Interview of Randall Horton by Xánath Caraza
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Randall Horton?
Randall Horton (RH): That is perhaps the most perplexing question posited to me, and believe me, I do get it a lot. I am, and can be, many things, at one time. At the core, though, I am this person who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama who needed every experience life offered in order to see or realize what his potential was. I often choose not to define myself in terms of a poet, or what kind of poetry I write, or any of those closed off, bordering—boring possibilities. The minute I define myself as a poet, I perhaps have killed myself as a poet. So, I choose not to. It is a personal decision and often amazes me how people can define themselves—I am trying to find myself, constantly. Sometimes definitions can be limiting.
XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading? Who guided you through your first readings?
RH: Eunice Pearl Davis Horton, granddaughter to Rosie Lee Davis of 128 8th Avenue North introduced me to reading. Both of my parents were schoolteachers. My mom, who is deeply involved in The National Education Association, taught 2nd grade and my dad taught high school. Reading was very important to my mom, and she would buy books and make me read them, especially in the summer. I learned to read aloud reading to my mom. I think early on I was intrigued by the how words sound. However, this was not enough to say these things made me a writer. I do not know. My main focus growing up was playing sports.
When I was not playing sports I was intrigued by the fast-street-life, and those “hoodlums” with the silk shirts, platform shoes and high arcing Afros—these were my heroes. Although they taught me every wrong thing on how to be a man, at the time, I thought they knew—and so, I wanted to be like them. Sad to say, but the early role models I gravitated towards were pimps, playas and hustlers. I didn’t run around with a journal trying to write poems or thoughts. I had not context for that.
XC: How did you first become a poet?
RH: Well, that is a relative question, assuming I am a “poet.” One might argue I am still trying to become a poet. Then too, I am intrigued by nonfiction, and a lot of times these days I am writing something in-between these two genres, I think. When I was incarcerated and sentenced, I began to write in general, to take my mind off the time. I could not tell you what a poem looked like at the age of 38. It was literally the most foreign thing to my existence. When I was granted a motion for reconsideration of my sentence, I came back to the county jail that sentenced me. While there a drug counselor brought in two DVDs from the outside to the block I was housed in. The movie was Slam with Saul Williams. Then other DVD had taped episodes of HBO Def Poetry Jam. The one that grabbed me was Patricia Smith’s Skinhead. I know both of their poems by heart. I didn’t know poetry could do that. It woke something up in me.
My first horrible poems were written at Roxbury Correctional in Hagerstown, Maryland inside a prison cell. My first was published by a journal in London called X Magazine. I didn’t’ think about impact or what poetry could do for me. I still don’t know what poetry can “do” for me. I know when I am engaged in it, I become a better human being.
Poetry has kept me off the streets, from selling dope, coning people and trying to get over, that has been good enough me. Never thought about a career, at all. I still do not view it as such, though I do teach creative writing. Maybe that’s oxymoronic. But I respect that decision of validation. I look for other things to validate me in life more so than poetry, and yet, it is important to me.
XC: Do you have any favorite poems by other authors? Or stanzas? Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/these stanzas?
RH: I will share/reflect on one. I consider Etheridge Knight’s Feeling Fucked Up to be the greatest love poem of all time. First of all, I dig Knight. He was the poet that told me it was okay to have been in prison and write about those experiences. When nothing else in the world matters but love—then, that is love. Observe the middle lines of the poem after Knight has made the grief and misery of having his woman pack her bags and split.
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
So yeah, don’t nothing else matter but love. My mom is going to kill me for using that double negative, but it sound so good.
XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?
RH: Being that I am Senior Editor of Willow Books, I tend to always be caught up in an editing project. I usually like to do a little editing before I get to my own work, but I try to do something everyday, when possible. I can write anywhere.
