Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. His previous work includes the poetry collections The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, The Definition of Place, and Pitch Dark Anarchy. His new book, Hook: A Memoir (Augury Books 2015) will be released on November 30.
He’s a Cave Canem Fellow and a member of both the Affrilachian Poets and the experimental avant-jazz performance group: Heroes are Gang Leaders. He's senior editor at Willow Books, an independent literary press he helped found in 2006. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Pen America’s Pen Prison Writing Program and is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Haven. He resides in Harlem, New York.
Joyce Brown: For people who are unfamiliar with you and your work, what would you like them to know about your background and where you come from?
Randall Horton: I'm originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up there, south of I-65 with a normal family and a normal life. I went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and studied economics, but dropped out my senior year, and got involved in drugs which would lead me to prison years later. I eventually began turning my life around. I went back to school and earned degrees at the University of the District of Columbia, Chicago State University, and SUNY Albany. But, at Howard in D.C. is where I started making all the bad decisions that would lead to me being incarcerated. I don’t talk about my time in prison everyday, but if somebody asks me, I answer. I’m now a poet and professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
Joyce: Explain the chain of events that led to your correspondence with poet Ethelbert Miller. How did he help you discover poetry?
Randall: When I was incarcerated at Roxbury Correctional in Maryland, I was trying to write a short story, or maybe a novel. Before I went upstate, I’d written some essays in county jail because I was in a program called Jail Addiction Services (JAS). They had us write a lot of essays about what made us tick as addicts and people who teetered on the wrong side of the law.
One day I read a Washington Post interview with poet Ethelbert Miller about his memoir, Fathering Words. I realized we both were at Howard at the same time, but we were in two different worlds. He was a poet and teacher on campus, but I didn't know that he existed. At the time I read the article, I was trying to go back to school and I wanted to go back to Howard, so the two things kind of clicked.
I was looking for someone who knew something about writing poems, and would help me understand what this whole writing life was about. I wrote him, he wrote me back, and we began a conversation. I would send him poems, which was kind of funny because I knew nothing about poetry or writing poems, but I found myself trying to write them. When my sentence got commuted in Maryland and I was ordered to a program in North Carolina, he gave me some advice and told me to connect with another poet named Lenard Moore.
Ethelbert became a mentor showing me the literary landscape. He was the first poet I had a conversation with. He even provided the blurb on my first book, The Definition of Place. Willow Books, where I'm senior editor, will be publishing his collected poems in the spring of 2016. Sometimes things come full circle...
Joyce: Tell me about your soon to be released book, Hook: A Memoir, and why you decided to share the letters you exchanged with Linda Perez while she was in prison?
Randall: I knew it was a book I needed to write at some point. I can't outrun my past and I’m not trying to hide from anything. People struggle to understand the whole idea of addiction. My problems with drugs started in the 1980s and a lot of people I know fell, succumbed to cocaine and whatever else they could find. I wanted people to know that it’s possible to come out of that whole existence and make a positive impact in society, in their communities, and in their families. People need to know that there's someone in America that had several felony convictions and made it out of prison to become a tenured professor. Those stories aren't celebrated — not enough, anyway.
I met Linda in my Ph.D. program and knew that she had been incarcerated before. When she ended up back in prison, I wrote her a letter. We started a correspondence and these letters became statements about social constructs — her life in prison, my life in prison, and looking at the intersections. It’s important to include them in the book because they help propel the narrative with me in the present tense.
While she was awaiting trial, I would send parts of my manuscript to her. She would write back, commenting on what she read, but also making comparisons to her life. While I wanted to tell my story, I think I also needed to be the vehicle through which other stories are told.
Joyce: In Pitch Dark Anarchy, I was struck by your use of imagery, language, and the way the poems are assembled on the page. Are these poems telling your own story?
Randall: Pitch Dark Anarchy is an experiment that I began in my Ph.D. program. I was using language to reconstruct construction, if that makes any sense. I wanted to be in tune with architecture, nature, the city, and urban structures. I was noticing the construction and working against it in the poems and playing with narrative flow. I was looking at race and social construction, too. Even though I operate as a black poet, I do understand that we all live within physical and mental constructs.
I tried to avoid writing about myself as much as possible, but I learned from my first book I can’t totally do that. Sometimes things seep it. I realized I'm still drawing from personal experiences, but a lot of it isn’t me at all. In these poems I'm trying to speak about the 'I' while not using the personal 'I' as the vehicle for that narrative.
Joyce: Which do you enjoy more: writing or sharing a poem?
Randall: I enjoy writing more because I like the process. When I start something that I'm really into, it still gets difficult, but it’s more enjoyable to write. I love poems and love sharing them, don’t get me wrong. But there's some sort of healing connection when I’m working on a piece that I can't necessarily get again when I start performing it in public spaces.
Joyce: What prompted you to begin teaching?
Randall: Believe it or not, I figured the only way that I was ever going to get a job coming out of prison would be to go back to school and get a Ph.D. I felt that maybe academics would be the one place where my past wouldn't define me as much in present terms of being an artist.
In the beginning, I wasn't sure I was going to teach. When I was in Chicago earning my M.F.A, I worked with a guy named Patrick Oliver and an organization called Say It Loud! We did programs and workshops all over the country working with young black boys trying to get them to read more. That's what helped me become clear about pursuing a job teaching.
I had to give whatever I could back to the younger generation coming up behind me. When I began teaching, it just seemed like it fit. I'm an instructor most kids have never seen. First of all, I'm a black male teacher. Second, I’ve had the experience of incarceration, but I got out and made a good life for myself. I'm where I need to be.
Joyce: If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring poets, what would it be?
Randall: Don't get fooled by early success. There's easy access to more publications and publishing online, even more places to perform than there used to be, and I think sometimes people get fooled into thinking that everything comes easy. But sometimes it doesn’t, and I think young writers and poets should understand that. There’s always more work to do.
I didn’t get into any of this to write a book, earn an award, or anything like that. All those things are great, but for me, writing, learning, and working hard gave me another life. I see these things from another perspective. When I go into the classroom, I understand the privilege I have. I get a chance to make a difference by writing something, or talking about current issues. I recognize the importance of that.
To learn more about Randall Horton, visit his faculty page on the University of New Haven website.