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A Conversation With Randall Horton

In the lingua franca of ninth street, the reader encounters a barrage of pathologies threatening the District’s residents such as death, drug addiction, and hopelessness. How did you emerge a prodigal son—if you will allow me to read this as autobiographical—there’s a running suit of poems titled “notes from a prodigal son”?

The poems titled “Notes from a Prodigal Son” are mediations and laments to my father. My father has been a strong influence in my life. During the time that I was incarcerated, it was his constant encouragement along with the purging of my life onto a notebook that helped me to get through a difficult period. These poems are meant to add balance to the poems as a whole. I wanted readers to understand that the book is about forgiveness and consequences for one’s actions.

There’s a blues aesthetic that undergirds each of your poems in this manuscript. Can you talk about your interest in the blues? Would you consider yourself a bluesman?

My interest or relationship to the blues extends from my childhood growing up in Birmingham, Al. My grandmother played blues music almost everyday on her stereo in the “big room.” I could not help but be influence by people like B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Gene Chandler, and Johnny Taylor. Also, I would like to think of the blues aesthetic as a lived experienced that most people go through at sometime in their lives. I think you have to know how to recognize this experience and articulate it.

What would you say was the most difficult aspect of writing the lingua franca of ninth street? From the outside, you’re so far away from ninth street—you hold a Ph.D, have published in peer reviewed journals, and in many ways are a bridge between Etheridge Knight and younger poets like R. Dwayne Betts? Does one ever really leave ninth street?

As you know the lingua franca of ninth street is my second book. This is the book I wanted to write first, however, I needed to put more distance between the actual experiences and how I chose to write about them. It is always difficult remembering the hard challenges in one’s life. I can say that I have physically left ninth street, mentally I am in a different place, however, one never forgets. I think I add a different and needed experience to American Letters.

Tell me a bit about your poem “Origin Explained to my Cellmate?” The refrain “I come from” creates a form that I’ve seen in other manuscripts (e.g. Terrance Hayes, R. Dwayne Betts.) Are you and your fellow poets speaking to each other and witnessing to the world about your origins? You also credit your Southern roots as helping you survive and realize the possibilities that life has to offer. Can you expand on this?

 The poem was conceived in a workshop ran by Kelly Norman Ellis at Chicago State University where I received my MFA, and I consider the poem to be a breakthrough in how I looked at the Roxbury section of the book. The idea of the repetition “I come from” to instill the blues and create a mental landscape in the readers mind for me was crucial. I don’t know if we poets are speaking to each other more so than we are speaking to poetry readers, helping them understand that place is important in a poem, that one’s human condition is intrinsically tied up within the beauty of art. Also, for me, having grown up in a community that was once segregated and forced to form familial and communal bonds, instilled a sort of ethnic pride that I had lost, however, in the remembering of where I came from while I was in prison, I was able to gain it back and make my community proud instead of ashamed. This form helped me to bring that out.

Arguably one of your most poignant lines comes from the last poem in your manuscript where you enter a prison to give a poetry reading—but you enter not as Dr. Horton but as you put it “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?” Can you talk a bit about this? Are you received as a peer when you go into prisons and share your story and knowledge of the craft of poetry? And the converse of this is, are you received as a peer when you move through academia?

Going back inside prison to work with incarcerated people has helped me to be thankful and understand how full–circle my life has come. Traveling life’s circumference has been arduous, yet rewarding. There is no denying that I am their brother, as in we have a shared experience that few people in life go through. I hope that in some way, what I have done can provide a bit of hope, a bit of willingness to change one’s life. My story is a passport to that place where few inmates will let people on the outside come into. So they grant me access because I know their human condition.

 To answer your question about academia, my reception has been mixed. I have received the most resistance from HBCUs. Howard University would not readmit me to finish my degree once I got out of prison so I went to the University of the District of Columbia. Just so you know I completed four years at Howard, however, I never finished my degree. I left and life got in the way. I was seeking re-admittance as an old student returning. My grades were always good. They flat out denied me because of what I had gone through.

 Most recently I received of Scholar-in-Residence position at Central State University where the provost had a problem with my past record. This happened after CSU had done a very thorough reference check from individuals and schools. I was extended an offer, gave full disclosure, signed the contract and then had the contract revoked. The process of this position required approval by the students and the chair of the English Department who very thoroughly checked my teaching and scholastic references.

 Actions likes these make me rethink the mission of HBCUs. I teach at the University of New Haven now, and the administration and English Department have been great in understanding what it is that I bring to an institution in terms of creative writing and fellowship with students. My record over the last ten years speaks to commitment and scholarship. In case you want to know, my crime was nonviolent. I have taught at SUNY Albany and now UNH, and in each of these places I have been received favorably by both the faculty and the students. I got my MFA in 18 months and my PhD in 3 years flat. I am very focused and feel that I have found what it is in life that I am supposed to do. Plain and simple.

Thanks for taking the time to talk Abdul, much appreciated.

Randall Horton is a former editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas (Fall 2005) and co-editor of Fingernails Across the Chalkboard (Third World Press, 2006). He received his undergraduate education at both Howard University and The University of the District of Columbia (B.A. English). He has a MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry from Chicago State University. He holds a PhD from SUNY Albany. the lingua franca of ninth street is Mr. Horton’s second collection of poems. Randall Horton is the editor-in-chief of the newly minted lit journal, Tidal Basin Collective.  He is also a Cave Canem fellow.

Horton, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, resides in Albany, New York. He is a former editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas (Fall 2005) and co-editor of Fingernails Across the Chalkboard (Third World Press, 2006). He received his undergraduate education at both Howard University and The University of the District of Columbia (B.A. English). He has a MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry from Chicago State University. He is also a first year doctoral student at SUNY Albany. Randall received an Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation Summer Scholarship to attend Fine Arts Workcenter at Provincetown in 2005. He is also a Cave CanRandall Horton, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, resides in Albany, New York. He is a former editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas (Fall 2005) and co-editor of Fingernails Across the Chalkboard (Third World Press, 2006). He received his undergraduate education at both Howard University and The University of the District of Columbia (B.A. English). He has a MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry from Chicago State University. He is also a first year doctoral student at SUNY Albany. Randall received an Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation Summer Scholarship to attend Fine Arts Workcenter at Provincetown in 2005. He is also a Cav

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About Abdul Ali

I'm a fellow at American University studying creative nonfiction and poetry. I write across a few genres but it's all brought together by larger questions about culture.

Discussion

One thought on “A Conversation With Randall Horton

  1. abdul-ali.com’s done it once more. Superb writing.

    Posted by Mattie Hunter | June 14, 2010, 2:37 AM

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