects that intervened.

Now, listening back to that pre-pandemic session, they’re struck by its value as almost a historical document.

One notable way in which time has moved on: Rojai Fentress, the man on the prison phone line at the start of the album, is now free. Fentress has consistently maintained his innocence since he was convicted of murder when he was 16. In July 2020, the 40-year-old, helped by the efforts of Betts, was released on a conditional pardon.