As you know, I was incarcerated with an 8-year sentence (5 years plus 3 years back up) when my sentence was commuted. I was sent to an intensive two-year drug program in North Carolina. I learned to write creatively in chaos, which is probably why I tend to shy away from the straight narrative. I tend to think more fragmented. I would have people yelling in my face, cursing me out—because it was intense shock therapy. I wrote in between fuck yous and you will never be shit. It was not a nice place. It was a place designed for you never to want to come back.
So, I can write anywhere—on the back of a truck, on the subway—which is usually my favorite. I love to write on the train, which is why my next project explores train travel parallel to the human condition, art and aesthetics.
XC: When do you know when a poem is ready to be read?
RH: That’s a delicate situation in that some poems just were not meant to be read aloud. There is the poem that musically dances in your head but is incapable of doing the same thing when read aloud.
With that said, I was first introduced to poetry through slam/performance, and so aurally, I have always been aware of words, how they sound alongside their cognitive meaning. When a poem I am working on can intimate the aural and the cognitive, or more specifically, when my words collide in such a way that I am physically and emotionally moved, only then will I perhaps read the poem in some sort of setting.
I try not to be a reactionary writer, so I don’t write a poem by day and read it at night. That’s not my process. Poems sit with me for a minute. We hang out, talk about politics, the human condition, conspiracies—the identity game, the police, people wanting to be poets, poets wanting to be people—all that. When I read my poems out loud, I would like to think we know one another well.
As an aside: I would love to write the poem that predicts the action instead of always reacting to it. I am very intrigued by this, and it consumes me at times. I don’t know the answer, but think of the possibilities.
XC: Could you describe your activities as poet?
RH: I would like to think that whatever it is I do within the real of the poetic sphere is governed by how my body moves alongside the earth. I mean, how I move, how I get down, is all one intersectional thing. I like to work with young people. I do literacy programs all over the Unites States with Patrick Oliver who is deep rooted in communities of color, and so we have been able to do some amazing things.
I believe in helping people. I know this writing game is some twisted shit at times. I mean I came from the streets, hustling and all that—so, for me, I was able to peep the “game” that is tied to poetry, poets and opportunity. Young writes need opportunities, so I have been committed to trying to help others.
And at the same time, I try to be nobody. I got seven felonies, been shot at, held at gunpoint, and almost killed, a few times. Been in prison and watched men lose their life. I wake up everyday feeling guilty I made it out of that hellhole while others were not able. Playing with house money is what I am doing. Who am I other than a dude trying to right his wrongs? Language gives me that vehicle, that opportunity.
Whatever poetry I write and how I get down, it is a bodily experience.
XC: What projects are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?
RH: Well, I am working on a new album with Heroes Are Gang Leaders. We are working on a new album titled Flukum: Your Book Sucks! Flukum is the name of a character from an Etheridge Knight poem called "Black Relocation Center." The poem is about a Vietnam vet who comes home and is killed by the cops. There are also nods to James Baldwin and Ntozake Shange as we seek to find the divine space within the intersectionality of Avant jazz and literary tradition. I will share little bit of a song we are working on. We go back in the studio late August to add vocals and finish up the project.
Because we are perhaps living in difficult days. I think this song is perhaps reflective of the inner pules of the Black community. I mean, that emotional and physical state of blackness simmering just below the surface: WeWeWeWe the Remarkable. Jumpo Badd!!!!
Here is the link to We Free Singers Be:
Randall Horton, originally from Birmingham, AL and now a resident of Harlem, NY, is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Randall is also a member of the band: Heroes Are Gang Leaders, a group whose unique blend of blues, jazz, funk, hip hop, go-go, R&B, soul, classical music, poetry, dramaturgy and prose, continues the legacy of Amiri Baraka. Randall is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Haven. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press is the publisher of his latest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy. Augury Books published Hook: A Memoir in November of 2015.
In addition, Randall has been interviewed on Fox News, NPR, CTNPR, the New Haven Register and countless online journals, magazines and radio shows. He is also on the Board of Directors of Pen America’s Pen Prison Writing Program.